Vinay Lal

Commercial Hindi cinema, now commonly known throughout the world, India not excepted, as Bollywood has recently become a respectable subject of study.  That new-found interest has less to do with any changes intrinsic to mainstream cinema than with myriad other developments such as globalization, the affect for cosmopolitanism, and the increased consumption for artefacts of ‘world culture’.  Bollywood is, at any rate, increasingly being scrutinized for what it says about contemporary politics, corruption, public perception of the state and its agencies (such as the police), the “law and order” situation, the position of women in Indian society, and of course such social phenomena as the rise of the middle class, consumerism, social and sexual mores, the “Westernization” of Indian society, and the like.  As these brief notes indicate, one window into the position of women in Hindu society, and more broadly into Hinduism, on which there is much scholarly work in general but virtually none on its manifestations in popular cinema, is furnished by the popular Hindi-language cinema.  (Similar considerations may, perhaps, be entertained about films in Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati, and other Indian languages.)   It is also worth bearing in mind that though India has a significant population of Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, the films are generally about Hindu society, though not always self-consciously so.  Many commentators, for example, have noted the presence of the ‘good Muslim’ in these films, while deploring the fact that Muslim society has not received sustained treatment in more than a handful of films.  In a like vein, throughout the 1960s and 1970s the token presence of a Christian priest was quite common in Hindi films.  Often the unfortunate fugitive from justice would seek shelter in a church, welcomed by (an often unsuspecting) priest who would declare that Christ was ready to receive everyone.  But, again, Christian society has not been the subject of pronounced representation or inquiry in mainstream Hindi-language cinema.

Hagiographies and Mythologicals

One would have thought that scholars, viewing Hinduism and the Hindi film as joined in the womb, would have turned their attention to Hinduism in the Hindi film.  Suketu Mehta has written in Maximum City that “Hindi film music is like Hinduism.  All who come to invade it are themselves absorbed, digested, and regurgitated.  Nothing musical is alien to it”  (p. 373).  One logical if transparent place to initiate an inquiry into how Hinduism has been represented in mainstream cinema is the so-called mythologicals.  For several decades, until around the 1970s, hagiographies — such as the famous films on Tukaram (1936) and Dnyaneshwar/Jnaneshwar (1940) — and a genre known as ‘mythologicals’ were common in Hindi and regional cinemas.   The hagiographies generally dealt with the saints of the bhakti movement.  The very first film in Gujarati in 1932 was on Narasimha Mehta, the fifteenth-century saint whose immensely popular bhajan, ‘Vaishnav Jan To Teine Kahiye Je Peer Parai Jane Re’ (‘He only can be called a Vaishnava who feels the sufferings of others as his own’), was adopted by Mohandas Gandhi as the supreme statement of the selfless humanizing devotion which he brought to political action.  The film was released less than two year after Gandhi’s famous Salt March, during which Gandhi and his companions sang Narsi’s profoundly moving bhajan.  Even more so than Narsi Mehta, Mirabai, the most famous woman bhakta poet of North India, was to become the subject of various cinematic explorations, the first of which appeared in 1933.  The most memorable of those versions was perhaps the film “Meera” (1945), which introduced north Indin audiences to the Carnatic classical singer, M. S. Subhalakshmi, whose renditions of Meera bhajans have ever since mesmerized audiences and listeners.

Important as were the lives of the saints, it is the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas that would provide the principal fodder for the ‘mythological’. The film Subhadra (Hindi/1946) dramatized the disagreement between Krishna and his stepbrother Balarama over the marriage of their sister Subhadra. Shri Krishnavataram (Telugu/Tamil, 1967) recounted major episodes from Krishna’s life.   The list, one might say, is endless.  The Telugu actor N. T. Rama Rao made a career of playing the deity and from that vantage point launched into another career as a politician whose deification could have taught the gods a lesson or two.   He appeared as Krishna in no fewer than seventeen films, and, appropriately for someone from the Andhra country, even as the living deity of the wealthiest shrine in India, Tirupati.  It is said of him that he played the role of gods so often that his fans mistook him for one, a perception that NTR was in no haste to repudiate.  These mythologicals, though they no longer rule the roost, have by no means disappeared, as Suketu Mehta’s lively description of the making of a film about Shakumbhari Devi, one of the incarnations about Durga, so vividly suggests (see Maximum City, pp. 393-406).

Jai Santoshi Maa

Perhaps no film illustrates the power of mythologicals as much as the 1975 hit, Jai Santoshi Maa.  By no means a major goddess, Santoshi Ma was transformed, by virtue of the film, into a household name, acquiring a massive following among urban working-class women.   Santoshi Ma’s origins, according to some, are obscure.  Some people insist that she is a goddess of recent origins, having arisen sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s; but her own followers maintain, not surprisingly, that she has always existed.  Indeed, her devotees are not always inclined to distinguish Santoshi Ma from pan-Indian goddesses such as Durga, Lakshmi, and Parvati.  But the film tells offers its own account, which while it cannot easily be reconciled with the accounts of devotees nonetheless suggests why Santoshi Ma is viewed as eternal, as yet another manifestation of shakti.  The wives of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva put a woman called Satyavati, who is a fervent earthly devotee of the goddess Santoshi, to numerous tests.  Their intent is to make her life miserable so that her faith in Santoshi Ma falters. Though Satyavati is temporarily separated from her husband, tormented by her sisters-in-law, and nearly raped, Santoshi Ma invariably comes to her rescue. Satyavati’s faith in Santoshi Ma remains unbroken, and the goddess is accepted into the pantheon.

To understand why Jai Santoshi Maa occupies a significant place in the history of mainstream cinema, we may begin with the rather remarkable fact that some viewers turned the cinema hall where it was being screened into a temple.  There are reports of people leaving footwear outside when they walked into the cinema hall, and of others bowing when Santoshi Ma appeared on the screen.   This might be only one reason why critics or viewers attuned to a different aesthetic sensibility have sometimes expressed disdain for the film.  With its loud sets and rather primitive special effects, the film appears to exemplify the garishness of popular, devotional Hinduism.   The film also bridges the gap between humans and gods, and the insights of Ashis Nandy are particularly useful here:  as he has written, “Gods and Goddesses are born regularly in South Asia.  Often they invade our personal life or enter it as our guests . . . no wide chasm separates the gods and motivations of gods and that of the humans.” The world of the gods is not unlike that of humans.  They quarrel and experience sexual jealousy.  The film deliberately sets up an overt contrast between ‘High Hinduism’ and folk Hinduism:  Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswati are well-fed and lead opulent lives, but Santoshi Ma is content with offerings ofgur-chana (cane sugar & chickpeas), food consumed by the poor.  Jai Santoshi Maa opens up the possibility that goddesses as well as ordinary women inhabit what might be called an autonomous domain.  Gods and males play a relatively minor role in the film, and Satyavati herself accomplishes her integration into the family much as Santoshi fights with determination to win a place in the pantheon.   How feminists, who in general remain firmly convinced that the world of Hindi films is just as patriarchal as Indian society more generally, and who have not been sympathetic to the view that the presence of goddesses betokens something different in Indian society, would respond to Jai Santoshi Maa is not very clear.

Hindu Culture and Hindi Cinema

Mythologicals aside, the popular Hindi film furnishes insights into Hindu culture at nearly every turn. The film director Manmohan Desai (1936-94), noted for his blockbusters Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Coolie (1983), and Mard (1985), once stated in an interview that he thought of all his films as being based on the Mahabharata.  With its gargantuan length, the Mahabharata has certainly been hospitable to a vast array of theories, phenomena, and practices.   It is my submission that the Hindi film is firmly grounded in the mythic world of Hinduism.  Sometimes this is done quite subtly if explicitly, as in Shyam Benegal’s retelling of the Mahabharata story (Kalyug, ‘The Machine Age’, 1980), where two industrial families, the Puranchands and Khubchands, enter into a bitter feud.  Often the director makes not the slightest attempt to disguise the Puranic inspiration for his story.   Most cinema-goers, to take one example, would have recognized Hum Paanch [‘We Five’, Hindi/1980] as a film which derives its story from the Mahabharata.  The five Pandava brothers encounter evil in the form of the evil landlord Veer Pratap Singh (Duryodhana, the oldest of the Kauravas) and his sidekick Lala (Shakuni, the scheming uncle who leads the Kauravas to perdition).

Indeed, even films that seldom come to mind in thinking of Hinduism can easily be summoned as instances of Bollywood’s encounter with the Hindu world.  Let us take one small example.  In the immensely popular film, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (‘The Bravehearted Will Carry the Bride’, 1995), the heroine, Simran, undertakes the Karwa Chauth, a fast almost universally observed by married Hindu women in north India for the long life of their husbands.  She does so even though she is not married to her lover: somewhat like Mirabai, Simran already imagines herself as betrothed to him, rather than to the man chosen by her parents.  One might, of course, argue that the Karwa Chauth need not have any necessary relationship to what we call Hinduism, and that it has become another occasion in some situations for merry-making, for the assertion of sisterhood, and so on.  But it would be difficult to disassociate it from the specific sensibilities of Hinduism.

Copyright:  Vinay Lal, (American) Independence Day 2006.