F/riction: Asaram, Spotlight, and the Unchecked Power of Faith

Pop Culture

F/riction: Asaram, Spotlight, and the Unchecked Power of Faith

Illustration: Akshita Monga

India’smisogyny pandemic is perhaps as old as Harappa itself, but even by our hardened standards, the Kathua and Unnao rape cases are proof that our nation is an area of bleak, sad darkness. The former case involves the abduction, gang-rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomadic girl in Jammu; the latter the rape of a 17-year-old at the hands of Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a BJP MLA, followed by the death of her father in judicial custody, and her subsequent attempt to immolate herself to secure justice. Any progress since Harappa seems cosmetic in the wake of the right-wing renaissance that has befallen us.

But it wasn’t just the crimes that evoked national outrage. In Kathua, BJP ministers from the J&K government attended “protests” on behalf of the accused and lawyers from its bar association obstructed the crime branch from filing a charge sheet. In Unnao, Kuldeep Singh Sengar’s smug grin for the shutterbugs outside the Uttar Pradesh CM’s office truly held up a mirror to the times we live in.

That sexual assault is an abomination is a given. But when sex crimes are committed by the purveyors of a religious denomination (or cult), they are doubly horrific because the perpetrators are often insulated by an armour of divinity and an army of the faithful. When Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, godman and Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) head honcho, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for two rape cases by a special CBI court last year, his followers in Haryana killed 31 people and injured 250 in a “spontaneous” expression of their indignation. Following the verdict, 48 other victims came forward to allege sexual abuse by the “guru”. I wonder if Asaram’s sentencing will also embolden some of his other victims.

Then again, let’s not merely pick on the bearded babas in our backyard. The Academy Award-winning Spotlight, for instance, offers us a gut-wrenching perspective on how unchecked power in religious dominion and chronic sexual abuse are perhaps twins locked in a macabre waltz.

What started out as an exposé by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation team in 2001, involving 13 priests accused of sexually assaulting children, eventually culminated in as many as 1,100 cases in the Boston area alone. However, more than the horror of children being subjected to repeated abuse at the hands of the clergy, it was the systemic cover-up of the crimes that shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic church — the scandal eventually spread to Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

While Spotlight focused on its intrepid journalists, it could be accused of using its victims as mere props.

The modus operandi was simple: If a priest was accused of molesting a child, he would not be sacked or arrested. He’d simply be “transferred” to another parish, thus creating a vicious cycle of chronic child abuse that lasted over decades. Most of the victims came from working-class homes, which made them prone to intimidation and silent suffering. Most victims suffered from lifelong repercussions, from suicidal tendencies to substance abuse.

Aside from the Gothic heft of the church, what also protected these criminals was our unflinching faith in faith itself. If such heinous crimes were being committed within the walls of a church, the fulcrum of a society, what is left of society’s “safe zone”? It is our collective oblivion of the ineffable nastiness of our mighty stooping this low that glints back at us like a malevolent gem in Tom McCarthy’s riveting film. Many of us felt the same way when the Kathua case, where the victim was confined in a temple during her prolonged assault, came to light.

On a lighter note, Spotlight also stands out for its depiction of the old-school newsroom, its spot-on art direction. This is 2001 in all its monochrome glory and we even have a sneak peek of the 9/11 attacks unfurling on television at The Boston Globe office. We are, after all, three years away from the noughties becoming officially retro (’90s nostalgia is all the rage now, as the ’80s were in the last decade). Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams are brilliantly cast as die-hard journos here — even if the spires of Boston, the Brahminical epicentre of New England/Old America, will never be the same again.

While Spotlight focused on its intrepid journalists, it could be accused of using its victims as mere props. The Keepers, a 2017 seven-part Netflix documentary, rectifies this lapse to create a hypnotic, disturbing saga.

For one, The Keepers, again a story of sexual abuse by priests and its subsequent cover-up by the establishment, features real-life victims, something that touches a very raw nerve. This immersive investigation into the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969 and a murky priest in the Baltimore region spans half a century. But what makes The Keepers truly trenchant is how it restores the power of narrative back to its victims: Two remarkable women, with a deep emotional connect to the case, pick up the pieces of what happened to a gaggle of hapless young girls at the formerly all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Keepers makes for difficult, but essential, viewing, especially in the wake of a slew of vicious crimes against women (and the shameful attempts to cover them up) that we have witnessed on home turf. Spotlight and The Keepers remind us that it is necessary to document the story of the oppressed, no matter how powerful the oppressor.

That these works of art have been created, despite the ubiquitous power of the church in America, should be an inspiration to our filmmakers. Here’s hoping #Kathua and #Unnao will not merely remain hashtags that fade into Twitter tokenisms, as the inevitable churn of the news cycle brings newer, fresher crimes into circulation. It is well worth the fight for our filmmakers to take these lies and make them true at a cinema hall near you.