'The Love Guru': Lessons for Hindus
With 'The Love Guru' about to hit American theaters, Hindus must ask themselves: How will we handle this film?
BY: Vineet Chander
As anyone who has ever told a "How many _____ does it take to change a light bulb?" joke knows, humor can be tricky. Attempting religious humor can be downright dangerous. On the one hand, we fear offending people's cherished beliefs; on the other, spiritual growth seems to necessitate that--from time to time, we all learn to not take ourselves quite so seriously.
"The Love Guru,"
a comedy starring funnyman Mike Myers in his first original character since the popular "Austin Powers" films, hits American theaters June 20, 2008. The movie tells the story of Pitka, a westerner raised at a Hindu ashram who grows up to be a high-profile and eccentric holy man come West.
As entertaining as the movie promises to be, thefilm's trailer
and posters have many Hindu-Americans concerned that it will mock their faith. The saffron-colored cloth that the lecherous Pitka wears is supposed to signify a celibate monk or teacher in the Hindu faith and is analogous to the white collar of a Catholic priest. The relationship between guru and disciple is a central and sacred theme within Hinduism. Some Hindus worry that the silliness and bawdy humor of the movie will taint the tradition, especially in the eyes of Americans who may not have much other exposure to Hinduism.
Already there are two divergent views gaining traction within the Hindu-American community. The first seems to assume the worst about the film. Those who subscribe to this view take the approach that a juvenile comedy that engages Hinduism as a topic is, on its face, sure to be offensive and hurtful to Hindus and must be protested in strong terms.
The second view, by contrast, seeks to avoid confrontation altogether. This view is sometimes couched in religious terminology. Hinduism, advocates of this view remind us, is all about tolerance, open-mindedness, and forgiveness: "Even if it is offensive, better to just ignore it," these proponents advise.
These two views, as different as they seem, both betray the same shortsightedness and knee-jerk reactions that have become the norm with the Hindu-American community. Could there be better, more effective way of approaching this issue?
I must confess that, for me, the topic holds more than just an academic interest. As a Hindu who was born and raised in America, I've grown up with a certain sensitivity to the way the media presents my faith. Now that I work as a communications specialist, both for my particular religious organization as well as for the broader Hindu tradition, that sensitivity has evolved into a deep desire to advocate for my community. In my experience, I've come to see the benefits of approaching Hinduism in the popular media by first taking a step back and examining the context, intentions, and implications of the depiction. This allows me to classify the depiction according to broad categories and then decide on an appropriate course of action. Using the terminology of the old cowboy movie, I call these categories the "good," the "bad," and the "ugly."
Depictions that are good are ones in which the Hindu tradition is treated fairly and with due respect. These depictions may not always be flattering, and they may even be playfully irreverent. But even as they entertain or amuse, they leave the audience better informed about the faith or present Hindu characters in ways that people can relate to. They build bridges between Hindus and others or help to break down walls of prejudice or ignorance.
To me (and countless other "Simpsons
" fans), Springfield'sfavorite Hindu, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon
, is an example of the good category. He embodies a number of noble qualities and is a valuable member of the town’s pluralistic landscape. Although this character definately fits certain stereotypes (a thick accent, running a convenience store, having an arranged marriage), he also speaks his mind and helps to lightheartedly educate viewers about the deeper meaning underlying those stereotypes. And through Apu's interactions with the other characters, especially boorish Homer or narrow-minded Reverend Lovejoy, we all get to confront our own prejudices or misperceptions in a healthy, safe way.