Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mythology in Hindi films

When Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, now better known as Dadasaheb Phalke (1890-1944), the father of Indian cinema, made his and India’s first silent feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), he thereby introduced the genre of mythological cinema in our country. Having been inspired by the English movie, The Life of Christ, which he keenly watched, he decided to bring to the silver screen Indian gods and goddesses and the stories associated with them.

Mythology has been a popular source of entertainment and instruction for Indian masses for millennia as besides the Ramlila and the Krishnalila which have been enacted year after year are numerous religious functions, festivals and rituals rooted in mythology. This keeps the interest of people in mythology interminably alive so that even today many films and teleserials continue to be based on it.

Drama incorporating interesting episodes has repeatedly been drawn from not only great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Puranas, but also world’s other literature including the popular Arabic and Persian classics, which too embody magic, supernatural elements or miracles and instances of divine intervention.

The cardinal premise of all such stories, which promote virtuous conduct, has been the triumph of good over evil.

The multi-talented Phalke, who was an artist, architect, photographer, playwright, printer and magician, followed his above mentioned first film with more mythological silent movies like Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1919), Kalia Mardan (1922) and Bhakta Prahlad (1926) and the only talkie, Gangavataran (1937).

All these movies were replete with awesome spectacular and magical scenes supported by impressive special effects, which Phalke created successfully and which tickled the fancy of his audiences and readily won their enthusiastic approbation.

Following Phalke’s example many other Indian film producing companies also came up with a host of more mythological movies, sourced from the epics, as also many devotional films predicated on the lives of certain God-realised saints. Such movies also depicted surprising preternatural and magical elements-in both the eras of the silent movies and the talkies. Films like Hatim Tai, Sindabad the Sailor, Alladin’s Lamp and Thief of Baghdad too were made showing flying carpets, ‘Sulemani topis’ or vanishing caps, by wearing which a person became invisible and other magical innovations.

Outstanding Hollywood filmmakers who acted as role models for Indian producers and directors too had a tradition of creating films based on epics and Biblical themes right from the start of cinema. They even remade several landmark movies in the 1950s and the 1960s when their guiding axiom was that ‘’A good epic never dies, it just gets remade’’.

In India also many of our successful mythologicals were remade several times. The most popular teleserials- Ramanand Sagar’s 74- episode Ramayana and B R Chopra’s 94-episode Mahabharata, both of which retold anew the stories contained in the eponymous epics and which millions of people watched irresistibly in the late 1980s, are sterling examples of this trend.

In the 1940s when Hindi cinema was at its peak, films depicting with finesse certain episodes from the Ramayana were made. Vijay Bhatt’s Bharat Milap (1942) and Ram Rajya (1943), in both of which Prem Adib and Shobhana Samarth (Kajol’s maternal grandmother) featured as Ram and Sita, were great hits of this type.

In Ram Rajya a group of people celebrating Rama’s return to Ayodhya sing the chorus, ‘’Aaya Ram Rajya’’ with a veiled allusion tol ‘Ram Rajya’’, the term used by Gandhiji for re-establishment of a rightful rule. Incidentally, this was the only film a good part of which Gandhiji saw when he was convalescing in 1945.

Some of the other milestone mythological movies turned out by the Hindi cinema in its nearly a century long journey were Seeta (1934), Gopal Krishna (1938), Sampoorna Ramayan (1961), Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) and Har Har Mahadev (1983). In many mythologicals the former wrestler and muscleman, Dara Singh played the role of Hanuman to the amusement particularly of children as an entertaining and comically inclined superhero. The late character actor, Jeevan too appeared in a large number of films as a ‘’Narayan, Narayan’- chanting Devrishi Narad, who would appear suddenly on a scene and equally speedily disappear.
Miracles extended to films of some other genres such as Tansen (1943), a historical-musical in which leaves sprout and flowers blossom on plants in a garden as Tansen (K L Saigal) sings raga Bahar and again musical instruments in Akbar’s court start playing by themselves as the legendary singer renders a dhrupad. In Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977) two beams of light travel from the eyes of the statue of Sai Baba in the Shirdi Temple to the blinded eyes of a woman (played by Nirupa Rai) and instantly restore her vision.

Audiences anticipate and accept miraculous happenings like restoration of good health of someone terminally ill or return of vision in sightless eyes like in the example cited above. They also wish the virtuous protagonist to receive divine help in a tortuous situation and feel relaved when this actually happens.
The long - prevalent belief of various communities in our country has been that a man’s fate is predetermined by some inscrutable law of the supreme power or God who has created and is running this universe.

The Hindus and followers of other faiths of Indian origin believe in rebirth, and the casting of destiny on the basis of a man’s Karma or good and bad actions done in his previous life or lives. In his new incarnation he is again supposed to be granted some freedom and discretion to act and thereby get either credit or discredit added to his past account, as it were.

Miracles happen and prayers are answered in cinema as in life. Recall the case of Babar, who prayerfully offered to surrender his own life in exchange for his critically ill son, Humayun’s good health.

The scheme, by which such things actually take place, is ineffable and defies analysis. It is, however, generally believed that the all-merciful God relents in exceptional circumstances and bestows a grace or concession on the deserving affected or afflicted person.

While some persons may interpret this by the logic of cause and effect, the believers will devoutly regard it as a gracious grant of a divine boon