God is a Box office Hit!
Imagining Indian films without the existence of God and religion seems impossible. The founding father of Indian Cinema, DG Phalke was inspired by the film The life and passion of Jesus Christ (1905). In fact, the films made by Phalke were no less than any religious congregation as people used to sit barefoot in cinemas and always saw it like a divine commandment being ordained through new media.
At the outset, Hindi Cinema started producing films that were heavily devotional or mythological. If Pundalik (1912) is believed to be the first Hindi film (though many would not agree), that also featured the life of a Sadhu Saint Pundalik.
Even before Films happened, Religion was propagated through poetry, painting, dance, and drama but they never got so much popularity as they did in cinema.
Mythological films depicted gods and goddesses as heroes and heroines mostly coming from the Sanskrit Puranas and epics. However, a majority of the films under mythology were made on Sants, Satis, and Bhaktas.
Initially majority of the Hindi films had Mythological or Devotional as the theme as that was the only genre which got any acceptance. Since Mahatma Gandhi was also of the opinion that Cinema is a sinful
technology, though he was pursued by many filmmakers to watch their films but he refused.
So for the act of purification, I believe, Cinema stuck to this genre as Indians would never question God in any form. Parallel to nationalist movements, The mythological films soon gained approval in the minds of many audience. However, between 1920s-60s, their number kept diminishing. It was only after the Independence that production of such movies went up but they dropped drastically during 70’s. One reason of their fall could be low aesthetics and lack of creativity.
According to Indian Cinematographer Committee 1927-28, Hindu films had only Hindu audience, and Muslims and other communities enjoyed foreign films or films which had imported Persian stories.
During 70’s there was a complete wipe out of this genre but still Jai Santosh Maa (1975) was a huge blockbuster, released in the same year as Sholay and Deewar, this mythological film which finds its root from a small mythical story of Uttar Pradesh made its presence felt once again.
Even after the demise of this genre, it becomes very difficult to detach films completely from the religious activities, there is a trend in many film producers who started their films with hymns and evocative chants. Films often open with religious images, motifs, or signs. Be it RK Films’ sequence where Prithviraj Kapoor is seen worshipping Shiva, or Mukta Arts’ use of Om and the recitation of Gayatri Mantra.
Till today, most of the filmmakers go for Mahurat (Auspicious time decided on the basis of religious rituals) of their film, where they start shooting with a traditional Puja so that nothing goes wrong.
When it comes to challenging flaws in religion, we have also seen some of the filmmakers experimenting with very sensitive issues and they have paid a huge price for it. Films like Fire (1996), Water (2005), Dharam, (2007) etc. were not only banned but harshly received by the Hindu right-wing activists who
consider these as blasphemous and sacrilegious.
Off late times are changing, films are questioning the sacred directly. At times it is criticised in the name of clergy and agencies, at times orthodoxy of religion is looked down upon but the idea of lord has not been completely debased. Recent films like Oh, my god (2012), Pk (2014), Dharam Sankat Mein (2015) have made a mockery of the societal religious practices which might have hurt some communities but have had a great impact on many. Be it in the devotion to God or rejecting his existence, God and religion have always been a super hit subject to make films upon. In fact, the idea of writing this article occurred to me after watching a nauseatingly absurd promo of MSG 2 (2015) which hit the theatres this week.
If Cinema as a form of expression criticises Godmen and Clerics candidly, they also hit back by banning their films openly. Therefore, we can safely assume that the relationship of cinema and religion is an everlasting one. Today I recall the famous quote of Cecil B. Demille, Director of The Ten Commandments (1923), who said that God is Box office Hit and for Hindi films, it seems to be absolutely true.
(Waqar Ahmed Fahad is a Doctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Communication Studies at
Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University. Views expressed are personal.)