Christopher Nolan’s recent film “Oppenheimer” has ignited controversy among the Hindu right in India. The reason? A scene that intertwines the profound verses of the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, with an intimate moment.
The scene features the lead actor, Cillian Murphy, who portrays Robert Oppenheimer – the creator of the atomic bomb, engaged in an intimate act with his lover Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh. In the midst of the act, Pugh’s character picks up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and asks Murphy to read from it. Oppenheimer’s character then recites the famous line, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” as they resume their intimate act. This sequence has sparked outrage, predominantly among right-wing groups in India, with some calling for a boycott of the film and demanding the removal of the scene.
The Hindu Right’s Response
Several members of India’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have expressed their outrage, calling the film a “disturbing attack on Hinduism.” According to them, the film appears to be “part of a larger conspiracy by anti-Hindu forces.” In an open letter addressed to Nolan, India’s Information Commissioner, Uday Mahurkar, deemed the scene as a “direct assault on religious beliefs of a billion tolerant Hindus.” He suggested that removing the scene could be a way for Nolan to showcase his sensitivity and earn the goodwill of billions.
Oppenheimer’s Success Despite Controversy
Despite the controversy, the film has been well-received in many sectors of India. Critics have praised the film and audiences have flocked to the cinemas to watch it. During its opening weekend in India, “Oppenheimer” grossed over $3 million, outperforming Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated “Barbie,” which was released on the same day and grossed just over $1 million. India’s film board, Central Board Of Film Certification, gave “Oppenheimer” a U/A rating, reserved for movies with moderate adult themes. There are no bans on the film in any of the country’s states and union territories.
The real-life Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father” of the atomic bomb, was fascinated by Hinduism and its teachings. Known for his intellect, he taught himself multiple languages, including Sanskrit. Upon witnessing the world’s first nuclear explosion, the Trinity test, he quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This line is used in the film multiple times, including during the controversial sex scene.
Hindu-Right and Film Controversies
This isn’t the first time that films, television shows, or commercials have offended the Hindu right due to their portrayal of Hinduism. Some have faced boycotts or even removal following an outcry from conservative and radical groups. For instance, Netflix’s series “A Suitable Boy” faced backlash in India for a scene that depicted a Hindu woman and Muslim man kissing in a Hindu temple. Similarly, a Tanishq advert featuring an interfaith couple was withdrawn after online criticism. In recent times, nationalist and Islamophobic narratives have seen growing support in Indian cinema, with certain movies polarizing the Indian audience. Critics argue that films like “The Kashmir Files,” based on the mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus, and “The Kerala Story,” about a Hindu girl who is lured into joining ISIS, are stoking communal tensions.
Preparation for “Oppenheimer”
Before portraying Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy read the Bhagavad Gita in preparation. “I thought it was an absolutely beautiful text, very inspiring,” he told Indian film critic Sucharita Tyagi in an interview. Murphy added that the text provided consolation to Oppenheimer throughout his life. In conclusion, while “Oppenheimer” has found success among a large section of Indian audiences and critics, the controversy surrounding its depiction of the Bhagavad Gita continues to persist. Christopher Nolan, known for his thoughtful and often provocative filmmaking, has yet to respond to these criticisms.