Before Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was released, the Indian media was excitedly discussing how the film incorporates a quote from the Gita by the story’s protagonist. The press happily reported that Cillian Murphy, who portrays the titular character, immersed himself in the Gita to prepare for the role. In one of the interviews, he was quoted as saying, “I did read the Bhagavad Gita in preparation, and I thought it was an absolutely beautiful text.”
But the excitement turned to outrage when Indian viewers found out that Nolan chose a sex scene for the hero to quote from the Gita.
While it’s well-documented that J Robert Oppenheimer was interested in the Gita to the extent that, according to his biographical accounts, he carried a copy of it to Los Alamos while supervising the test of the atomic bomb. He remembers quoting the Gita when he witnessed the explosion in a television interview broadcast much later. He loved the Bhagavad Gita so much that in a letter to his brother, he wrote that it was “very easy and quite marvellous”, and called it “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue”. However, the sex scene in which he reads from the Gita appears to be entirely fictional. It’s Nolan, the writer, setting up the verse to pay off at the right moment.
A poster of Oppenheimer
Why did Nolan choose a sex scene to set up verses from the the Gita that Oppenheimer used to describe the atomic explosion? Only Nolan knows, but it’s fascinating that he isn’t the first American director to do so. Stanley Kubrick also used verses from the Gita for the famous orgy scene in his masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut.
Eyes Wide Shut, the last film of one of the greatest directors, Kubrick, used recitations from the Gita in the background score of the orgy scene. However, after protests from a Hindu group in South Africa, Warner Bros took it out and offered their apology. Kubrick had passed away before the film was released, so we don’t know how he would have responded to the protests.
What has Gita got to do with sex and orgy? Isn’t it supposed to be about the war and ethics?
American Indologist Wendy Doniger, in her seminal work, “Hindus: An Alternative History” offers a more plausible explanation of Oppenheimer‘s use of the Bhagavad Gita to capture the moment in his life when the nuclear test revealed its potential to end the world, “Perhaps Oppenheimer’s inability to face his own shock and guilt directly, the full realisation and acknowledgement of what he had helped create, led him to distance the experience by viewing it in terms of someone else’s myth of doomsday, as if to say: “This is some weird Hindu sort of doomsday, nothing we Judeo-Christian types ever imagined.” He switched to Hinduism when he saw how awful the bomb was and that it was going to be used on the Japanese, not on the Nazis, as had been intended. Perhaps he moved subconsciously to Orientalism when he realised that it was “Orientals” (Japanese) who were going to suffer.”
Oppenheimer is presented as someone who knew Sanskrit in the film. Doniger, a scholar of the Sanskrit language and Hinduism, uses a very different expression for his proficiency with Sanskrit: Oppenheimer liked to think that he knew some Sanskrit. While the Gita has found many direct and indirect references in some Hollywood movies, it’s the Goddess Kali who has been nothing less than a Hollywood star.
In the chapter titled “The American Appropriation of the Gita and the Goddess Kali”, Doniger offers multiple instances of Hollywood films that reinforce violent and erotic images of the Goddess. Kali’s journey in Hollywood takes off as early as 1939 with Gunga Din. Her career peaked with The Temple Of Doom of the Indiana Jones series (1984). While George Lucas is credited for the story, the film is directed by Stephen Spielberg. Four years later, in 1988, Kali reappears as the queen of thugs in The Deceivers, (Starring Shashi Kapoor, Nina Gupta, and Saeed Jaffrey along with Pierce Bronson) as the goddess who is particularly “violent and erotic”, as Doniger puts it. The goddess’s popular association with the erotic rose to such an extent that porn stars started to assume Kali as their screen name.
Why do the Bhagavad Gita and Kali often get associated with sex in American popular culture? Does this underline ignorance or arrogance? Are the makers of American mass culture ignorant of the religious-cultural significance of these symbols? Or, are their visions blurred by the old Oriental bias, which makes them associate anything from the East with erotic?
This tendency or lapse stands at odds with the times when there is a heightened emphasis on inclusion and diversity in Hollywood. Shouldn’t inclusion also involve a greater appreciation or at least empathetic reading of inherently different cultures and cultural practices before depicting them on screen? I must clarify that I’m not advocating a display of unqualified and unconditional respect to any religion; instead, the question here is, shouldn’t a cultural practice be understood before portraying it to the global mass audiences on screen?
If Nolan has done it knowingly, I defend his right to offend Hindus. But, if he didn’t put effort into understanding the cultural context of the quote from the Gita, I think he acted irresponsibly as a writer and director.
(Bikas Mishra is an award-winning writer-director based in Mumbai)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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