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Dithering over Da Vinci Code

Print edition : Jun 16, 2006 T+T-
TOM HANKS STARS in the film as symbologist Robert Langdon.-

TOM HANKS STARS in the film as symbologist Robert Langdon.-

The Da Vinci Code raises some religious hackles and reopens the issue of India's ad hoc response to creative controversies.

TWO years ago, Mel Gibson's harrowing cinematic reconstruction of Jesus' last hours - The Passion of the Christ - opened its run in India against the background of global controversy, over its perceived anti-Semitic subtext. Now comes another film, which seems to be raising similar fierce passions. When The Passion was released in May 2004, Dan Brown's page turner The Da Vinci Code was already a global best-seller - indeed, it has remained one for almost three years now ("Faith, fact and fiction": Frontline, May 21, 2004). The staggered release of the film version across India since May 26, a week after it was first scheduled, has provoked protests and some fairly heavy-handed official intervention. In India and countries like Malaysia, the Philippines and Kenya, some members of the Roman Catholic community have sought an outright ban on the film's exhibition. Ever since the film was announced to be under production a year ago, the Catholic Church has generally made its displeasure apparent, but while advising its flock not to see the film, the Vatican has never sought to curb the rights of others to see it: a boycott, not a ban was the suggestion.

Indian readers who number among the 50 million who have thus far bought a print version of The Da Vinci Code might be tempted to ask what all the fuss is about. Dan Brown's initial claim to fame was as a writer of fiction centred around cryptography, the science of secrecy. His first book in this genre, Digital Fortress, came exactly 10 years ago and featured code-breaking in covert government agencies. He introduced Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor of symbology (the study of religious symbolism), in his novel Angels and Demons, an overheated and blood-spattered yarn revolving around a plot to kill all the cardinals in the running to succeed a dying Pope. It made few ripples.

By contrast, the second Langdon yarn, The Da Vinci Code, which came in 2003, was a publishing tidal wave. The public overlooked the somewhat turgid prose and lapped up the breathless chase that runs all through the book, enlivened by a series of challenging brainteasers and some religious mumbo-jumbo. The novel resurrected the most sustained of the many "conspiracy theories" that have characterised Christianity over its 2,000-year history: the possibility, broached in works of non-fiction like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (an acknowledged source of the Code), that Jesus Christ might not have been the celibate suggested by the authorised versions of the Bible and might have had a relationship with the allegedly "fallen woman" Mary Magdalene, that eventually led to the royal Merovingian dynasty of France. Most readers either found all this too far-fetched - or at best an unnecessary distraction.

But sufficient numbers bought the book for Columbia Pictures, a Sony company, to acquire the film rights and sign up Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, who had made critically acclaimed films like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. They also booked Tom Hanks, one of today's most bankable stars, to play the part of Robert Langdon and chose Audrey Tautou, a French actress, to play his sidekick, police cryptologist Sophie Neveu. When her grandfather, a curator of the Louvre museum in Paris, is murdered, the two stumble on a conspiracy that seems to involve ultra conservative Catholic organisations who were striving to preserve some of the secrets of the early church. Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a wealthy scholar of doubtful allegiance, is the principal medium to mouth the more incredulous theories tossed about by the book. Then the book turns into a breathless race against unidentifiable villains (not unlike Hitchcock's North By Northwest), a race which doubles as a tour of some of Christianity's well known shrines.

The filmmakers had little leeway. If they jettisoned all the heavy theorising of the book, they risked putting off the millions of readers who would look for accurate reconstruction. If they ended up with too faithful a rendering, they would scare away the millions of potential cinemagoers who ask to take their thrills straight, without too much educational material.

In any event, Ron Howard seems to have chosen a middle path: the more gory set pieces like the curator spread-eagled on the floor of the Louvre's Grand Gallery, in a pose made famous by a Leonardo Da Vinci drawing and the self-flagellating killer-monk - are there; the roller-coaster action is also there intact, even if it is interrupted all too frequently by the main protagonists launching into wordy explanations about codes, secrets, symbols. The result is a film that will please the many fans of the book by preserving its classy feel and air of constant surprise, while those who have been blissfully unaware of the book these last three years will find it measures up to the standards of an acceptable thriller - but barely.

The film's writer Akiva Goldsman, has in fact taken some pains not to alienate audiences with too-literal translations of some controversial premises. Langdon speculates: "History shows Jesus was an extraordinary man. Why couldn't he have been divine and still have been a father?" This sentence is not in the book. And the film ends on a conciliatory note with Langdon saying "what matters is what you believe".

It would seem that many in India who asked for a ban on the film were going by what they read into the book. Even a casual viewing might have convinced most of them that the film was just not worth the fuss - indeed it is already proving counterproductive from their point of view: the 108 prints that were released in India are said to have raked in over Rs.3 crores in the first four days alone. This in spite of the week's delay in release caused by the Central government's somewhat bizarre response to the protests. Sharmila Tagore, who heads the Film Certification Board, expressed public unhappiness over the Information and Broadcasting Minister's personal intervention, while the film was being certified for exhibition with an adults only certificate, with no cuts, but with a somewhat gratuitous 15 second legend that stressed that it was all fiction. But the same board, had invited top Air Force officers to view the Aamir Khan-starring Hindi film Rang De Basanti because the story featured corrupt politicians and the repeated crash of fighter planes.

"This attempted censorship is not only impossible to implement, but also bad in principle. What happens if someone makes a film about corrupt industrialists? Will the Censor Board refuse to pass it until the Associated Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce wave the green flag? And will we see the day when the Central Hall of Parliament is converted into a theatre so that the two Houses may pass their verdict on a movie depicting a crooked politician?" asks columnist T.V.R. Shenoy on rediff.com.

Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan went even further. He told United News of India: "I do not believe in having a film censor board at all. I am a filmmaker with responsibility to the audience and society as well." About The Da Vinci Code, he added, "after all it is a work of fiction. Several films have been made on Jesus Christ, some on nunneries and monasteries where the characters were sometimes portrayed as angels, sometimes as evil".

All this has not prevented some States - Punjab, Goa and Nagaland - from dithering over the film's release. In Tamil Nadu, the State government ordered the film taken off a few days after it began screening. The Da Vinci Code will pack cinema houses for a few more weeks, until another product that the paying public judges as paise wasool replaces it. It is a well-made screen version of a popular piece of fiction that viewers will judge in different ways. To attribute anything more to a piece of popular cinema is to overrate its consequence.