Let’s begin with the facts first: Nolan’s biopic on the father of the atomic bomb, ‘Oppenheimer’ is a runaway hit across the world. And Nolan and Universal Pictures are looking at India with increasing awe, as India became the second biggest box-office market for ‘Oppenheimer’ as it opened here with a bang and is currently in the top three revenue earners list for the film. Besides, India is the only country – the other being Thailand, where Oppenheimer’s collections outdid the other sleeper Hollywood hit, ‘Barbie.’ Nolan’s film has already collected Rs 700 million so far in India, and is expected to amass over Rs 2 Billion if the movie is allowed to run its course. But then there’s this controversy that is snowballing with every houseful show: unwarranted use of the holy Hindu book, Bhagavad Gita, in a sex scene.
There are two points of view over this; one which believes that we Indians are unnecessarily being prudish, niminy-piminy, and Victorian old-maid in our outlook towards one lousy scene from ‘Oppenheimer,’ considering how Sanatan Bharat land is indeed the birthplace of Kamasutra and Khajuraho. Then there are dissenting others who feel that the sex scene and the invocation of the Bhagavad Gita are entirely gratuitous and irrelevant to the script and the film, and this vexatious fetishization of the holy Gita is nothing but an excuse for cheap titillation at the expense of a billion-plus Hindus globally.
Let us look at the case from every possible angle to reveal the truth bomb if it exists.
Did Nolan diminish the sacred Gita that helped scientists comprehend modern science?
Considering the turbulence in his life and the destructively trailblazing nature of his work, it is easy to understand why Robert Oppenheimer found himself drawn to Gita’s mysticism and was inspired by its call to action against injustice and tyranny. His interest in the Bhagavad Gita bordered on such obsession that he would hand out copies to friends and even named his car ‘Garuda‘. He later cited the Gita as one of the books that most shaped his philosophy of life. He wrote to his brother that the Gita was “very easy and quite marvelous” and called it “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.” In fact, Oppenheimer’s copy of the Bhagavad Gita is one of his only two personal objects kept by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Oppenheimer, along with the Danish physicist Neils Bohr, was completely enamored by Hindu culture and the metaphysics embedded within. While comparing it with the literature of ancient Greece, Oppenheimer famously remarked, “I have read the Greeks; I find the Hindus deeper.”
Oppenheimer was not the only one to find a meaningful explanation of their life’s work in Hindu texts. Nikola Tesla was highly intrigued by the relationship between matter and energy in ancient Indian texts and even befriended Swami Vivekananda. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, of “Schrödinger’s Cat” fame, was captivated by the Upanishads for the descriptions invoking “the simultaneous singularity and multiplicity of the world.”
The point is that ancient Hindu texts were at the forefront in helping many scientists understand, envision, encapsulate, articulate, and digest the sub-atomic phenomena and other pathbreaking scientific research unraveling with their experiments. If the Gita, Upanishads, or other ancient Hindu texts did indeed help these luminary minds to paraphrase and unpack the hitherto-unknown phenomena, then they most certainly deserve better footage in a 3-hour-long film on their science. That, too, in a scene that’s more respectable than simply being glossed over as a sex prop. The question is: Did Nolan do justice to the science he portrayed in the film by devaluing the Bhagavad Gita? Or did he resort to the same old Hollywood trope of belittling everything from India with a narrow colonial mindset?
Despite the deification of J Robert Oppenheimer in the pantheon of great American scientists, it would be interesting to dig deep and see his work’s real significance in the overall scheme of things. Did his life story have any interesting cinematic or tragic elements? None! Oppenheimer was born in privilege and stayed glued to it throughout his life. His 16th birthday present was an 18-ft yacht, and he remained distinctly unpopular with his peers throughout his career. Does his glittering contribution to the Manhattan Project make him the hero? Far from it. The real breakthroughs were from Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, who showed nuclear fission was possible, or specialists like Robert Christy, who designed the plutonium implosion “Christy gadget” successfully tested at Trinity Site near Los Alamos, and later dropped on Nagasaki. Leadership and direction came from Director General Leslie Groves. Was it his vision, then? Not really. It was an Englishman, James Chadwick, who convinced both Britain and the US that such a nuclear weapon was feasible. The Manhattan Project was doomed to fail until Chadwick came on board. He was the brain, while America simply brought the brawn to the table. Oppenheimer’s chief contribution was mere as a “camp counselor of Los Alamos.”
Nolan’s Oppenheimer glosses over Chadwick’s and Britain’s contributions. The question that should be posed to Nolan and Hollywood is: Did they purposely remove Chadwick to create a mythical All-American hero? Chadwick’s daughters remember Oppenheimer as an “Odd fellow… Not as clever as our father.” Was this film simply an exercise to reaffirm America’s status as the savior of the world from the reprehensible Nazis? History begs to differ. The Nazis had already given up on their nuclear ambitions by 1942. Oppenheimer was perfectly aware that there was no race to beat Hitler to the atomic bomb. Indeed, the Manhattan Project ended up being responsible for accelerating the nuclear arms race. Did the movie over-amplify Oppenheimer’s contribution to portraying an ‘American Prometheus’ or a tragic martyr? Most certainly.
More importantly, from India’s point of view, did Oppenheimer really mouth off those Sanskrit lines? It gets dicey here. His brother Frank and Brigadier General Thomas Farrell were present with Oppenheimer in the control bunker at the site. When Frank was asked about Robert’s first words after the test, the answer was, “I guess it worked.” Later, Oppenheimer recalled how he had thought of Gita’s verse: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” Years later, he spoke of an entirely different verse that came to mind during the explosion, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So, what verse did he quote? The answer is anybody’s guess.
Lastly, does Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ come out as a soapy propaganda vehicle for the US, which has now lost its hegemony in global foreign policy? Apparently, yes… else, why would Hollywood invest its prestige in a scientist, famously described by one of his father’s employees as “What a schmuck.”
The real Manhattan Project film should have been ‘Martinez’ and not ‘Oppenheimer’
By now, we have bared all the plot holes in the puffed-up tall tale of ‘Oppenheimer’ – a non-hero who rose to fame at the expense of other worthy men to fast-track an unnecessary project that pushed the world into a deadly nuclear confrontation. So, where is the heroic story here? As it turns out, a film on this subject would have been more topical and heroic if it was headlined as ‘Martinez’ and not ‘Oppenheimer.’
When Oppenheimer personally selected the Los Alamos site, the land was inhabited by Hispanics for centuries. Oppenheimer’s men gave them just 24 hours to leave, after which they bulldozed their houses and shot their livestock through the head. People fled on foot and hid in villages nearby. Later, Oppenheimer hired the same Hispanic men back to work with Beryllium, except that the white men got the protective gear while the Hispanics didn’t. Naturally, all the Hispanic men perished with berylliosis.
Decades later, enter Ms. Loyda Martinez – a computer whiz who dug out all the information on the Hispano men like her father, who were killed by Oppenheimer & Co, and filed two class action suits and won. Her story of perseverance for justice found its way to a film script written by an award-winning journalist, Alisa Lynn Valdés. It’s been twenty years, but Hollywood can’t be enthused to do a ‘Martinez’ on this subject. But ‘Oppenheimer’ – mythology in service of White supremacy and the military-industrial complex gets greenlit with unlimited funds. If we widen our gaze here, it is evident that Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ is offensive not only to the Hindus but also to the Hispanics and the peaceful world at large, making Hollywood look facile and depthless.
Bhagavad Gita is presented through a narrow Abrahamic gaze
It is an open secret that Christopher Nolan is a devout Catholic. When asked about Christianity in his films, he was pretty candid, “The influence of Christianity on my films is mostly cultural; in terms of my upbringing, I was raised a Catholic.” He added, “A lot of the cultural potsherds, a lot of my education, Christianity, and the ideas of Christianity flowed around in that.” His ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises, as well as ‘Interstellar’, are very clearly inspired by the Gospels, while many faithful find his films laced with three Christian virtues: love, hope, and faith.
So, while Nolan’s faith is not necessarily a handicap when it comes to sensitively portraying another contradicting religious line of thought, the question that one needs to ask here is: Did his religious grounding prevent him from understanding the deep essence of Gita? Before the advent of the atomic bomb, the mass destruction of humanity was simply the purview of God. The Bible and other Abrahamic treatises speak of massive floods and rampaging plagues that God sent to wipe out an entire lot of sinners from the face of the earth. The nuclear bomb was the first of its kind of device that gave God-like powers in the hands of a few powerful men like Robert Oppenheimer, who could never articulate its destructive ability in simple Biblical terms. Hence, there was a need for an all-encompassing text like the Bhagavad Gita. Could a rigorously Abrahamic Nolan, with his blinkered biblical vision, ever grasp the significance of the Bhagavad Gita? Frankly, the chances are pretty bleak. Even if we accept that his intent was not to hurt Hindu sentiments, his cultural upbringing would still result in a parochial portrayal of the Gita in an esoteric setting.
All said, the Hollywood press is out defending Nolan’s transgression against the Hindus, with the weirdest logic that since they routinely make fun of Christianity, they have the right to lampoon Hindus too.
A moment’s reflection brings out the inherent hypocrisy of their argument.
Firstly, Hollywood’s caricature of the Bible in their films has never gone well with a large cross-section of their audience. ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ saw a Parisian theater going up in flames. ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ saw large-scale protests and bans in several countries. Ditto for ‘Noah’ and ‘The Passion of Christ‘.
Secondly, would Nolan and Hollywood have taken the same lackadaisical approach with the Quran or Hadith? The answer is an emphatic no…not unless they want to see a redux of the Charlie Hebdo massacre directed at them. Don’t forget how the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death over his short film on Islam’s atrocities against women, ‘Submission.’
The sad fact is that Hindus are considered a fair game to insult as they tend to be a peaceful lot who usually gravitate towards protesting peacefully – and at times unsuccessfully, against their detractors.
The time to flex muscles is right here, right now
Let me tell you a tale of how China tackles its Hollywood detractors. Over the last two decades, China has truly matched America’s strength in the movie exhibition sector. Both countries boast almost similar numbers of screens and a similar collection at the box office. Once China realized that without its box-office contribution, the biggest Hollywood blockbusters could end up losing billions, they started to tighten the guidelines. Overseas movie releases are strictly regulated by the local administration in China, and in this case, they first began by restricting any movie project that starred Richard Gere. Gere was the hottest star of the late 1990s, but he soon invited China’s wrath by going all out in support of Dalai Lama – Tibet’s titular head and China’s enemy. Later, the Gere ban restricted any studio or banner that hired Richard Gere, even though the film was kept from China. All the studios had to comply, and since then, one can see Gere only in minor indie films with limited exposure. China made it clear to Hollywood: if you poke the dragon, the fire will burn down your box office.
All said, there’s a lesson for India in this somewhere. That is, if they stand up and take down ‘Oppenheimer’ even now, Universal Pictures stands to lose at least Rs 1.2 billion in second and third-week collections, which it certainly can’t afford. India’s Information & Broadcast Minister Anurag Thakur has openly expressed his displeasure at the Censor Board for clearing the Gita scene in ‘Oppenheimer.’ Heads are expected to roll, but only when the revenue tap is shut will the message go out unambiguously to Hollywood that Hindu beliefs are not to be fiddled with if you want a play in the world’s third-largest film exhibition market. Nothing educates Hollywood better than a sharp dent in its revenues.
Yes, ‘Oppenheimer’ is indeed a vaingloriously prejudiced effort, and it is high time we put Hollywood and its attendant ecosystem in the dock for their feudal colonial mentality. India truly needs to learn that its soft power must be couched with a hard bargain.
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