If you want to understand a cult, you won’t find your answers in its leader, but in its believers. This epiphany dawned on me yesterday, when I attended the premiere of MSG: The Messenger at Select Citywalk’s PVR cinemas in New Delhi. The star attraction of the event was the film’s singer, editor, cinematographer, producer, music director, screenwriter and, of course, hero — Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, head of a socio-spiritual organisation Dera Sacha Sauda. Movies entice all kinds of viewers — animated, rose-tinted, disinterested, bored — but even the most optimistic and naïve audience member isn’t a literal devout (and since flinging vests at projection screens is still not considered a serious marker of religiosity, Salman Khan’s fans don’t count), but in that theatre, the lines between cinephiles and devotees blurred with astonishing ease. When Insan finally arrived, wearing a skin hugging black t-shirt, nearly everyone in the hall stood up, eyes brimming with reverence, hands folded, convinced they had seen god. The loud cries began: “Dhan dhan sat guru tera hi aasra.” Insan soon found himself surrounded by kids, middle-aged men and women, who were touching his feet, wanting to get their pictures clicked with him. And then He addressed the crowd in Hindi: “I thank and welcome you all for coming here; my blessings are with you.” The crowd broke into applause. After some while, Insan, polite to the fault, asked the organisers to start the film. The repeated chants of “MSG!” took over the auditorium, followed by a countdown “10…9…8…”
And, just like that, with a swift countdown of numbers, one event was replaced with the other: MSG: The Messenger graced the screen. And, really, let’s call MSG: The Messenger for what it is: an event, not a film. Or, better, an advertisement for how accommodating, benign, cool, courteous, charitable, humanitarian, incredible, exceptional, peace-loving, omnipotent, omnipresent, abstinent, flamboyant, wonderful, spiritual, modern, morally superior, miraculous-yet-preternaturally-human, generous, receptive, tolerant, progressive and conscientious Insan is. You may want to ask: what’s wrong with that? Aren’t most mainstream Bollywood films designed to place their heroes in the spotlight, where they basically enact an extended version of their carefully cultivated image? Sure, nothing blatantly wrong with the interplay between the real and the reel, but what really separates MSG: The Messenger from, say, a Salman Khan or an Akshay Kumar vanity project is this film’s complete inability to talk about anything else but its leading man (who is not, by the way, a fictional character). In most mediocre Bollywood star-vehicles, there is, at the very least, an attempt to tell a story of some kind — you have characters, scenes, plot-points andsongs that help those films arrive at some larger picture (no matter how shoddy, indifferent or preachy), but MSG: The Messenger simply exists to peddle Insan’s greatness. And before you ask me what’s wrong with an extended advertisement masquerading as a feature film, I want to ask you this: when was the last time you saw a 195-minute advertisement?
Lest you get me wrong, let me also tell you this: I went into MSG: The Messenger well prepared, having seen (and enjoyed) its trailer, fully aware of what the film was going to be like — a gift to Insan’s followers (“five crores,” we are repeatedly informed) for their decades of devotion. But there are different mediums that could have achieved this much more effectively: pamphlets, brochures, ads on TV and radio. Every single scene, song, plot-point and character in MSG: The Messenger exists to not drive the narrative forward, but to hero-worship Insan, to tell us how he will rescue us from ourselves.
MSG: The Messenger‘s audience, as I discovered in due time, was much more interesting than anything the film could have offered: Insan launched into a heated monologue; the crowd applauded. Insan danced on screen; the crowd danced along. Insan landed fists; the crowd whistled. After a point, it was quite clear to me that I had intruded someone’s private party. Which is where MSG: The Messenger belongs — a spacious enough venue that can accommodate the film’s screening for Dera Sacha Sauda’s five crore followers. One of the fundamental principles of film criticism is to not judge a film in isolation, but with respect to what it’s trying to achieve: MSG: The Messenger is a failure on that count too; it’s not even an effective, compelling mouthpiece for Insan and his organisation. Cinema is a powerful medium that affords you luxury like no other: use it, abuse it, distort it. Dole out propaganda, sermons, invectives, love stories, jingoistic drama, slapstick comedy, thrillers, dark fantasies, biopics, whatever you hold dear — offend or please, preach or pander, delight or disappoint — but, please, make a film that exists beyond your unending righteousness.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian.