NEW DELHI – He claims to have 50 million followers and runs a spiritual empire that promotes vegetarianism and campaigns against drug addiction. But the self-styled God-man from the north Indian state of Haryana has another passion: Bollywood.
The leader of a quasi-religious sect — who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan — has launched a film franchise in which he stars as a Messenger of God, or MSG for short, with divine powers to save the world.
Critics say the films serve as propaganda for his followers, which Insan doesn't dispute. Speaking recently with reporters, the flamboyant spiritual guru said he was not trying to become a movie star but instead wanted to spread Indian culture along with his message of humanity to the masses.
"You will see in this film that our culture was so powerful that the technology that the aliens are bringing, it had already been used by our ancestors. That is why the scenes appear larger than life. We should also show India's greatness," said Insan, whose surname means "human" in Hindi and is adopted by all in his sect, which describes itself as a nonprofit spiritual and welfare organization.
With a guaranteed audience among his followers, Insan said he's had little trouble getting his films released commercially in cinemas. Two earlier films featured Insan as a gravity-defying superhero fighting drug addiction and gender issues.
In his third film, released last week and titled "MSG — The Warrior Lion Heart," Insan plays a secret agent armed with a twirled moustache and an assortment of swords to fight the aliens and UFOs.
"In my first two films, I appeared as a guru. In this film, I am playing a character," he said. "I play a warrior who is also India's top secret agent. If you see his background, he is a warrior who fights with aliens to save the honor of our mothers and sisters, and the honor of our Mother Earth."
Insan maintains complete control over his film productions. In the latest, he is credited in 30 categories of the film, including dialogue writer, choreographer, props, stunts, film editor and makeup artist.
He dismissed detractors who say his outlandish costumes and self-glorifying antics on screen run counter to his spiritual mission.
"I have researched the scriptures, the religious texts — there is no dress code given for holy men," Insan said. "Nowhere does it say that the saints have to wear anything specific. If your thoughts are pure, you can be one with God even in a trouser and shirt."
Associated Press videojournalist Manish Mehta in Mumbai contributed to this report.
Film trailer for "MSG — The Warrior Lion Heart:" https://youtu.be/2z_T5ZLD7AI