Krishan vs Kanhaiya: A triumph for rational humanism

By Dev Nadkarni

It’s never easy to discuss some topics freely and frankly in a disparate group of people without having a polarising effect on the group or creating an unseemly controversy. That’s precisely why people like to steer clear of discussing politics or religion away from all formal conversations.

There are occasions when writers, playwrights and filmmakers deal with such topics and we often know what happens more often than not – protests, book burnings, bans on performances and censored scenes and passages from films. Death threats are not uncommon either.

Any attempt to deal with something as super sensitive as faith, religious belief and the idea of God itself in a controversial manner in a three-hour play could potentially quite easily go pear shaped. But Paresh Rawal’s Krishan vs Kanhaiya achieves this difficult task of discussing the most controversial issues threadbare through colourful characters with uncharacteristic chutzpah and guffaw-a-minute humour.

The core idea of Krishan vs Kanhaiya is far from an original one. It has been explored a few times before – the most well known essay being the English film “The Man Who Sued God”. There is also a Marathi play on the theme. But where the writers of the Hindi version that was staged in Auckland last month score big is in contextualising the idea to the least common denominator of Bharatiya Sanskriti.

Krishan (Rawal), an atheist antique seller who weaves the most imaginative tales around his artifacts with his glib tongue, finds himself left high and dry by the fine print of his insurance policy when a natural disaster strikes, decimating his antique shop. Invoking the force majeure or ‘hand of God’ clause, the insurer denies him the value of his loss in which instance Krishan decides to sue God.

Unable to produce God in a court of law, he makes religious leaders and the priests of temples the respondents. Weaving its way through dozens of hilarious situations peppered with the most frank and forthright discussion on socio-religious mores, which expose most of them for their utter irrationality, the script progresses at a clipping pace toward an exciting climax.

As well as holding a mirror to the irrationality of blind faith, the writers, through Krishan’s sparkling wit and crystal clear logical thinking, expose the unreal vice grip that religious establishments hold their believers and adherents in, with a strong dose of fear.

It is this irrational fear of the future that has built the religion into the world’s largest industry – except that it is not seen as one, which is all to the good of the wily, controlling mandarins of religious establishments big and small.

The play’s subtext quite explicitly brings to the fore the hypocrisy that lurks beneath the thin coating of religiosity in organised religion and makes it resoundingly clear that is always about the money and stark materialism (bigger donors get into privileged queues just as they get the opportunity to inscribe their names on bricks and suchlike than their materially poorer bretheren).

It is just as well that God decides to come down to earth to meet with Krishan the atheist in person – because despite his seeming atheism, Krishan is a practical, existential humanist. In every sense a more honest and a better human being than most persons who wear their religiosity on their sleeves, making a big deal of it – to which the theatrical God alludes.

Krishan vs Kanhaiya appeals to most people’s logic. Or else there wouldn’t have been gleeful clapping and lusty applause for Krishan’s acid observations on blatantly materialistic socio-religious mores as there were for his whacky sense of humour.

The performances were brilliant and the message delivered forceful enough to make any religiously inclined rational person sit up and churn it through their mind. It would undoubtedly make the religious establishment squirm uncomfortably because the play does not give it a leg to stand on.

The play is an intellectual, rip-roaring, well-executed triumph for rational humanism.


First appeared in Indian Weekender, June 2012