Jalegi tere baap ki…— never in one’s wildest thoughts or dreams can one imagine Lord Hanuman, a towering figure in the Hindu pantheon, speaking these words. But in a film that liberally uses so-called tapori (‘street’) language, anything is possible. Pre-release, Adipurush was touted to be an epic cinematic reproduction of the widely-revered Hindu epic, the Ramayana. However, post-release, the film has triggered waves of anger and disgust, not just among the right-wing Hindu audience, but also among liberal followers of the religion who worship the figures of Ram and Hanuman—the stand-out characters of the epic—as infallible deities.
Adipurush is a movie which has gone wrong on multiple levels, be it in its intent or its very essence. Torn apart by critics and audiences alike for the shoddiness of the script and the film’s ‘B-grade’ look, the movie, as one critic described it, is “part Planet of the Apes, part King Kong”.
Directed by Om Raut with dialogues written by Manoj ‘Muntashir’ Shukla, the makers of the movie have floundered at every possible step post-release—from justifying the ‘cringey’ dialogue and then altering parts of it post outrage, to asserting that their film was “not at all based on the Ramayana but was just inspired by the epic,” thereby backtracking on how they had initially advertised the film as a retelling of the epic.
Protests erupted on the streets of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and other states against the dialogues attributed to the character of Lord Hanuman, as well as Lord Ram’s character’s ‘angry young man’ persona, a depiction that is quite at odds with his widely accepted demeanour of being calm and collected. Even the portrayal of the demon king Ravana was a laughable deviation from how the antagonist is usually depicted. His 10 floating heads—a double decker situation with 5 heads on top of 5 heads—was something no one in the audience would have ever imagined.
Crossing a Line
One can argue that there ought to be a limit to the creative liberties taken when adapting religious epics that have sentimental value to millions of people. Filmmakers who cross that thin line separating a grand retelling of the epic from mockery in the name of making a modern version, run the risk of having their work criticised at best, and banned at worst.
The makers of Adipurush seem to have breached that thin line, inviting criticism from all quarters. So much so that, in the aftermath of the movie’s release, Deepika Chikhalia Topiwala, who is remembered for her portrayal of Sita’s character in Ramanand Sagar’s televised version of the Ramayana, believes that the “time is right to stop making movies and shows based on the epic.”
Arun Govil, who immortalised the figure of Lord Ram in Sagar’s Ramayan, expressed suspicion that the makers had likely realised well in advance that the movie was going to backfire, which is why they started to meet ruling party ministers and came up with bizarre promotion strategies, like exhorting future audiences to “reserve one seat per cinema hall for Lord Hanuman.”
“Why do they want to fool around? Why do they want to bring new things? To try new things? Leave us alone. Why do you want to touch God in this fashion? Please don’t do that. And what was the need for it?” Govil was quoted as saying.
Interestingly, in the run up to the release, the filmmakers had even managed to get the ‘blessings’ of many prominent BJP leaders. The names of Adityanath, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Manohar Lal Khattar, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Pushkar Singh Dhami and Eknath Shinde—the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Assam, Uttarakhand and Maharashtra, respectively—even find mention in the movie’s credits, as per reports.
One Controversy After Another
Once criticism started pouring in, the film’s dialogue writer Manoj ‘Muntashir’ Shukla, as a way of damage control, attempted to float the conspiracy angle, suggesting that efforts were being made to defame the film. Shukla went on to claim that Adipurush was certainly not an adaptation of the Ramayana, but was merely inspired by it. However, he landed himself in even more hot water when, as a response to the criticism of the dissonant dialogues that the character of Lord Hanuman was made to mouth, he suggested that Bajrang Bali (as Lord Hanuman is also known as) doesn’t speak like Lord Ram because “he was not a god in the first place.” Needless to say, this did not help matters in the slightest.
A rap on the knuckles came with the Union Ministry for Information and Broadcasting stating that “nobody has the right to hurt the sentiments of people,” adding that the filmmakers had agreed to make the necessary changes that were asked for. The All India Cine Workers’ Association, too, came out with a statement asking the prime minister for the screening of the movie to be stopped countrywide and for FIRs to be filed against the filmmakers. Many opposition political parties demanded a ban on the movie as well.
Adipurush even threatened to trigger a cross-border row, with the mayor of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, threatening to ban all Hindi movies indefinitely. Furious that Adipurush had referred to Sita as “India’s daughter,” the mayor, Balendra Shah, argued that ‘Janaki’, as Sita is also known as, is considered “a daughter of Nepal.” While the mayor did ban Adipurush in his region, it was overturned by a Nepali court a few days later.
That the film was going to be subpar had become clear as early as October 2022 when the first teaser was released. The film’s release was eventually pushed to June 2023 from January to “enhance the look.” However, despite using extensive computer-generated imagery and expansive landscapes and fanciful creatures (such as dragon-sized bats that are nowhere to be found in the source text), the film’s visual effects failed to enthral even those from the audience who were ready to suppress their intelligence to be able to enjoy the movie. It isn’t that the makers of the film were short of funds; they reportedly spent a whopping Rs 600 crores on the film. However, the end product turned out to be one that could please none—neither VFX lovers nor devout followers of the religion.
The fact that the film has nosedived at the box office, with collections dropping to 1.5 cr on its second Monday ought to serve as a stern reminder to filmmakers to not take their audiences for granted in the name of doing something different or modern. Epics such as the Ramayana count for more than just entertainment in India; Hindu families ensure that their children learn about Lord Ram and Hanuman—his most ardent bhakt (devotee)—from a very young age via stories told to them by parents and grandparents. Ram is entrenched in Hindu collective memory and is an intrinsic part of their lives and culture so much so that he is believed ‘to come home every Diwali.’
The makers of Adipurush, with hundreds of crores in their wallets and blessings from various heads of state could neither appease lovers of religion nor fans of good mythological cinema. It appears that the pressure to recreate the magic of the Ramayana differently every two or three years on television and in cinema using VFX and contemporary dialogues is doing more harm than good to the much-loved epic.
(Edited by Ramya Maddali)