The earliest memory I have of Hanuman, or Bajrangi, is from my childhood in Delhi. My father had been nominated to the Parliament and we used to live in the quarters that were allotted to MPs near Pandara Park. Ramlilas in those days used to be a hugely popular community affair, and besides the big one that used to happen at the Ramlila Maidan, there were a number of smaller ones that would be organised in different neighbourhoods. These smaller Ramlilas used to run for several days, much longer than the usual ones. We had a few such performances around our neighbourhood too.
My friends and I used to have a great time watching the Ramlila, and as children, our favourite character was Hanuman. To us, he represented joy and fun. We used to love the sections with Hanuman in them much more than the other parts. In fact,we used to keep a tab on the days the Hanuman chapters would be performed and we made a special effort to watch the Ramlila on those days. His entrance in any scene was a big deal for us, and we used to greet it the way people today greet Salman Khan’s appearance in the first scene of a movie—with lots of hooting, cheering and clapping.
We also used to have our own enactments of the Ramlila. I remember sitting with the man who used to help out in the garden and making a big Ravan for Dussehra with him; I also remember playing Hanuman once when I was in school. Playing Bajrangbali was a big deal for us kids since he was the most beloved character, more coveted than Ram or Lakshman. The test to see who would make the best Hanuman involved climbing a big tree that grew in our neighbourhood.
The competition was quite tough and, in fact, the only other position for which we all strove this hard was for that of the opening batsman in our neighbourhood cricket team. I was a good climber, so that year, I bagged the role of Hanuman. Once the play had been cast, a great deal of energy and engineering know-how would go into constructing Hanuman’s all-important tail. It had to be perfect and remain upright for the entire duration of the play.
Another association that I make with Hanuman also comes from my childhood—that of the various akharas and the wrestlers who fought in them—a common sight in Delhi in those days. For wrestlers, Bajrangi is the deity of choice, and when I was writing Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I drew deeply from my memory of Delhi’s akharas.
Things started changing in the mid and late-’80s, with the rise of the Bajrang Dal. As they and other Hindu fundamentalists engaged in polarising society along communal lines, they appropriated Bajrangi, the one god whom we associated with joy and who we thought belonged to all of us.
I think that is when the use of the word “Bajrangi” began to change from something that, to us, meant harmony and joy, to something that gained a more communal connotation.
This intensified with Babu Bajrangi, the leader of the Gujarat wing of the Bajrang Dal, who played a central role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat and who was caught on tape talking about how he wished to kill 25,000-50,000 Muslims.
Perhaps, that’s why, when I began writing Bajrangi Bhaijaan in 2013, many people asked me why I wanted to use the name “Bajrangi” at all. They advised me to drop it, for it might alienate certain communities. This got me thinking about what has happened over the last 20-25 years and how it has changed our relationship with the name“Bajrangi”. As a child, this god was a symbol of inclusiveness to me. I believed that Hanuman did not belong to just one religion, he was a part of the cultural heritage and ethos of everybody living in India.
All of us, no matter what community we belonged to, loved Bajrangi and now here we were, all these years later, where the very name has attained such communal connotations. All these weighed on my mind and I felt that it was time to reclaim Bajrangi. I decided to name the endearing protagonist of my film, Bajrangi.
From the film’s reception, I realised that my message had got across to the audience. What made me especially proud was an article I read after the release of the film. It was about a place called Tarsali near Vadodara, which is home to a Hanuman temple. What is wonderful about this temple is that both Hindus and Muslims come together here to worship Hanuman. In fact, two weeks after the movie’s release, 500 Hindus and Muslims from this place were planning to go to the nearest town to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan together. This put a smile on my face because this was what I had wanted to achieve with my film.
Reading about these people and their determined efforts to boost communal harmony was the biggest source of satisfaction, pride and happiness for me, bigger perhaps than any amount of box office collection or any number of awards. I feel I have been successful in claiming back from the right wing the joyous Hanuman of my childhood.
(AS TOLD TO POOJA PILLAI)
Kabir Khan is the director of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.