On 16 September 2015, IFFCO Chowk in Gurgaon hosted the largest film premiere the world had ever seen. Close to 200,000 people from all over Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan were in attendance to watch the first screening of MSG 2: The Messenger.
Baraat bands and spontaneous outbreaks of bhangra-dancing offered entertainment as the crowds waited for the main event to begin. The men were sat on the right and the women to the left, with a red carpet running through the middle to the stage.
Their hero and leader arrived at the appointed time. The crowds instantly went wild, waving and calling out to him, dancing and jumping hysterically.
Later, at a comparatively sombre press conference, a journalist asked him, “Sir, what is the inspiration behind your song 'Love Charger'?”
The man at the center of all the attention was Gurmeet Ram Raheem Singh Insan, the controversial leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda religious cult. Insan, meaning human, is a last name that all members of the cult adopt after forsaking their caste names. The Dera owes much of its popularity to its opposition to caste and drugs.
“Nowadays all the songs are about drugs and alcohol,” Singh responded, with a smile on his face. “My children tell me that there’s a song — 'Aunty will call the police but the party will go on'. What kind of songs are these? My songs like 'Love Charger' are about love.”
“Sir, your fashion sense is very nice. How did you start designing clothes?” asked another journalist.
This time, Singh blushed. This was evidently a line of questioning he enjoyed.
“I did it once and my children said it was very good,” he said pointing to his three daughters, son, and grandchildren in the audience. “People told me I should continue designing clothes. They say that the youth likes them.”
The audience, watching the press conference on a massive screen outside, instantly broke out in cheers of joy to confirm that they did indeed like them. Singh’s own children clapped and laughed.
The family’s uniformed maidservants, sadhvis of the Dera Sacha Sauda clad in brown kurtas and veils, were babysitting Singh’s grandchildren. They looked on unsmilingly.
Two years after the film premiere, Singh has been convicted of raping two such sadhvis. In the run-up to the conviction, over one lakh Dera followers — well-accustomed to being mobilized in massive numbers for film premieres — collected outside the CBI court in Panchkula. Men and women stood separately.
Once the verdict was announced, it took minutes to organise. The Dera men formed human chains surrounding the women and children. Then the arson and rioting began.
With the Haryana Police unable to contain the violence, the army was called in. But it was already too late. The mayhem had spread to multiple cities across four states, leaving 38 people dead, over 300 injured, and public and property worth crores damaged or destroyed.
Gurmeet Singh's first film, MSG: The Messenger, begins with an ominous scene.
"Every lane and alley in Pakistan has a drug addict. But in India, there are very few addicts!” laments a member of the "Global Drug Mafia" clad in a skull cap. “Why aren’t Indians becoming addicts? What is the problem?”
An Indian delegate responds, "It is because a Guru is helping lakhs of Indians give up nasha [intoxicating substances]. It has become very difficult to get people addicted to nasha now. This Guru has changed everything."
"Then kill the Guru," the Pakistani mafioso says.
“What? Are you mad?” cries the Indian. “Killing Guruji is the equivalent of inviting the wrath of all of India! Don't you know that?”
Despite the warnings, the "Drug Mafia" decides to try to kill Guruji anyway. A corrupt Indian minister by the name of "Chillum" Khurana is assigned the task of taking out the Dera chief.
This is a significant moment in the film. By design, it is intended to introduce the concept of a faceless, powerful Drug Mafia. A concept the Dera chief has used to defend himself.
Gurmeet Singh has claimed in interviews that the allegations against him are a conspiracy hatched by a vague, unnamed “drug mafia”.
“I have received threatening letters telling me not to talk about drugs and addiction at my Dera meetings. The letters said ‘From the drug mafia’ at the bottom; but I still talked about addiction. I am not afraid. I am obviously an inconvenience to the drug mafia and this [the rape charges] is their conspiracy.”
That the drug mafia should write anonymous letters that are literally signed “Drug Mafia” is quite suspicious. But for the followers of the Dera, it is convincing because the film blurs the lines between reel and real by subtly combining the lived experiences of the audience with clever propaganda.
In MSG: The Messenger, an assassination attempt is made on the Dera chief at a Gul Stick event. For the uninitiated, Gul Stick is one of two sports that Singh claims to have invented. Both are familiar to Dera followers who regularly participate in such events.
In another instance, another assassination attempt takes place at an event called Ruhani Jaam, where lakhs of people vow to give up drugs, smoking, and alcohol. This event is reminiscent of a real-life Dera spectacle called Ruhani Jaam, during which Dera followers drink Rooh Afza and are told they will be cured of third-stage cancer and AIDS, among other diseases and addictions.
All the assassination attempts in the film — and there are many — take place at parties, satsangs, blood donation camps, and tree-planting camps that are celluloid recreations of events Dera members take part in regularly. And it’s not just the backdrops: Even the extras in MSG 2 — about 13 lakhs in all — are real-life Dera members, according to the film’s director Jeetu Arora.
When the cast, the sets, the adoration of fans, and the satsangs are real, it becomes tempting to presume the politics of the film are too. That the Dera and is indeed endangered by a corrupt system that seeks to destroy it. That the State is in cahoots with the Drug Mafia. And the two together intend to kill their Dera chief.
In this universe of his creation, Gurmeet Singh has positioned himself as an alternative to drugs and caste. But with his largesse of colour and EDM bhajans, he is an alternative also to Honey Singh, DJ Badshah, and Bollywood.
It is a heady cocktail of real and imagined. The stunts, glimmering costumes, and strobe lights are red herrings, designed to distract the audience from the astute politicking at play.
The movie plots make it easy to believe that the allegations against the Dera chief are a conspiracy to malign him. They help cultivate among his followers a deep distrust for the state. And a belief that, in a system that is heavily loaded against them, only Guruji — if he survives — keeps his followers from that abyss.
The chief of a Dera that attracts the vulnerable — the drug addicts, the ailing, and the lower castes — then uses propaganda to keep them feeling vulnerable. Vulnerable enough to ignore his crimes, vulnerable enough to start a riot for him.
In 2001, a case was filed against the Dera chief for the murder of a journalist who had been investigating the Dera. A year later, in 2002, a Dera sadhvi wrote a letter to prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, alleging that she, among others, had been raped by Gurmeet Singh.
Five years later, in 2007, the Dera chief’s former henchman was caught on camera admitting that the allegations of rape were true. He also stated that Gurmeet Singh was responsible for several other instances of murder and the castration of 400 Dera followers.
Gurmeet Singh was able to explain away much of this with his Drug Mafia conspiracy theories.
But the real public relations nightmare came in 2011, from Vishwas Gupta, the husband of Gurmeet Singh’s adopted daughter Honeypreet Singh. Gupta alleged that his wife was being sexually exploited by the Dera chief. He approached the Punjab and Haryana HC to seek custody of his wife, who was living at the Dera. Honeypreet responded by slapping Gupta and his parents with charges of dowry harassment.
An out-of-court settlement was reached, and Honeypreet continued living within the Dera. But damaging questions had already been raised about Honeypreet Singh’s relationship with the Dera chief.
Once again, Gurmeet Singh responded to raised eyebrows with cinematic propaganda.
MSG: The Messenger dramatically expounded the virtues of adopting adult daughters. Within the film the Dera chief has not one but three adopted daughters. A former prostitute, Kasam is the most loyal of the messenger’s three daughters for she is most grateful for being rescued. Like Honeypreet, Kasam continues to live within the Dera even after she is married. Kasam’s relationship with Gurmeet Singh is shown in the film to be the most pure, and the most sincere. Her character — a pointed nod to Honeypreet — seeks desperately to legitimise their relationship.
In subsequent films, Honeypreet became codirector and coactor. Earlier this year, the self-styled "Father Daughter Duo" launched a comedy show on YouTube called The Laughter Show. In it, Gurmeet Singh plays a fictitious son of his own — Sghaint Singh Siddhu. Honeypreet plays Sghaint’s sister.
The father-daughter duo play siblings who chill at university canteens and go on road trips together. They host talk shows with Dera followers as their live studio audience. While Sghaint makes self-deprecating jokes and asks if parathas can come out of smartphones, Honeypreet appears in a more self-aware, intelligent avatar. She is worldly-wise; he plays the fool.
For a leader who intimately understands the power of image and propaganda, the onscreen dynamic between Honeypreet and Gurmeet is telling. It is an unequivocal projection of Honeypreet as an equal and a partner. It is also, perhaps, an indication that as Gurmeet Singh begins his 20-year jail sentence, the baton of Dera chief has already been passed.