A thoroughly intoxicated man rides his moped home in the dead of night, weaving dangerously along the rural roads of Rajasthan. He meets his end in a grisly accident and his bike is impounded by the police, only to mysteriously vanish and reappear the next morning at the accident site. This happens over and over, and as word spreads of the bike's mystical powers, it begins to amass a legion of devotees convinced of its divinity. As far as religious origin stories go, stranger things have happened.
This is the focus of Ritwik Pareek’s debut feature Dug Dug, a satire about religious fervour and blind, unquestioning faith. In a video message to viewers at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere, Pareek says, “I tried to explore the manifestation power of people’s faith and how we have a deep desire to find answers to the things beyond us, just to make some sense of our existence.”
The film is inspired by a similar series of events involving a Bullet motorcycle in a village near Jodhpur. Taking cues from real life, Pareek expertly crafts how quickly a spiritual idea can take hold and also how swiftly it can get co-opted and commodified. Once the moped is deemed holy by a local high priest, the film shifts into high gear. Through a series of montages, set to a pulsating soundtrack by Salvage Audio Collective, Pareek chronicles what the meteoric rise of a new faith might look like.
The bike, placed on a pedestal in the middle of the desert, begins to attract people from far and wide eager to seek blessings from its late owner, Thakur. Sellers hawking cheap merchandise—all in pink and blue, the colour of the miracle moped—set up shop. Politicians and grifters show up too, eager for a piece of the pie. All manner of small businesses, from car dealerships to schools, bearing Thakur’s name start sprouting up. In short order the chant “Thakur Sa ki jai” begins reverberating across the country and temples dedicated to the supposed saint start to proliferate. The hysteria reaches a crescendo with a rave through the village where the bike now permanently resides—an exultant mass of gyrating bodies trailing a truck blaring devotional music as it cuts through the dark with its dancing neon lights.
Pareek’s grasp of the cinematic language is impressive, particularly considering this is his first film. From the tense opening sequence that follows Thakur on his ill-fated ride home to the exquisitely stylized religious gatherings, awash in shades of pink and blue that pop against Rajasthan's arid landscape, to the raucous energy and pace of the film, it all speaks to a confident artistic vision. But in order for a satire to work, it requires something more: a strong point of view. It's not enough to merely probe something (in this case, religious adulation)—it needs to go deeper, to interrogate and to come back with some uncomfortable truths.
The film does make efforts to underscore the often illogical nature of religious rituals through tongue-in-cheek imagery. (In a nod to Thakur's favourite earthly habit, visitors to the accident site are instructed to bring alcohol as an offering and the resulting shrine is truly bizarre: a brightly coloured bike festooned with garlands and surrounded by bottles of alcohol.) But what is the film really calling our attention to beyond the gullibility of humans in the thrall of a higher power?
“Once you travel to India you’ll find reality is far more absurd than my film,” Pareek says in his TIFF opening message. He’s right, and this is precisely why the film falls short. In a country rife with phony godmen and political leaders who exploit religion for their own ends, where blood is routinely spilled over ideological differences, the stakes of the film feel benign, almost quaint. With religious fanaticism on the rise in India, offering fertile ground for both serious critique and incisive lampooning, Dug Dug lacks the sharp bite that may have otherwise made it a satire for the ages.
Pahull Bains is a freelance culture writer and Vogue India Contributing Editor based in Toronto.