A leading Hindu rights activist in the UK says rock star Tina Turner should avoid cigarettes, alcohol and 'illicit' sex to pacify those members of the community who are outraged at the decision to cast her as the goddess Shakti (an avatar of goddess Durga) in a forthcoming Merchant-Ivory film.
"She should not smoke, drink or have illicit sexual relations," says Bimal Krishna Das of the UK's National Council of Hindu Temples, adding that such "basic and appropriate" gestures would help Turner before she takes up her controversial role.
Stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity, and not as a NCHT representative, Das told rediff.com such gestures would be well received, as would a commitment from Turner that she will not take part in anything that trivialises or denigrates Shakti in any way.
A number of UK-based Hindu organisations have expressed their concern that Turner's image as a sex icon is inappropriate for her projected role in the film, The Goddess, where she will also sing Indian classical songs in English, Latin and Sanskrit. The music will be composed by tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain.
Hasmukh Shah, chairman of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, UK, is among those community leaders who have taken exception to Turner's role. He believes she should respect and make herself aware of the Hindu culture if she wants to take up the role.
The Oxford Centre for Human Rights has raised its eyebrows at the casting of Tina Turner as goddess Shakti, as has an East London-based group called Hindu Human Rights.
A petition drawn up by Hindu Human Rights reads, 'We strongly object to the making of this film because of its feared offensive portrayal of a Hindu deity and we kindly request you to shelve this project... We have no quarrel with Ms Turner as such, but because of her reputation as a 'sex icon', it is improper to cast her.'
In a statement last week filmmaker Ismail Merchant defended his choice, saying, 'Shakti is the centre of female energy, and anyone who has seen Tina Turner on the stage knows the energy she radiates is incredible.'
On March 12, NCHT's executive committee met to discuss the issue, where they agreed they did not have anything against Tina Turner playing the role of Shakti.
"The NCHT would prefer actors and actresses playing the roles of divinities to be ethically and morally strong. As this is not always possible, the NCHT would prefer to focus on how such roles are depicted so that they are not trivialised or played in a negative way," said the NCHT spokesperson.
"In the past there have been instances when Hindu divinities have been depicted in a mocking way and that would be an issue of concern if it happened again," the spokesperson added.
In the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman starrer, Eyes Wide Shut, for example, an orgy takes place even as shoklas from the Gita resonate in the background. In the television serial, Xena: Warrior Princess, Lucy Lawless the protagonist meets Hanuman and defeats him. The statue of Hanuman also features in certain scenes from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Das explains.
Das is all praise for Aamir Khan and says he is one actor of international stature who handles religious themes with great sensitivity.
"He's making this film called The Rising where he plays the role of Mangal Pandey [a Hindu] in the 1857 mutiny", Das says. "What I have liked very much is that he has discovered how Mangal Pandey was a Brahmin and a vegetarian, so Aamir Khan has actually given up meat for the duration of the production."
From New York:
A Chicago businessman says he is happy his protest against Tina Turner as Shakti has spread to the UK and Canada.
In late February, Avi Verma circulated a petition against Turner being cast as the goddess. He said the singer's image was too raunchy for the part.
"We are very happy that people in the UK are picking up the issue," said Verma. "I have sent e-mails to the VHP, the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal and nobody has responded. At least someone else is following it up now. That is all I care about. It doesn't matter to me who gets the credit. The movie must be stopped."
Ismail Merchant says he will start shooting The Goddess later this year.
Turner is expected to sing and dance in the role -- a prospect that made Verma's Jai Jagadambe Foundation circulate a petition urging Turner be dropped: 'This is an insult to Hindus all over the world and the deities they worship.'
"For a devotee Durga is like his mother. Who wants to see his mother half-naked?"
As well as launching the petition, in the form of a signature campaign that has garnered some 50 names, Verma also wrote to Merchant saying the planned movie was 'purely commercial' in intent and 'very offensive to Hindus.'
Merchant replied by fax from his London office saying, 'Maa Durga is reflected through the power of Shakti in every human being, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Jain.'
He wrote: 'There can therefore be no contradiction or offence in our casting Tina Turner -- in fact it is impossible to imagine a human being with more magic and charisma than Tina Turner or one more able to act in the role of the Goddess.
'The views you express seem to indicate a certain narrow-mindedness about who is allowed to represent the Goddess -- as though it is in your power to decide where and how she is represented. We are here to show her generosity and charisma -- and not to denigrate her.
'I hope you have seen the Satyajit Ray film, Devi (The Goddess) in which a father-in-law prostrates himself at the feet of his daughter-in-law. Do you consider that to be sacrilegious? No. So if a Muslim wants to show the Goddess in her glory, is that denigration?
'Your references to commercialism are especially offensive. Merchant-Ivory has been making films for 42 years -- this has involved a great deal of self-sacrifice for the sake of art.
'In our new film we believe we have a wonderful story to tell which will help show the world that the blessings of the Goddess are available for every human being."
One e-mail received by Verma objected to Turner because she was 'old and ugly' and suggested Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai be cast instead.
When asked if there was an element of racism in the protests against Turner, Verma said: "No, it has nothing to do with black or white. If Tina Turner portrayed a devotee singing and dancing it would be fine with us. But she cannot be Maa Durga."
Verma also suggested Merchant wanted to create controversy around his film because of the controversy and commercial success that followed Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ.
The storyline of The Goddess is said to be about three Indians and a Shakti-obsessed American painter played by Mathew Modine. Verma said he believed the painter's obsession with the gddess could be portrayed inappropriately.
When asked if he was being somewhat over-sensitive, Verma replied: "About that part, yes, maybe I'm being oversensitive -- but not about anything else."
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Image: Lynette Menezes
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