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August 4, 1999
'Eyes Wide Shut': Plenty of Cyberspace Barks But Where Is the Bite?
Aseem Chhabra in New York
Almost ten years ago, while walking on Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York City, I encountered one of the most frightening scenes of my life: hundreds of South Asian Muslims marching with placards and screaming slogans 'Kill Rushdie, Kill', 'Death to Rushdie'. There were men in Western clothes and traditional salwars and kurtas, and women in burqas. The most frightening thing was that they all looked like me.
The impact of the global force of Muslim anger against Salman Rushdie's book Satanic Verses, is well known. There were bomb threats, book burnings, banning of the book, killing of those associated with the book and most important, ten years of a life in hiding for the Indian-born writer.
In 1986, I saw a very different kind of protest. A peaceful group of nuns, holding rosaries and placards outside an art movie house in Beverly Hills, protesting against Jean-Luc Godard's attempt to humanize the Virgin Mary in Je Vous Salue, Marie (or Hail Mary). The film and the controversy attracted some attention, but it died a natural death, befitting a small French film that hardly any American saw.
It is now the summer of 1999, and number of fundamentalist (and plain, religious) Hindus in the United States seem to be angered by the use of a shloka from the Gita during the now infamous orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's swan song Eyes Wide Shut. Countless hours, time and energy have been spent on various websites and discussion lists debating and discussing the issue.
Some say the film is an insult to Hindu religion, cultural and religious heritage, while the liberals state that calling for the removal of the shloka from the film's amounts to resorting to cultural fascism.
My favorite was a debate on the South Asian Journalists Association's discussion list last week. One Mahadevan Shezian wrote in his posting:
'There is no philosophical difference between a Mahmud Ghazanavi demolishing Somnath (umpteen times) and a Kubrick defiling Gita shlokas in his third-rate movie. Yesterday's Ghaznavi lives in today's Kubrick (or whatever the hell this man's name is).'
On the other side of the fence, Veena Oldenburg, a New York City-based academic said: 'This form of Hinduism is a nineteenth century creation, and to rush to its defense, if Kubrick or anyone else grabs a tiny fragment of it and uses it out of context, is futile and in spirit un-Hindu.'
In the another posting, Shezian said: 'Unless the Hindus retaliate in full force such type of behavior will not change. Being nice does not pay.'
So I ask Shezian and his co-believers, what made them not go beyond the cyberspace and conduct organized protest against the film's producers, Warner Bros? Two years ago, an organized effort by the American Hindu Anti-Defamation Coalition (a Vishwa Hindu Parishad supported outfit) resulted in Sony Music changing the cover of an Aerosmith album. Similar protests by the Arab-American community resulted in Disney changing the lyrics to a song in the 1992 hit animation film, Aladdin.
But where are our desi-Hindu brothers now?
Dr Jai Maharaj, secretary of the American Gita Society, has been following this controversy since the release of Kubrick's film last month. Speaking from Hawaii he said there were letters written to Time magazine (both the magazine and Warner Bros are owned by media conglomerate Time-Warner) by leaders of Hindu groups in the US. However, it appears the magazine chose not to publish the letters.
Maharaj also read a letter written by a Hindu student in the US to the film studio. The writer of the 'Dear Warner Bros' letter threatened to boycott all future Warner films if the studio did not remove the recitation of the Gita shloka from the film. One can only imagine how far that 'Dear Warner Bros' letter would reach within the vast bureaucratic structure of the Burbank, CA-based studio.
Maharaj added that while surfing the Net he had seen pictures of a group protesting outside a movie theater in Los Angeles where Eyes Wide Shut was showing. The protestors reportedly belonged to a rival group to the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (better known as the Hare Krishna people), he said.
However, Nancy Kirkpatrick, senior vice-president of theatrical publicity at Warner Bros, said she was not aware of any complaints against the film. "All this is news to me," she said, adding it was a part of her responsibility to track all organized letters, demonstrations and campaigns against any Warner theatrical film.
Skeptics might argue that it would be futile to ask Warner Bros to make a change to Eyes Wide Shut, given the contractual conditions that Kubrick had set on the studio, including that no portion of the film could be altered after his final edit. However, it is a well known fact that in order to avoid the deathly NC-17 rating, the studio used 65 seconds of computerized images to partially cover up the nudity in the orgy scene (the same scene where the Gita shlokas are recited) in the film.
The studio proved that even a Stanley Kubrick work is not altogether sacrosanct and it could make a change in the director's final vision if the film's commercial viability was at stake. Perhaps then, it is safe to assume that the fundamentalist Hindu lobby (which so successfully affected the might of Sony Music in 1997) is still not strong enough to be a financial threat to Warner Bros. A few letters to Time magazine and Hare Krishna type protests do not shake the empire that Jack Warner built.
Eyes Wide Shut was released on July 16 to mostly positive reviews. It was the number one movie at the box office in the opening weekend, having grossed an impressive $ 25 million. Since then, in the next two weeks, the film's box office has plummeted by 55 per cent. Maybe Mahadevan Shezian can take comfort in the fact that Hinduism will outlive its last great threat at the end of 20th century.
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