"Chai peete hain, yaar. Kitna baat karenge Censor Board ke baare mein."
"Censor Board nahi, cancer board."
There was a sense of calm and relief in the air in the lobby of the Novotel Hotel in Mumbai on Monday evening, just outside the entrance of its poolside bar. Only two hours before this moment, the same area had been buzzing with infectious, nervous energy. PR professionals, Dera Sacha Sauda members, and the odd policeman walked around with purpose as they set up a press conference for the controversial film MSG: Messenger of God. Starring Dera Sacha Sauda leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the film's release had been delayed owing to protests in Punjab and the mass-walkout of 12 senior members from the Central Board of Film Certification, who refused to certify the film before being overruled by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT).
The organisers didn't seem too perturbed as they nonchalantly put some white masking tape on a large cut-out of the film's poster, obscuring the release date which still read 'Jan 16, 2015'. At the back of the room, behind where all the cameras had been set up, was the bar, which had been shuttered down.
A genial, bespectacled man named Aditya 'Insaan' took the mic, explaining how he had joined the Dera in 1991. A doctor by profession (specialising in lasik surgery, amongst other things), he, like everyone else, had been sceptical of 'Guruji' and his sect's various claims of de-addiction and 'miracle cures' back then and was actually in the process of investigating him. "When I realised the good work that the Dera was doing, I became a follower," he said, reeling off a list of achievements including cleanliness drives, de-addiction success stories, and eradicating prostitution ("1500 men have pledged to marry women who were prostitutes," he mentioned, in a tone that underscored how tragic their sacrifice must have been).
He also waxed eloquent about Guruji's many achievements, which included everything from being an expert automobile designer who makes better cars than DC to being an Olympic-level athlete in a number of sports (why doesn't he win a couple of medals for India, then?), all without any real evidence, of course. He spoke about his 'miracle' treatments, which he stressed need to be understood by all with "an open mind." Meanwhile, the all-powerful, uber-disciplined Guruji seemed, at this point, to be half an hour late for his own press conference and was conspicuous by his absence.
Let me be very clear about where I stand with regards to this film right away, which Mr Aditya 'Insaan' subsequently described as "probably the most talked about film of this decade." MSG: Messenger of God, aside from being an affront to aesthetics, seems to be a glorified propaganda film doubling as an advertisement the Dera Sacha Sauda. While the Dera, which (according to Wikipedia) boasts a worldwide following of 50 million, undoubtedly seems to be doing some good work, they do seem to possess a number of problematic and regressive attitudes, such as their absolute intolerance of homosexuality (their website calls it a social stigma that must be eradicated). Moreover, the film itself looks like a vanity project for Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who has been accused of rape, castration, and murder, amongst other things.
Free-speech enthusiasts who participate in knee-jerk internet bantering might support the film, but it's quite obvious to any sensible mind that the world won't suffer much if it doesn't release, to say the least. Already, the film has sparked off such controversy in Punjab and Haryana that it threatens to turn into an uncontrollable law-and-order situation. This has led to the film being banned in Punjab and section 144 (banning assembly of more than four or five people at a place) being imposed in Sirsa, Haryana, where the sect has its headquarters.
Finally, about 40 minutes later, the Guruji arrived, clad in a tight black tee embroidered with copious amounts of bling, colourful pyjamas, and shiny black basketball sneakers. People in the room applauded and photographers rushed to take their shots. As he settled down in the front row, we were shown the trailer for MSG: Messenger of God, which has so far been watched by over 2.5 million people on YouTube. Following that, we were also shown videos of three songs from the film: Desh, Ram Ram, and Never Ever (a hilarious P-Diddy-style rap 'song' with indecipherable lyrics).
You know what the hardest part was? Not being able to laugh out loud at any of this. The list of invitees seemed to be very select and the overwhelming feeling in the room was that of reverence. My aim was to speak to the Guruji one-on-one, which I had asked one of the PR people about, only to be told, "We'll see."
I didn't get to do that, eventually. The press conference began, and several questions were asked, ranging from the obvious to the inane ("Babaji, kya aap ramp walk karna chaahenge?"). The Guruji fielded every question with a serene smile on his face, addressing every journalist as 'beta' whether they were 20-something women or 50-something men, maintaining throughout that all he had done was make a film and there was absolutely nothing controversial about it. He received thunderous applause when he mentioned that the film's only aim was to inspire the youth and make our country great again. Questions were replied to swiftly and there seemed to be very little room for counter-questioning, as the mic was taken away quickly from journalists once they got their reply.
His co-actors weren't immune to his charm either. TV actress Jayshree Soni, who is Guruji's co-star in the film, spoke about his incredible control over large crowds. "We were shooting in a massive stadium in Sirsa and there were lakhs of extras. Guruji would make a small gesture with his hand and everyone would fall silent. I have never seen anything like that before," she said.
As the event ended, a number of people surged ahead to click pictures and selfies with the man. He obliged everyone with a smile, looking not the least bit perturbed. But before that moment, to complete the picture, here are a few extremely select excerpts:
Baba, what is the last film you watched? What did you like about it?
Beta, I have not watched any film. In 1984, I was with some youth who were crippled by addiction when we went for a sports tournament in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan. We made a deal--they said they'd stop using drugs if I came to watch a movie with them. So I went and watched it. Barring that, I have not watched a single movie in my life.
You're called a saint, but now you're also an action hero. How does that make you feel?
Beta, I don't feel any different about it. When people meet me--whether youth or senior people--they still meet me the same way. I meet people throughout the day, and while we've been shooting for this film, I'd continue meeting people for two hours in the morning and in the evening, and use the remaining time to shoot for it.
Has the film received a censor certificate? When will it release?
Beta, yes, we are expecting it soon and the film will release soon. Now, we have an important event coming up at Sirsa from January 24-26. Last year, nearly 2.5 crore people had come from all parts of India. Since we will be busy with this, the film's release is likely to happen only after that.
What does the Censor Board exactly have a problem with?
Well, the first panel saw it and said, "We didn't understand the movie." This is the four-member-panel (the Examining Committee). They referred it ahead. Then the eight-member-panel (the Revising Committee) saw it and even they said they didn't understand it. Then finally it went to the FCAT and they cleared the film with a few changes.
What were the changes?
They have asked to mute one line, one word has to be muted or changed, and they have asked to put a disclaimer before and after the movie. It was done within 24 hours because we had a release date. This is a legal way of doing things.
Your fans on Twitter seem to have formed a 'Leela Samson Hate Club.' What do you have to say about this?
This is wrong. People have their own opinion and it's hard to control it all. All we're asking is why did she and the other members of the board change their opinion so many times? First they said the film is objectionable, then they alleged interference and outside pressure, then they said something else. Either way, I would appeal to all my followers to stop spewing hatred against her.
Babaji, why are you wearing a T-shirt with the word 'USA' printed on it?
Beta, I don't know. The design on the T-shirt is mine, but it has the name of the company that manufactured it. I don't know why we don't make similar T-shirts in India.
You've composed and sung all the songs in the movie. Would you please sing something for us right now?
Of course, beta.
[Applause and cheers]