Writer-director Saibal Mitra’s film triggers the faith vs science debate, but it also takes subtle digs at majoritarian ideology, political opportunism. Stellar show by the late Soumitra Chattopadhyay and Naseeruddin Shah.
Language: Bengali, English, Hindi.
Rating: 4 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
You don’t need to open your social media accounts to know the top trends. Often hyper nationalism, religious bigotry keeps desi Twitteratis busy. Right or wrong is immaterial as the majoritarian view overpowers the minority voice. Unsurprisingly, #Hindusunderthreat is a top trend today [27 July]. But the mere mention of it would see us being labelled a pseudo-liberal, or the liberals would assume us to be Andh Bhakts [a term used to describe irrational right-wing supporters]. Objectivity is often crushed between the left vs right debate. It is pointless to even go there.
Writer-director Saibal Mitra doesn’t grab the bull by its horn, but its dark shadow is reflected in his film. A Holy Conspiracy  doesn’t oppose any faith per se, but it does question blind faith and the mob culture. For any ideology to thrive, it needs its believers. Faith serves as the most effective tool here. Mitra’s film opens up the faith vs science debate without undermining any faith. He cleverly drafts Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution to build the conflict in his film.
Kunal Joseph Baske [Sraman Chattopadhyay] is a Tribal teacher in one Hollolganj. The apostate has been accused of desecration after he refused to teach a Biblical [Genesis] chapter to his students. Kunal denies the charge but admits to not teaching the new Vedic Science book that has been imposed in the syllabus. Alright, the ultra-Hindu nationalists will cry foul that the film is ‘a Holy Conspiracy’ to malign the Hindus. They will sharpen their knives more since it has veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah defending the apostate.
Anton De Souza [Shah] is a veteran lawyer who often took the fight for tribals, Dalits and other minorities in India. He’s like the Majid Memon in the film. He’d vanished from the scene five years ago. It is pure destiny that he decides to come out of his shell to defend Kunal.
Our desi Anton is labelled an atheist by all and sundry. This includes his former colleague and the public prosecutor in the Kunal Joseph case, Reverend Basanta Kumar Chatterjee [Soumitra Chattopadhyay]. The latter is a reputed Supreme Court advocate. He is also a Member of Parliament who has flown from New Delhi to give his expert religious views on, what his fellow Christians believe to be a religious case. He doesn’t bear any Christian name, but Basanta’s views are like the Gospel truth for his community.
On one hand we have a devout Christian [Basanta] seeking justice for the Christian school. On the other hand, it is presumably an atheist advocate [Anton]] who is defending the apostate. The stage is set for a classic faith vs science court room drama.
Saibal Mitra’s film is contemplative in nature, it’s hard to know where to begin from. Though a mix of Bengali, English, Hindi, Mitra stays clears of regionalizing his film. It is set in one Hollolganj region [bound to get someone’s goat], but it is listed as ‘somewhere in India’. There are no prizes for guesses that the film is set in ‘liberal’ Bengal. The story embodies the ‘Kahin pe nigahe, kahin pe nishana’ spirit. The closest explanation to the Hindi adage would be Looking London, talking Tokyo. The majority in Mitra’s Tokyo is the Saffron brigade, but the director doesn’t indulge in minority appeasement. Maybe, a traditional [Hindu v Muslim] conflict would have been too dangerous, and so Mitra plays it safe and builds his conflict story around the largely peaceful Christian community. Any faith vs science conflict can incite religious passions but Mitra shows great maturity in dealing with the conflict at hand. Anton De Souza’s agitation isn’t against any religion, he simply doesn’t want an innocent punished under the pretext of desecration.
A multi-ethnic nation like India has seen its share of mob lynching, murder in the garb of blasphemy, desecration. The worrying aspect is that how these crimes are committed to protect the honour of idols or holy books. The Abrahamic religions, in particularly Islam has gained attention in the last few decades for the spiraling fanaticism in certain pockets. Please don’t assume the film to be a holy conspiracy against the Abrahamic religions or Sanatan Dharm. The holy books are a way of life, but the film also reminds mankind of its greatest gift – The Human Mind. Humans are perhaps the only species on earth that are empowered with rational thinking. A Holy Conspiracy  doesn’t discourage you from embracing the holy books. It simply requests you to apply the human mind too.
How could left-liberal Naseeruddin Shah miss an opportunity to condemn the majoritarian mindset. Without naming the ruling Saffron party, Anton De Souza draws our attention to the politics of religious opportunism. We recall few occasions when Anton chides that this divide has seeped into the society in the last few years.
[Outside the prism of films, we’d love to get an answer from Shah over his regular criticism of growing religious intolerance ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came into power. If this hate is orchestrated by the Saffron brigade, then who was spreading the hate when we witnessed so many terrorist attacks across the country when the Congress-led coalition government was in power till 2014?]
Maybe Shah improvised some of the veiled criticism in the film, but democracy entitles one the right to speech, expression. Importantly, he expresses his views in a civil tone and in the right forum, rather than the noisy news debates or vile social media. You’d be jumping the gun if you label him an outright atheist. Anton’s blunt, too cold to even acknowledge the warm greetings by Basanta and his wife. He respects the man, but just can’t express it. Anton’s Hindi rekindles memories of Shah trying to impersonate Municipal Commissioner D’Mello [Satish Shah] in the cult dark comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro . We get to see another vintage Naseeruddin Shah performance.
This reviewer confesses to watching a maiden Soumitra Chattopadhyay film. Ah, the cinephiles of Bengal, please don’t freak out. We just didn’t have the luxury of watching Bengali films in Mumbai before. The late actor leaves a lasting impression on us in his last release. We are surprised by the absence of an Abrahamic name in Basanta Kumar Chatterjee, yet the veteran advocate is deemed as the most knowledgeable voice on the Bible. He is confident to begin with, but the moment he sees his old mate Anton representing the accused, Basanta looks visibly shaken. Later, he is shown to be admiring Anton, but that respect is not reciprocated. Anton is not insulting, but he is just cold to be like his warm esteemed colleague.
Both men are liberal in their own right. Basanta points out the right to faith under Indian constitution, while Anton wants to respect individual views that don’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights or hurt religious sentiments. Their legal confrontation does throw up some tense moments, but the situation never really gets out of hand. It was very brave of the late veteran actor to take up a character who endures some tough blows. As a viewer, you do worry for the wellbeing of Basanta. The Dadasaheb Phalke award winner bids goodbye to life and cinema with a masterful act.
Mitra’s film introduces us to an array of talent. Amrita Chattopadhyay impresses as Reshmi Merry Mal, a devout Christian who is in a relationship with the apostate Kunal. The tough grilling by Basanta leaves the devout in tears who is caught between faith and love. Amrita strikes you as an actor of real quality.
Sraman Chattopadhyay does well to emote the internal turmoil, frustration of Kunal to a nicety. Here is a teacher who simply wants his students to get the right education rather than cling to any unproved mythological beliefs. He’s proud of his tribal roots but doesn’t carry any excess baggage to the classroom. Little did he imagined that teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution could land him in trouble.
Since majority of the schools in India, at least, the metros, impart education in English. the Christian school setting fits perfectly with the plot. The school is vital as that is where we shape the mindsets of our young. Mitra’s film subtly calls upon certain cultures, that swear by the holy books, to introspect certain aspects of their teachings.
The nature of conflict doesn’t leave much room for drama as most scenes center around the conversations in the court. The well written dialogues though build consistent engagement. We liked listening to the couple of holy tracks featuring Amrita. The quality of its cast, writing and astute direction all combine to make A Holy Conspiracy a fine intense and relevant social drama. The content is edgy, but we hope viewers will apply their mind before passing any judgment.
The film is set to he released in theatres on 29 July. Watch the trailer below.