Over the last couple of weeks the Konkani film Gunaaji has been screening in some theaters in Goa and not wanting to miss it, I decided to watch it one evening. Two hours later, when I walked out of the theater I had an uneasy feeling about the movie. This column would like to reflect deeply on the feeling of unease that I experienced after viewing Gunaaji.
The film is based on a novella of the same name written by Pundalik Naik, recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award. Before it was published as a book in 1998, this novella had appeared in Konkani Bhasha Mandal’s annual magazine Konknni and was also serialized in the Sunday supplement of Rashtramat, both in 1998 itself. Thus one can conclude that this story has already enjoyed a fair share of circulation, even before it was made into a film. Knowing that generally films tend to depart from the plot of the book, I also decided to read Gunaaji before talking about my unease.
Gunaaji is a story about a cowherd living in a remote village of Goa, who gets selected to receive a national award for being the best raknno or cowherd in the country and about the journey he undertakes from his village to New Delhi to receive the award. The film is saturated with colour-rich images of a bucolic landscape, like the ones that gladden the hearts of any true-blooded Goan. The book as well as the movie has many funny and lovable moments, and in most places the film has remained faithful to the plot of the book.
But the places in which the plot of the movie departs from the book are very interesting to note. There are particularly two instances that need our attention. In the beginning of the book/film Gunaaji recounts an incident where he had stopped a cow from being taken for slaughter as it was not the right thing to do, and towards the end of the book, after receiving the award he makes a speech reiterating the same point. In both instances in the book there is nowhere a hint that a Catholic character is involved in the progression of the plot. However, in the film there are some obvious and not-so-obvious markers that allow one to understand that these point towards Catholic characters. In the first instance, the accent that is employed is enough to establish that it is a Catholic person who has purchased the cow for slaughter. In the second instance, after Gunaaji makes his point about stopping cow-slaughter, immediately the camera zooms-in on a “Shri. Melvin Pereira” who is seated on the dais of the awards ceremony in New Delhi and who seems visibly uneasy and embarrassed about what Gunaaji has just said.
Given the fact that Naik, the author of the book, was closely associated with the screenplay of the film, one has to ask the question why Catholic characters or markers of a Catholic person were incorporated in the film, whose original story had so little to do with any Catholic subjectivity? To go back to the book, there is only one place where the author consciously identifies a person as Catholic and that is when Gunaaji has to go through the airport security check, where the police officer is depicted as Catholic. But this instance is in no way related to the larger plot.
So why have I felt uneasy with the way the abovementioned two instances from the story by Naik are portrayed in the film? The reason lies in the manner in which cow-slaughter (thus beef-eating) and Catholics are juxtaposed in the film, whether wittingly or not. It is common knowledge that beef is consumed by Catholics and Muslims in Goa, and it is also common knowledge that of late the selling and consumption of beef in public have been encountering opposition. Against this background how do we understand a story that was published in 1998 and made into a film in 2014? What one can immediately suggest is that the politics of cow-slaughter, beef-eating, and hurt Hindu sensibilities is not a recent one for either Goa or India. It was a process that was set in motion much before right-wing groups started creating a fuss in Goa around beef-eating, western sanskriti, Portuguese colonialism, Catholic dietary, dress and other cultural practices.
This column is not suggesting that Naik is at the forefront of – or championing – anti-minority politics and rhetoric. But his uncritical conformity (knowingly or not) to certain given ideas and ideals within Indian national life that have become normalized, such as (for instance) not seriously considering the minority perspective, certainly allows us to question his Gunaaji. The film may seem innocent (and perhaps it is in many places) but the subtle and not-so-subtle codes that are found in the movie reminds the Catholic (and other minority groups) that their cultures and being is not always allowed to co-exist with the dominant, majoritarian cultures. Indeed, it has to remain subservient to it. Naik may have not created the monster, but he has certainly fed it.
So is Gunaaji a good movie? This column would not like to sit on judgment on this issue. Neither was this the intent of my column. The point I would rather like to forward is that the book and the film are not isolated incidents. There is something that operates on a deeper and insidious level that can escape the best of us. The trend to de-legitimize non-Hindu cultures in India has a long history of more than a hundred years. If we are not aware of this history then we shall only further a brand of politics that distances minority groups from mainstream discourses and politics.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 24 July, 2014)