NEW DELHI – An Indian film that features a self-styled spiritual leader in jewel-studded costume riding motorbikes and sending the bad guys flying has prompted the chief of the country’s censorship panel to quit, citing government interference.
Other members of the panel were expected to quit in support of Leela Samson’s resignation Friday after an appeals tribunal reversed censors’ decision to keep the film, “MSG: The Messenger of God,” out of movie theaters for being too promotional.
“There is interference, there is coercion,” Samson told television broadcaster CNN-IBN, adding that the appeals tribunal, whose decisions usually take a month, had cleared the film within 24 hours.
According to Rajyavardhan Rathore, India’s junior minister for information and broadcasting, the government did not interfere, even though it runs the censorship and appeals process. “If they had to give it a certificate and overrule us, why have a board in place?” Samson said in an interview.
Another panel member, Ira Bhaskar, said she would resign in support of Samson, with more expected to follow. “This is not an environment in which we can function as a board,” she told CNN-IBN.
The imbroglio has delayed the release of “MSG: The Messenger of God,” which stars Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the 47-year-old leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, beyond its originally set date of Friday.
But far from being unsuitable, say the filmmakers, “MSG: The Messenger of God” fights alcoholism and drug addiction, and extols the virtues of celibacy and a vegetarian diet.
“My film does not talk about religion nor mention any religion,” Singh told a news conference on the outskirts of New Delhi.
Singh said he was bemused by the fuss over the film, but did not give any reason for calling off a hastily arranged premiere. It was unclear when the film would open in cinemas.
The debate over the film went viral on social media, with hashtags #MSGinCinemas and #WeLoveMSG trending on Twitter.
“All hail freedom of expression. MSG … is India’s Charlie Hebdo,” said Twitter user “Finger of India,” referring to the French satirical newspaper attacked by Islamist gunmen this month.
The movie’s trailer, which has racked up more than 2 million views on YouTube, depicts Singh, complete with flowing beard and hairy outstretched arms, glaring at evildoers before scattering them with his fists. Mobbed by thousands of doting disciples, he struts and sings like a Bollywood hero.
Singh wrote and co-directed the film, besides singing and composing its music.
A sequel is in the works with profits earmarked to fund a hospital and HIV research center, said Aditya Insaan, a spokesman for the film’s distributor, Hakikat Entertainment.
Even apart from the celluloid derring-do, Singh is a controversial figure. In December, a court asked federal police to investigate claims that he forced 400 followers to undergo castrations at his ashram in northern India, in order to experience God. Singh has denied the allegations, but India’s Central Bureau of Investigation has filed a case.
Several groups representing the Sikh minority that makes up 2 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion have demanded a ban on the film, in which they say Singh distorted their scriptures and dressed up as a 17th-century Sikh guru. “We are not against freedom of expression, but the organization against Sikhism,” said S. Simranjit Singh Mann, the chief of one such group.
In New Delhi, about a hundred Sikhs held a protest march near Parliament, carrying placards and shouting slogans against Singh, while in the town of Hisar, about 150 km west of the capital, protesters burned an effigy of him.
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