Bṛhat

A Review of Ante Sundaraniki
A Review of Ante Sundaraniki, the second piece in our cultural reviews of Indian cinema, puts the Telugu film 'Ante Sundaraniki' under lens.

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By Anshuman Panda

Anshuman is from the land of Mahaprabhu Jagannath, with a technical background in engineering. He believes Indian wisdom and praxis have tremendous potential for the upliftment of human consciousness. His interests include education, jurisprudence and history.

And Kavita Krishna Meegama

Kavita has taught Indian Language and Culture at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute in Virginia for a decade and previously worked as Research Editor at Indic Today. She is a student of Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati ji, of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, and has continued her Vedānta studies from the same paramparā. She enjoys writing and teaching Indic language, culture, and thought.

Everyone is loving the latest Telugu movie – Ante Sundaraniki (The thing about Sundar is….) by Vivek Athreya. It comes close on the heels of the mega success of Pushpa and RRR, two other recent offerings from the Telugu Film Industry (TFI) and seemingly the opposite of the typical big-budget commercial blockbusters. It has a certain quirkiness to it, the songs are minimal and refreshingly composed, it talks about the very topical and relevant subject of a young couple attempting to convince their families to allow them to marry, and it is all styled as a comedy. The movie promises to be fun, and certainly has all the elements of a quirky rom-com that the audience could possibly want, especially with charming set and prop design. Innovation, quirkiness, humour, all of it adds to the ample natural talent of the lead pair (Nani and Nazariya) along with excellent performances by all the supporting actors. This movie appears to be a success even among the older generation, many of whom might be seeking exactly such an escape post-pandemic, given that it is easily accessible via OTT (Netflix).

Enthusiastic proponents of realistic cinema quote Dogme 95 rules or Dardenne Brothers’ cinema, slow-paced Malayalam movies or the gritty Tamizh movies, as a foil to the ‘masala’ fare dished out by the TFI, as if it were more virtuous just to create something more true to life . It is like saying that only that is art which recreates life as we see it, all else is bunkum! So all cubists, pointillists, all ists are somewhat diminished as creators simply because they chose to express themselves differently. Only Rembrandt would be honoured and not Van Gogh or Picasso if we do not attempt to understand the artistic intention. But the new crop of directors in Telugu seem to want to prove to themselves and to their cinematic counterparts in the neighbouring regions that they are as good and as capable if not better at producing ‘meaningful’ cinema, and hence this offering.

What really is ‘meaningful cinema’?

Kerala by virtue of its Communist leanings is bound to churn out film after film that promotes Marxist vision which encourages matching ideologies via its performing arts and motion pictures such as Jana Gana Mana (2022) by Dijo Jose Antony starring Prithviraj Sukumaran, a film that shows minorities as the victims of majoritarian injustice. In Tamil Nadu, Dravidianism has created a monolith of a false oppressor out of the ‘upper caste’ Hindu, a term which is as British, as Christian, as the ideology it promotes, to create a deep divide in society that exists to this day (Risley1, 1891). Of course, Robert Caldwell comes to mind too (Balakrishna, n.d)2. In a nutshell, any content related to the ‘minority’ is to be encouraged, praised, promoted and everything ‘majority’ is to be panned as supremacist or discriminatory or worse. Despite being global majoritarian forces, both Christianity and Islam receive excessive benefits from the state and public in India, at the cost of the majority of the Hindus, who are not a brute majority by any stretch. For instance, a Keralite Hindu of a certain jāti is very different in language, lifestyle and customs from a Telugu Hindu of the same jāti.

Although one-ness is implicit and ingrained pan-India across cultures, our diversity at the empirical level ought to be celebrated and not hushed up as ‘majoritarian’. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is happening with the newly awakened movie directors, especially from the TFI, they want to emulate their ‘cool’ Mallu or Tamizh counterparts and dislike being labelled as masala or commercial movie makers. In their effort to be accepted as serious filmmakers, they are doing a disservice to the very reality they wish to project via their art. Social engineering, politicking and activism in the guise of entertainment is anathema to Hindu aesthetics and creativity, what is exemplified instead time and again via the timeless Purāṇas and Pañcatantra is the art of storytelling — where education and entertainment meet at a moral ground that is as universal as it is empathetic of human foibles. There is a non-preachiness that is refreshing, there is magic realism, there is wonder and awe, there is a grandeur of timelessness and there is no limitation of rationality.

Yet they work, they survive, not promoting or pitting one side against the other, they are the go-to of every storyteller, writer, artist and filmmaker in India at some point or the other. As this article (“Chodavarapu, 2022)3 by Sai Priya Chodavarapu tells us, they are the inspiration of not just Indians but are the source of the famed Arabic Kalīla wa-Dimna, Aesop’s Fables, and so much more. Story-telling is yet another of India’s gifts to the world. For us to sully its hallowed waters with personal politics is severing the very branch that we are perched on just to prove a point to outsiders, who do not count, as they do not have our best interests at heart.

There have been many Telugu movies that are realistic and humorous without trying to denigrate one community or the other. Ashta Chamma, for instance, made in 2008 by Mohan Krishna Indrakanti, explores with great comic timing the obsession of the protagonist with actor Mahesh Babu in stunning detail. There are other films too which do not resort to social engineering or underhanded preaching in the name of entertainment.

For a movie to be funny it need not be slapstick or cruel. And in this case of Ante Sundaraniki, one need not be a mouthpiece for minority appeasement.

A twitter thread by ex-Christian Esther Dhanraj tells us how false the tropes are in this movie, painting everything Hindu as superstitious and bad while the Christian side is shown as modern and wronged. Contrary to the very ideology and philosophy that is practised in Christian and Hindu households. Here she explains to us how wrong this movie is on many fronts, having been privy to the unwarranted demonization of Hindus, specifically Brahmins, in her Christian circles, while excusing away nonchalantly the inbuilt Christian intolerance of non-believers.

There are more Hindu Brahmins abroad — South Indians especially – than any other community, who are all successful and are even leaders at Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc. How would that be possible if they adhered to the ‘superstition’ of not crossing the ocean as depicted in the movie? And the rule itself has a rationale to it. Brahmins are the keepers of the fire of the Hindu civilization. Literally. One cannot be a ‘keeper’ if one is letting go of that very thing one is avowed to protect. To do daily pūjās, to follow one’s anuṣṭhāna, to keep to one’s ācāra, such that they are living embodiments of what is prescribed in our revealed sacred scriptures, they had to forego wanderlust. Hence brāhmaṇas were forbidden to travel across seas. To travel to foreign, far-off lands would be to tear them away from their dharma. A bit of nuance and understanding of the injunction, a bit of compassion for the confusion such households have to confront in face of ‘modernity’ would have elevated this film much more. Instead what we have is a hollering at the backwardness and ‘caste-conscious’ Telugu Brahmin. Ironically, of all the Telugu jātis, brāhmaṇas are the least ‘caste-conscious’, and any Telugu can attest to that.

There was a particularly funny scene that elicited many laughs, in which Nani’s tongue was used to put off a burning incense stick both before and after, as prāyaścitta, for crossing the ocean. The point to note is that the Christian family is not shown to have any such “weak” or negative traits. Neither as a family nor as a religious group. So this movie’s premise is based on false equivalence, masquerading as same-same but different. In today’s cosmopolitan world, the goal of every individual is food, clothing, shelter and peace— and a belief that all roads lead to the same god. We have said this eons ago in Bhārata, that the puruṣārtha of all humans can be divided into four categories: dharma/righteousness, artha/security, kāma/pleasure, mokṣa/permanent freedom from fear and insecurity. We have also said ‘ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti’ — truth is one but the wise call it by various names. If this is true, why then is there so much strife?

While the modern man or woman will speak of everyone having similar goals and of oneness, what is being encouraged subtly and not so subtly is engineering Hindus away from being Hindus, away from their beliefs, rituals and practices, as the survival of pagans for so long is anathema to those who believe in their version of the ‘one true god’.

Anything different is not tolerated. The lack of acceptance and basic tolerance comes from the globally rich and powerful Abrahamic proselytizing faiths who fund hate while blaming Hindus for a bogey called ‘Hindutva’ (which literally means Hindu-ness, and why would that be a bad thing?). While the Hindu śāstras speak time and again of unity, universal one-ness, and of global health and prosperity we see no such acceptance and inclusion from non-dharma-based faith systems. Social issues in India are instead turned on their head putting the blame on Hindus conveniently while giving Islam and Christianity a free pass.

In real life, ‘converted Christians’, will refuse to have anything to do with Hindu rituals or habits deeming them inferior, backward, old-fashioned and not modern. They refuse to touch prasādam, forget having it, they preach and proselytize about Christianity and its goodness at every occasion including weddings and funerals of Hindus, which is in very poor taste. They don’t take pride in their native language or customs, letting them die or drop off, hence as a language and culture Telugu takes a beating (interestingly the Dravidian politics of Tamizh Nadu encourages Tamizh language supremacy at the cost of its Hindu roots), and Hindu temples and gods are abused reviled and hated because they are taught to do so in their churches every Sunday. One need not look far for proof, any Christian channel on TV or any Christian website which claims to help the poor and needy in India indulges in generating atrocity literature (Malhotra, 2016)4 and gaslighting Hindus. Many recent converts to Christianity are first taught to hate their ancestral beliefs and their erstwhile worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Devi etc., is equated to devil worship. Hindu gods are deemed as demons to wean these newly minted Christians away from their original roots. As Ranjith Vadiyala puts it plainly in this article: “In “Breaking India (2011)”, Rajiv Malhotra describes Atrocity Literature as:

(A) technical term referring to literature generated by Western interests with the explicit goal to show that the target non-Western culture is committing atrocities on its own people, and hence in need of Western intervention.

With the promise of a better job on conversion, better schools, projecting oneself as a community that cares, huge cash incentives along with tacit state support, opting out of being a Hindu is tremendous. We have only to look at the Right to Education Act, Nai Udaan, USTTAD, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, to know how skewed the constitutional apparatus is; in favour of the non-Hindu, at the cost of the Hindu, all in the name of fighting majoritarianism. While history has proven time and again that Hindus are inclusive by nature and by scripture, whether they be in majority or minority. ‘Majority’, ‘minority’, again are terms that are mindlessly borrowed from Abrahamic faith-based western notions which bear no Indic relevance. With the global power of the conversion machinery behind them and with governmental abetment, states especially such as Andhra Pradesh have seen a humongous rise in conversions in the past decades (Pandey, 2020)5. The converts claim their due both from the government as disadvantaged or ‘oppressed’ Hindus, while keeping their old names intact, and also from the church for having converted and increased their global numbers. This is the background in which this movie ought to be watched.

Christians do not suffer in any manner in India legally, politically or socially. If there is tacit prejudice against recent converts it is only because they are the ones who refuse to inter-dine and co-mingle with ‘backward’ Hindus and their ilk who they have rejected to adopt a new religion that gives them a leg up in society, and in the world, and in the eyes of the white man, or so they think. For them, the Church gives them access to the Western world without needing any personal merit except for becoming a Christian. Thus most of them immediately adopt ‘western’ habits such as eating beef, drinking, smoking, listening to Western music, speaking in English at the cost of Telugu (“Decision on English-medium schools stays”, 20206 and other ‘modern’ ideologies which are all at crossroads with the ancient manner of the land they live in. This is bound to produce friction.

This friction would be a good point to start and make a movie on – who causes the friction, what is the friction about actually, why is this friction caused? Who is the supremacist and the proselytiser predator here? Who refuses to honour ancient traditions because they have opted out of the whole ‘Hindu’ way of life. This friction is caused by Abrahamic adherents because their texts teach them that everyone who is an idolator is a sinner, that there is no Judgement Day without everyone on earth being converted to Christianity, that this is the only life, YOLO (you only live once), and you must make the most of it at any cost, else there is FOMO (fear of missing out), so at the cost of othering one’s own people, at the cost of one-ness, at the cost of mokṣa, let us pursue artha and kāma and reject old fashioned ideas such as karma, dharma and punarjanma.

Modernity and Marxism are both forms of Christianity as per Prof. Joydeep Bagchee of Hindu University of America (HUA), we tend to forget this in all our social engineering done via our constitution, our governmental laws, our media, and our entertainment. The concept of historicism where;

The idea of history as a space where the salvation of individuals as members of a “nation,” a “race,” or a “faith” manifests is alien to Indian thought. It has its roots in Christianity. The narrative of religious decline itself was manufactured in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe and exported to India as a justification for colonization.
Udumidi, 20177

How one person’s historical existence provides proof of superiority over all other indigenous peoples, how calendars and their dates, how holidays on Sundays, how our phrases in English, most of what we do and believe in as modern cosmopolitan Hindus is in fact Christian in nature is something that escapes us altogether. It is that insidious. Hence such movies are very dangerous, in subliminally but slowly reinforcing that same thought pattern which becomes true over time by a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The movie opens with a school play, titled “A Step Forward” about the injustices of the ‘caste system’, though the true problem world over and even in India is essentially a class-based discrimination. There are more poor brahmins percentage-wise who suffer state-bankrolled laws skewed against them than any other group, be it the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocity Act, Articles 15 & 16, or even the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments, these are stacked against the brahmins even when innocent. For such a micro-minority to be at the receiving end of a constant butt of jokes and criticism calls for a thorough examination and pondering of why this is so? Who does a brahmin threaten the most? Who gains by their downfall? It is a clever ploy to use a school play within a film, to promote an agenda of targeting them young.

Once that is established and everyone is comfortable in their seats agreeing with the terrible injustice of it all, the humour takes off. The hero’s (Nani) Telugu Hindu Brahmin family versus the heroine’s (Nazariya) Malayalee Christian family. This whole section of the movie is shot in a montage racing through the daily habits of prayers and meals. The hero puts on a Christian channel on TV instead of Suprabhātam early in the morning, the family is shown to be upset and rightfully so! Why would one want one’s belief system to be othered and abused early in the morning? Vegetarianism takes another beating on the silver screen, and it happens only in India, while world over people in the know are slowly making their way towards it and its tougher cousin veganism for the sake of the planet.

The protagonist’s desire to go abroad is met with shock all around, as ‘crossing the seas’ is forbidden in the śāstras, especially for brahmins. This scene is again shown with love and humour fooling the audience into laughing at his predicament. All injunctions also come with some escape route and that is shown here to be the burning of the tongue, this too is depicted in a comic manner so one does not cringe when Nani’s tongue is singed. One laughs. And if one is a teenager or younger, they internalize this scene. What pray would be the conclusion of such a visual?

Cinema in India is as much religion as it is entertainment. It educates the masses in a manner that no other medium does, none can even dream of coming close (Balabantaray, 2020)8. To use such a platform to fool the innocent public, mostly Hindus, into believing the worst of themselves while the facts on the ground point to the contrary is a most heinous act. If it was a free show something could be said in the film’s or filmmaker’s favour, but this movie is ticketed and practising Hindus who have been in a stupor for centuries struggling under the yoke of Islamic and Christian rule, under Colonial and Constitutional burden, are expected to pay for their own slaughter, which they are willingly doing so and how!

Intergenerational trauma and past life memories of Hindus who have suffered violently at the hands of Islamists and Christian conquistadors (as in Goa) is not brought up anywhere. If the Christian father has a reason to dislike Hindus, why is it that this basic decency is not accorded to a Hindu father? Can he not have a valid reason for putting up hard boundaries around his family? Dr. Ian Stevenson’s work (Bering, 2013)9 in this regard is seminal and is talked about in scientific circles albeit with skepticism, yet there is such a discussion brewing, but we in India are happy to play the majority-minority game exhibiting our own ignorance.

Not satisfied with the money it is reeling in, this movie is now available on Netflix.

OTT platforms are a boon for such films. Now the reach is worldwide and let the world see and deride the Hindus for their foolish religion. Let there be Hindu bashing on a large scale as the Hindus are cowards anyway and will not resort to killings or beheadings so why worry.

NCRI’s latest paper on “Anti-Hindu Disinformation: A Case Study of Hinduphobia on Social Media.” was released on KQED/NPR and this survey10 in the U.S. shows how much Hindu hate has increased in the past year. Ante Sundaraniki contributes to that hate in many ways, something for the director and producer to ponder if this was not what they set out to do. To top it all the director himself is perhaps a Telugu Brahmin which probably contributes to the authentic feel of the Brahmin household which is missed in many films. Art alas no longer is about art alone when it is driven by an agenda to show one section in a bad light to elevate another.

While the Hindu father (Naresh) is shown to hesitate even adding the Christian name of his vīyankuḍu, his son’s father-in-law, on his phone, the Christian father (Azhagam Perumal) is shown to be anti-Hindu ONLY because some Hindu behaved rudely with him at a wedding. So there seems to be a reason for his hate for Hindus, while the Hindus who hate Christians are shown to do so simply because….this is the ultimate fallacy!

As a religion no Hindu scripture talks of othering, of sinners or kafirs, no such concept exists, apart from one-ness. On the contrary Abrahamic religions have scriptural sanctions on othering, converting from ‘them’ to ‘us’ to make the ‘others’ acceptable and eligible for heaven, hating the ‘others’ and even encouraging the killing of the ‘others’ when they are non-compliant. This is a fact. To turn the truth of the matter on its head just because we Indians have internalized the false ideas viz ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, is our lack of discernment and we have to blame ourselves for such a lazy thought.

A Hindu Telugu Brahmin belongs to a micro minority more so than a Syrian Christian Malayalee. This Telugu Brahmin cannot run his own schools or his temples, his money that he deposits in good faith at the temple hunḍi is used by the government to fund and appease non-Hindus into voting for the government in power. He is reviled and denigrated constantly in print and mass media. He is equated with White supremacists for no reason. He has neither colonized nor enslaved anyone. The supposed atrocities by his group have no source in either Indian texts/ literature or foreign accounts, only the British annals say so and we believe them lock stock and barrel.

This Telugu Brahmin does not have power or pelf, heck, she cannot have a say in her own Telugu Film Industry (TFI) what to speak of anything else. Those who know TFI and have worked there, know this to be true. Brahmins are told to their face that they will not last long in this industry as they are not of the right caste and also because they do not use cuss words, swear, drink, or eat non-veg. Apparently, these are essential traits for surviving in a cinema industry and these habits typically are anathema to practising Brahmins (and with right reason per their belief system). The sad part is that many of our own kind have internalized this narrative and take on the role of a redeemer or a native informant to revile the rest.

A movie can be made to critique or criticize, the filmmaker has a vision and s/he is entitled to see it come to fruition. After all, filmmaking is an amalgamation of the sixty-four art forms and is definitely a religion in the Telugu states. No shooting starts without offering ārti to the camera and breaking of a coconut, irrespective of the cameraman’s religion. In all this when the director or the story writer play favourites whether knowingly or unknowingly they must expect to be called out for it. In an otherwise well-made movie, with good production values, unique music sense and a very topical storyline, this deception stands out.

References:
  1. Risley, H. H. (1891). The Study of Ethnology in India. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 20, 235. doi:10.2307/2842267
  2. Balakrishna, S. (n.d). How the Dravidianists ravaged the Tamil heritage and gisted Tamil Nadu to the global Church. The Dharma Dispatch
    https://www.dharmadispatch.in/history/how-the-dravidianists-ravaged-the-tamil-heritage-and-gifted-tamil-nadu-to-the-global-church
  3. Chodavarapu, S. (2022, July 3). India’s storytelling tradition and its influence on world literature. Bṛhat
    https://brhat.in/2022/07/03/storytelling-tradition/
  4. Vadiyala, R. (2016, October 25). Atrocity Literature: A Western Recipe to dismantle India and Hinduism. indiafacts
    https://indiafacts.org/atrocity-literature-western-recipe-dismantle-india-hinduism/
  5. Pandey, P. (2020, August 9). Andhra Pradesh is 25% Christian now, thanks to late YSR Reddy. Hindu Post
    https://hindupost.in/dharma-religion/andhra-pradesh-is-25-christian-now/
  6. Decision on English-medium schools stays: Andhra Pradesh minister Audimulapu Suresh on NEP 2020 (2020, July 31). The New Indian Express
    https://www.newindianexpress.com/st-ates/andhra-pradesh/2020/jul/31/decision-on-english-medium-schools-stays-andhra-pradesh-minister-audimulapu-suresh-on-nep-2020-2177142.html
  7. Udumudi, S. (2017, July 18). Indian Studies After Indology: An Interview With Vishwa Adluri And Joydeep Bagchee . Swarajya
    https://swarajyamag.com/culture/indian-studies-after-indology-an-interview-with-vishwa-adluri-and-joydeep-bagche
  8. Balabantaray, S. R. (2020). Impact of Indian cinema on culture and creation of world view among youth: A sociological analysis of Bollywood movies. Journal of Public Affairs, e2405. doi:10.1002/pa.2405
  9. Bering, J. (2013, November 2). Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We ‘Skeptics’ Really Just Cynics? Scientific American https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/ian-stevensone28099s-case-for-the-afterlife-are-we-e28098skepticse28099-really-just-cynics/
  10. Rachel Myro. (2022, July 12). New Report Finds Extremists On Social Media Bubbling With Hate Against Hindus. The California Report.
    https://omny.fm/shows/kqed-segmented-audio/new-report-finds-extremists-on-social-media-bubbli
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