Belly of the Tantra (Review)

This revelatory documentary by Indian filmmaker Pankaj Purohit will keep you on edge as it unveils some of the most rarely seen moments of Hindu cult rituals.

Pankaj Purohit and producer Babita Modgil travel to the different parts of rural India and Nepal that are inhabited by a secretive, ancient cult, seeking the reasoning behind their egocentric mentality and “primal” ways.

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The film explores the life of a mysterious and eccentric group of people, the Aghori, whose ancient traditions challenge the modern perception of morality.

The Aghori are part of a Hindu sect who worship Shiva, known to dwell in cremation grounds and believed to have a spiritual connection to the dead. The majority of the Aghori population are sadhus (holy men), who have many devout followers and believe that they are all-powerful – even able to raise the dead.

“They have no boundaries,” says Pankaj, “they try to live outside modern society’s boundaries, they are limitless.”

Cannibalism, vagina worship, animal and even human sacrifice are common practice for this group of mysterious Sadhus. And not a frame of vivid imagery short, it’s no surprise this film is censored in India.

Their practices are illegal by Indian law, but deep into the Indian wilderness, far from any governmental control, these people can continue their ways.

An unbound approach

The director’s intentions for the film were of a curious nature, searching for understanding, rather than to expose controversial rituals that continue in modern India.

“I tried to go into the filming with an open mind, without all my preconceptions of what’s right and wrong,” explains Purohit.

Belly of the Tantra was made Gonzo-style, reeling the film crew and director into many of the rituals. “We had to drink with them, smoke what they were smoking and do what they were doing, otherwise they would have suspected us,” Purohit says.

As an artist more than a documentarian, Purohit wasn’t bound by journalistic principles, giving the film complete freedom to delve deep into this sensitive topic. This artistic license is reflected in the piece’s editing style, as well as narration style.

The film’s UK Premiere was this month’s Cine Rebis Underground Film Festival at the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, London, where its full, uncensored version received much support.

The director’s next piece will expose the use of cheap, hormone-inducing drugs on child prostitutes in India.


The world needs more celebrities like Aamir Khan

Miles apart from your average vain and selfish celebrity, Aamir Khan has been using his influence and popularity to spread public awareness of India’s most controversial social issues.

Indian Bollywood actor, director and producer Aamir Khan launched his pioneering TV show Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails) this May. And he didn’t begin half-heartedly. The show’s first season dived straight in at the deep end of cultural sensitivity to address female feticide, child sexual abuse, dowry system, honour killing and domestic violence.

It’s one thing to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities and NGOs. To create a charity and pay other people to run it for you while it has your name written all over it, boosting your image and your movie/music sales at the same time. This seems to be the extent of most celebrity’s humanitarian side.

But to physically talk to the people you claim to care about, stand up for them, and create a platform for discussion and awareness in an attempt to criminalise social wrongs is something else. Using your influence to make people pay attention to the issues that beg for attention, yet have never been discussed like this before.

In the UK and US, where celebrity culture has become ridiculous, documentary-makers and producers abide by the trends of the “infotainment” industry. Viewers are only interested in serious programmes if they are hosted/presented by a celebrity, resulting in shows where comedian Lenny Henry is put in the middle of a Kenyan slum.

But the only way to spread awareness and to open minds beyond superficiality is to educate. Once these issues are known to all, and their negative impacts realised, the road to change is paved.

Balwant Singh death penalty stayed

Khalistani separatist Balwant Singh’s execution, which was due to take place at the Patiala Central Prison this Saturday, has been halted.

A state-wide general strike, or bandh, was held on Wednesday. Following the submission of a petition against Balwant Singh’s execution from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the hanging was put off.

Many Sikhs regard Balwant Singh Rajoana to be a fighter for justice for the Sikh peoples. But under Indian law, he had committed the crime of the murder of Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995.

Beant Singh, who was blamed for many atrocities against suspected Khalistani separatists during his time in office, died in a car bomb that also killed 17 others. The family of Beant Singh have also asked for the Balwant Singh’s pardon, for the greater good.

Worldwide protest

Since Balwant Singh’s sentence was announced, there had been protests raging throughout Sikh communities worldwide, demanding the calling off of the punishment.

Young Sikhs in support of Balwant have managed to make quite an impact in the Social Media world. They have been posting extensively on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and various blogs.

Some Balwant supporters have even compared Balwant Singh to the influential revolutionary Bhagat Singh, who led the Hindustani Socialist Republican Association, which fought against British cononial rule during the 1920s and 30s.

But many other Sikhs consider this comparison to be disrespectful to Bhagat Singh, who was an Indian nationalist, not a separatist.

Capital punishment debate

Nobody has been executed in India for many years now, leading to Sikh suspicions of discrimination on the part of the court.

But even though the court had reduced the sentences of the others who were responsible for the assassination upon appeal, Balwant Singh had chosen not to appeal. He refused to be legally represented.

Mr. Singh has expressed his outrage at the disproportionate response to various events. He highlights that many responsible for the murder of thousands of Sikhs in 1984 have still not so much as faced trial.

The BJP has said that capital punishment should be scrapped altogether, although its approach to the issue has been ‘selective’, according to the Dal Khalsa. The ruling Congress Party has not taken a hard stance for or against the death penalty.

Many, including Mumbai bomber Mohammed Ajmal Kasab and Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, have been on death row for many years now. This leads to the question of psychological damage done to those languishing in prison.

The controversy over Balwant Singh’s punishment has led to a renewal of the debate on capital punishment in India, and indeed a renewal of many pro-Khalistani sentiments worldwide.

‘Incredible India’: The side less seen

Regardless of the global economic crisis, India’s Tourism industry is growing at a phenomenal rate. However, tourists, TV shows and backpackers tend to swarm to certain places in India. Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh for its world-famous Taj Mahal… but what about some of India’s less-visited jewels?

According to India’s Tourism Ministry, Andhra Pradesh is the most-visited state in India, recei

ving 155.8 million domestic tourists in 2010. Maharashtra was the most popular for foreign tourists in 2010, hosting 5.1 million. Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, with 114.4 million and 146.5 million domestic and foreign tourists in 2010, are the second and third most popular destinations for tourists in India.

Himachal, with its towering mountains, swooping valleys and cool climate, is not as popular a destination, although it remains a spot for honeymooners.

The Punjab, boasting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, vibrant culture and home to Bhangra beats, and the backdrop for many of India’s historical turning points, is another state which shouldn’t be missed.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Politician

Its ludicrous to imply that Bollywood and the Chinese film industry could have any impact on relations between India and China, let alone reflect any warming between the two states.

I was taken aback by a recent article in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading newspaper, entitled “Bollywood calling” by Charukesi Ramadurai, which surmised “after years of friction, relations between two of the world’s oldest cultures appear to be on the mend – so what if pop culture is the catalyst?”

She describes an increasing interest of Bollywood in China, and a growing inclusion of ‘Chinese’ themes in Indian cinema. Charukesi was right to spot a trend, as there have been many movies over the years either set in China or China-themed, for example Awara Hoon (1951), China Town (1962), Naam (1986), and more recently, Chandni Chowk to China (2009).

And as for Chinese movies in India, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee have long been popular. Now Cindy Shyu has decided to make a brave move to merge the two, in Goldstruck, which will be produced jointly by the China Film Group, Lighthouse Productions (HK), and Eros International. It will play on racial stereotypes as two characters, one Indian and one Chinese, join forces to experiment how to turn bronze into gold.

It is granted that the two countries’ interests in each others’ film industries marks a gradual change in attitude, and that pop culture has often been something that softens tensions between peoples. The same has happened between China and Japan, China and South Korea; the Chinese being big fans of Japanese and Korean culture and dramas. However, if we look a little deeper, we can still find the underlying bitterness between Chinese and Japanese/Korean politicians, especially when territorial disputes and war memory rear their ugly heads again.

The same will go for Indo-Chinese relations, even if Bollywood does strike gold in China, or vice versa. It will be interesting to see what happens with the filming of Goldstruck as it will require the Chinese government to give a lot of leeway to the film crews and regarding its censorship.

On a local level in both India and China, it will still take time for attitudes towards each other to go beyond an “ooh, aah” wonderment at the colours of Indian dance or the skill of martial arts. We must remember that underneath the glitz and glam of the crouching tigers, there are always hidden politicians.

Inspired by a Bihari Babu, Tabish Khair

Indian writer, Tabish Khair, made a visit to Hong Kong, as a guest speaker for the Hong Kong Book Fair on the 24th July 2011. Playing on the use of the ‘B’ alliteration, and taking the term ‘Babu’ (Westernized, English-speaking Indian) from the context of the colonial backdrop in which Tabish often writes, I jokingly refer to Tabish Khair as Bihari Babu. One of his most famous studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels, critically analyses works by writers such as Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie, in light of the growing popularity of Indian English-language authors. Its underlying tone highlights the class-specificity of Indian English novels, a consequence of the class divisions generated by British rule. Regardless of the dozen or so successful books that he has under his belt, including works such as Filming, The Bus Stopped, and Muslim Modernities, novelist and poet Tabish Khair is incredibly down to earth.

At times he has been known for upsetting various groups of people. His new book How to find Islamist Terrorism from the missionary position is bound to create tension in Denmark at least. But that’s what is admirable about Tabish Khair, is his unwillingness to say what he ‘should’. He will tackle the elephant in the room head on as he finally addresses some of the controversial issues associated with Islam and Denmark, where he resides. In his article The colour of our passports in The Hindu, he writes about the moral issues behind changing one’s nationality faced by foreign residents of the UK/US, and other predominantly white, developed countries. The benefits of “convenience and cash” aside, as he puts it, one should keep one’s nationality not merely for sentimental value, but also to retain one’s ‘common difference’ as non-white people. He goes on to explain that the fear of foreigners in the UK/US has existed long before terrorism came into the headlines, and is based on the fear of “those who have little cash and cannot be conveniently ignored.” In relation to his book The Thing About Thugs, drawing a parallel between the cultural differences of the British and Indians during Victorian and contemporary times, he commented, “I engage with the past, but don’t cater to stereotypes.”

The issue of racism came up a few times throughout the session, though not enough in relation to Hong Kong local people’s prejudices towards foreigners, and especially South Asians. Chip Tsao, who was mediating the session, did mention that local people in Hong Kong don’t know enough about their Indian neighbours, and remarked that “they think that Sikhs are the only type of Indian.” But even that is wishful thinking, as most locals I have spoken to don’t even know what Sikhism is, apart from giving Sikh children ignorant nicknames because of the topknot on their heads. Chip went on to say that few locals know that “the Sikh temple (Gurdwara) in Wanchai serves free food (langar) every Friday (actually every day of the week).” However it is exactly this “I try your food, you try mine” approach, that is an ineffective form of superficial multiculturalism, according to Tabish. He explains how we need to acknowledge the history of how other cultures influence our own, in order to be truly multicultural.

“I’m glad you asked that,” he remarked in response to my asking how growing up in Bihar, or being a Bihari, had influenced his work. He went on to explain how he feels it is important for him to be identified as a Bihari, as well as an Indian, and he has incorporated aspects of Bihari culture and life into his novels. Many people label him as being a member of the Indian diaspora, but he considers himself as a Bihari, and an Indian, who lives in Denmark. “We are going through an age in which we’re losing memory,” he said as he told that consciously or subconsciously, people in India are becoming very business-minded, resulting in a decline in literature.

Whether I agree with them or not, the words and views of Tabish Khair have been refreshing to hear and read. Please leave direct comments here, leaving name and email is optional but not required, and let me know what you think.