The Hindi movie OMG
—Oh My God! was released in 2012 and later remade in Telugu (Gopala Gopala, 2015) and Kannada (Mukunda Murari, 2016). It announces itself as an adaptation of a Hindi play (Kishan vs. Kanhaiya), which in turn is based on the 2001 Australian comedy, The Man Who Sued God. The film follows Kanji Lalji Mehta, a staunch and vocal atheist, who earns his livelihood by foisting overpriced religious idols and faked sacred ware on to his naïve customers. When Kanji disrupts a religious festival, in which his family members participate against his wishes, and the presiding Hindu priest threatens him with divine punishment for this sin, Kanji brushes aside the warning and openly challenges God. Promptly, an earthquake hits the city, and Kanji’s shop is utterly destroyed, while the rest of his neighbourhood remains unscathed. He still rejects explanations of divine punishment, remains steadfast in his lack of belief in God, even boldly reiterating it and instead trusts in his insurance policy.
The insurance company, however, refuses to pay, arguing that earthquakes are ‘acts of God’ not covered by his policy. Kanji therefore decides to sue God for indemnities via his earthly representatives. In the course of a protracted lawsuit, which arouses immense media publicity, he loses his livelihood, his family and friends leave him, and his continuing blasphemies make him the target of the violent ire of devotee mobs orchestrated by the villainous godmen, and one godwoman, whom he opposes in court. However, it is the god Krishna himself who descends to earth in the guise of a hotshot, motorcycle-riding real estate agent and not only rescues Kanji from physical danger, homelessness and social isolation, but also provides him with the decisive clue to win his lawsuit. Krishna nudges him to study the Bhagavad Gita and other sacred scriptures on whose basis he will prove the liability of god’s earthly representatives in court. Kanji himself remains an atheist until right before the verdict, when he falls into a coma and the doctor informs his family that now only God can save him. Indeed, Krishna finally reveals himself to the comatose Kanji and informs him that his enemies have in the meantime been amply compensated for their defeat in court, namely by monetizing the idea that Kanji is the latest spiritual guru and religious reformer. After a scene of tender love in which Kanji asks forgiveness, he wakes up, destroys his own idols and even saves his enemies from the duped mob that has turned against them at last. The movie ends by enjoining the people to eschew self-appointed godmen and look for God directly in fellow humans. In a final epiphany, Krishna reminds Kanji that love, not fear, is at the heart of religion.
Although this moral conclusion iterates one of the commonest atheist arguments against religion, namely that it is driven by fear, my reading of it suggests that it effectively cements the impossibility of atheism in a more fundamental way than the simply incontrovertible existence of the god Krishna throughout the plot. From an atheist’s perspective, Kanji’s final ‘conversion’ is deplorable because it evokes a common trope of atheist failure by depicting a lack of belief as a temporary and ultimately deficient phase to be overcome in a transition towards a better understanding of religion. After all, throughout the film Kanji is depicted as consistently fearless and unassailable in his atheism until the very matter-of-factness of god’s presence simply leaves him no other choice. While devoid of fear, Kanji was not lacking love; in fact, his character is an utterly likeable and caring family man, he is well-integrated into his neighbourhood, and his somewhat excessive rigour and stubbornness still remain within the limits of appropriate masculinity. The film presents his bold atheism in humorous and endearing ways, and he is clearly intended as the main figure of positive identification for viewers (which may fail, of course). Even his morally questionable fraudulence as a businessman—selling tap water as holy water from the Ganges, for example—is justified in so far as his foolish customers seem almost determined to be cheated and merely prove Kanji’s point that religion is above all a means to mint money out of blind belief.
The movie’s narrative style and portrayal of its characters provide Kanji’s perspective with constant support. His performances of sober reasoning—critics may say specious argument—are depicted as universally persuasive and go largely unchallenged, except for desperate emotional outrage at their blasphemous nature by his villainous enemies. His court case evolves into a class action with a host of plaintiffs from all the major religious communities in India, and Krishna himself is depicted as utterly enjoying the TV broadcasts of Kanji’s rationalist dismantling of religion. And yet, Kanji finds himself economically destitute, socially isolated, publicly scorned, physically attacked and blithely unaware of being saved repeatedly by the very god he denies. It is Kanji’s impeccable and unwavering embodiment of the ideal, prototypical male atheist that seems effectively to drive home the point that his ultimate abandonment of atheism is not due to any personal failure on his part but is due to the more general impossibility of atheism.
The film’s investment in a hallowed discourse of humanist spirituality (love God by loving your fellow humans), well-entrenched through nationalist discourses of religious reform (Chatterjee 1983; Jones 1989; Radice 1999), fully supports Kanji’s atheist critique that institutional religion is largely an insincere and fraudulent human artifice maintained through familial pressures and notions of social respectability. At the same time, however, it is precisely this social aspect, rather than the plot’s insistence on God’s existence, which makes a total rejection of all spirituality
—and not just certain ‘bad’ forms of institutionalized religion—impossible. Hence, the decisive moment of atheism’s impossibility is not its factual cancellation by the presence of God but the plot’s insistence that, while Kanji was being an atheist, he spiralled into a state of utter social isolation and, therefore, material destitution, which he could not have sustained if it had not been for (covert) Krishna’s assistance.
This also brings us back to a crucial feature of the discourse on Indian secularism, which tends to entertain an Orientalist, largely unquestioned common sense that Indian civilization somehow is, has been and will remain beholden to a basic, ineradicable religiosity. As a result, the secularity of the Indian state—in its ideal form and in contrast to society
, the people or indeed the nation—has nothing to do with irreligion, as it refers to things like equidistance from all religions, religious tolerance or neutrality (Tejani 2008; Bajpai 2018: 206–268). While there are certainly important nationalist figures like Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah or Bhagat Singh, who are famous for their aloofness from religion or, in the latter’s case, an explicit commitment to atheism, their personal religiosity or lack thereof tends to be put aside as simply that: personal and, as a consequence, impossible or unnecessary as a model for the wider Indian population and the building of a secular national community (e.g. Khilnani 2007). The courts and legal system, more than the government, the state or its personal representatives, are usually treated as the ultimate locus where this model of secularism as a not irreligious equidistance from (all) religions is played out more or less successfully.
Since OMG revolves around a court case, it directly taps into this imaginary of the secular state, the religious nation and, I argue, the impossible atheist. In fact, the somewhat ‘anglicized’ judge, Kanji’s pious Muslim lawyer and even the opportunistic insurance company are perfect embodiments of the ideal of Indian secularism in so far as they abstract from whatever personal or ‘sentimental’ investment they may have in religion and engage with it in entirely instrumental terms, whether as a matter of legal adjudication (judge), professional duty (lawyer) or economic interest (insurance). Kanji’s calm and rational demeanour in court contrasts strikingly with the unrestrained, hysterical and abusive display of emotions by his religious opponents. Kanji thus approaches the court as a secular citizen whose personal beliefs/disbeliefs should not matter, however incendiary they may be, as long as he can provide legal evidence for his case. The evidence in this instance is the very same sacred scriptures he personally rejects (for a historical perspective on the evidentiary role of texts, including opponents’ texts, see Appadurai 1981). He wins the case, and the ideally operating secularism of OMG would actually undergird his atheism if it weren’t for the ‘common people’ who manage to transform even a staunch atheist and blasphemer like Kanji into yet another deity, and his radically irreligious critique into yet another reform of religion. This, too, is a common atheist trope,Footnote 2 which the film adopts but turns against atheism by projecting it as a natural and inevitable process that may validate atheist critique of religion but makes the practical implementation of its consequences nonetheless impossible.
Throughout the film, media coverage of Kanji’s atheism, especially on television, constitutes the operative link between secular state and religious nation, court and people, and thus indicates the crucial role that scholars have accorded to transforming media
environments for the production and evolution of religious nationalism (Lutgendorf 1990; Rajagopal 2001; Ahmad 2019). The role of media comes to the fore in a more pronounced way in the following example, the movie PK
, where atheism articulates more explicitly with the ambivalent relationship between immediacy and technological mediation.