On Gods and godmen in popular Hindi cinema

Popular cinema provides abounding social and cultural logic for engagement with religious ideas; the question is whether popular cinema has the space available for critical relations with gods and godmen

Updated - July 05, 2024 12:19 pm IST

Published - July 05, 2024 08:30 am IST

A mural of Bolllywood actor Amitabh Bachchan from his classic film Deewar in Mumbai in 2012

A mural of Bolllywood actor Amitabh Bachchan from his classic film Deewar in Mumbai in 2012 | Photo Credit: AFP

The month of June 2024 was rife with news about the recently-released Yash Raj film production, Maharaj, directed by Siddharth Malhotra. According to many critics it was another badly made film in spite of a power-packed performance by actor Jaideep Ahlawat. The film, however, grabbed our eyeballs for two reasons. One is that the film, based on a historical 1862 Maharaj libel case, was a criticism of blind faith. The protagonist Karshandas Mulji, played by the debutant Jaunaid Khan, is a social reformer and journalist who challenged the religious conservatism of the godman, Maharaj, played by Ahlawat. Secondly, the film courted legal and social controversy as a case of offence to religious sentiment was filed in the Gujarat High Court which eventually ruled in favour of the film.

India has been witness to many such cases against popular films dealing with issues related to the dominant religion, that is, Hinduism. One can quickly recall some of the films that met with such upheavals, for example PK (Raju Hirani, 2014) and OMG (Amit Rai, 2023). The cardinal question is whether popular cinema has the space available for humanistic and critical relations with gods and godmen.

Hindu mythology in cinema

Many scholars of cinema such as Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ravi Vasudevan, Aruna Vasudev, and Madhava Prasad have critically discussed the locus standi of early cinema in India. In the light of such discussion, there dawns an understanding that humanised relationships with gods and godmen is not new to cinema. Mythological tales were central to silent cinema. In the era of the the film maker Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (1817-1944), popularly known as Dadasaheb Phalke, there were films such as Satyavan Savitri (1914), Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra (1917), and Kaliya Mardan (1919). These films were not merely about devotional surrender but also about humans’ personalisation of religion and spirituality. The trend continued even after cinema got sound after the first talkie film Alam Ara (1931). Vijay Bhatt’s famous film Ram Rajya (1943) also had Mahatma Gandhi in the audience in spite of his reservations about the medium of cinema. Moreover, there were many films that offered criticism of dominant Hindu values. Franz Osten’s Achhut Kanya (1936) is always remembered as a historical milestone. The film ridiculed the godmen who were custodians of discriminatory Brahmanical values.

Chidananda Dasgupta, the film critic and historian, who was a co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society with the legendary film maker and Oscar awardee Satyajit Ray, had written about cinema’s tryst with mythological gods. Though more known for his translations of the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Manik Bandopadhyaya, and Jibananda Das, Dasgupta’s critical reading of early cinema is significant. In his book Seeing is Believing published by Penguin he made the romance between early popular Hindi cinema and Hindu mythology dramatically vivid. The stories of gods, goddesses, and monsters that Hindu believers had only heard in the oral tradition became available for visual-sensorial experiences in the first decade of modern cinema in India. Seeing gods alive on screen meant that they were available for a relationship with mortals. The earthy mortals were bound to apply their social and cultural logic in the newly forged relationship with the divine. Perceived through the prism of human emotions, gods and goddesses became available for friendly associations. In addition to evoking devotion and surrender, the gods also inspired humans to raise questions and put the divine through uncanny trials in these mythological films.

Thus Hindi cinema has consistently tried to free gods and spirituality from the clutches of godmen and dominant values even while restoring faith.

Critical engagement

A film scholar such as Rachel Dwyer has put many such films under the label of Hindi socials. Such films were not to be anti-religious, but they do tend to trigger a critical engagement with religious notions. Two examples from the past is worth recalling. One was a film directed by Kidar Nath Sharma based on a famous novel by the Hindi littérateur Bhagwati Charan Varma titled Chitralekha. The film by the same title was made twice by Sharma in 1941 and in 1964. The film is about a courtesan Chitralekha and the spiritual guru Kumargiri. The latter seeks to free a prince named Beejgupt from the enchantment of the courtesan. The 1941 version had Miss Mehtab playing the role of Chitralekha while Meena Kumari essayed the same role in the latter version. Another significant trivia about the 1941 version is that it met with objection from the Censor Board for a bathing scene of the actress Mehtab. There was however no controversy regarding the most crucial depiction, that is, the sexual downfall of the saintly spiritual guru, Kumargiri. The cinematic narrative unfolds a philosophical debate between the beautiful courtesan and a morally upright saint. Conceding defeat, the courtesan follows the footprints of the guru and joins the path of spiritual upliftment through penance. However, the guru falls for Chitralekha and realises the weakness of a dehumanising morality and other worldly spirituality.

The songs in both versions of Chitralekha presented a disarming criticism of dominant religious notions. In the 1941 version, the playback singer Ramdulari sang some of the most potent lyrics penned by Kidar Sharma, and composed by musician Jhande Khan who was trained in Indian classical music. The title of the song is self-explanatory, tum jao bade bhagwan bane (pretentious godliness, go away). Likewise, the 1964 version had innumerable songs penned by the legendary poet Sahir Ludhiyanvi sung by Lata Mangeshkar against the musical composition of Roshan. One of the songs derides the guru saying, sansar se bhage firte ho bhagwan ko tum kya paoge (what god will you find, for, you are on a run away from the world).

Another film seeking to liberate god and godliness from the clutches of godmen and societal dominance is I. S. Johar directed Nastik (1954). A commercially successful film, Nastik had a song sung by Kavi Pradeep to the tune of musician C. Ramachandran that summed up the temperament of the whole film. The song in the nasal voice of the singer can still be heard in the nooks and corners of India, which says dekh tere sansar ki halat kya ho bhagwan (see what your world has come to, God). The film was set against the backdrop of the violence of Partition in India revealing the depth of social fissures. The protagonist Anil turns to atheism and is a sworn enemy of the priest, the custodian of religious virtues. The film had an acrimonious relationship between the protagonist who is an anti-hero and god.

At last, seldom could one forget a gem of popular Hindi cinema directed by Yashraj Chopra in 1975, Deewar (The Wall). The quintessential angry young man named Vijay was essayed by Amitabh Bachchan. The film depicted the India of the 1970s which was rife with social and political frustration that enabled the character of Vijay to maintain an unusual relationship with god. He was an agnostic who had never entered a temple before except in the climax of the film. This is an iconic scene that is hitherto etched in collective memory. Upon his mother’s accident, Vijay enters the temple to deliver a critical monologue in front of the idol of lord Shiva. It is not blind faith which made a mortal character Vijay talk to Shiva. Both seemed to be in eternal dialogue with each other. In the relationship between Vijay and lord Shiva one got to see varied emotions such as anger, fear, contempt, and most importantly, love and devotion.

Suffice to say that popular cinema provides abounding social and cultural logic for engagement with religious ideas. With or without protests, such relationships and engagements shall thrive.

Dev Nath Pathak is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, South Asian University.

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