12 December 2013

Religion and Indian Cinema

Since the early 1990s Indian society has undergone some of the greatest changes it has seen since Independence in 1947. Several key events at the beginning of the 1990s inaugurated the processes that occurred during the decade. These years saw the rise and fall of the political parties who support Hindutva or policies of Hindu nationalism, while economic reforms brought in a new age of consumerism and liberalism that has taken root across the Indian metropolises. While other major social transformations also took place during this decade, such as the rise of lower castes, this period can be said to be one in which a new social group, 'the new middle classes,' rose to dominate India economically, politically, socially and culturally. The impact of these new groups was felt outside of India as they were part of transnational family networks and the diaspora that became increasingly important as a market for Hindi films, alongside other global audiences.

This decade also saw a media revolution (satellite and cable television since 1991), a communications revolution (the mobile phone and the Internet) and new technologies (the audio cassette, the CD, the VCD and the DVD). The dynamics of the interaction of these new media with the film industry have been fast and there has barely been time to analyse them. Religious genres, which had been phenomenally popular as religious soaps on terrestrial television (notably Raymond Sagar's Ramayan and B.R. Chopra's Mahabharat), soon spread throughout the cable and satellite channels along with other religious programming (lectures, music programs), and now religious channels such as Astha and Sanskar grew in in popularity. Audio cassettes and CDs of religious music have continued to sell well, while VCDs and DVDs have allowed religious films to recirculate. Religious content has also flourished in other media, so the Internet now offers online pujas ('worship') as well as access to texts, religious history and so on, while even mobile phones offer SMS blessings and religious ringtones.

Much of this material in the new media is recycled from the religious films. It is impossible to predict where this is all going, and even the present situation remains unclear. One emerging trend is that the consumption of these new media is very different from that of cinema. Although cinema attendance in India has grown with new viewing trends such as the multiplex, the trend for mediated religion is away from an audience in a theatre hall towards a consumer in a domestic space. This must be viewed with caution as the work of Mankekar in Screening Culture, Viewing Politics (1999) on viewing the television Mahabharata suggests Indian viewing practices may be different and these new media may allow the creation of new audiences. This is true of other media as audio cassettes and CDs are played in taxis, autorickshaws and other public places, while VCDs are shown on television screens during festivals. These new technologies allow more rapid dissemination of religious content to the diaspora, and increasingly these groups are active as consumers and producers. Just as Islam has been affected by globalization, especially among the Muslim diaspora (Devji 2005, Roy 2004), one may expect to see the emergence of a new form of globalized Hinduism as the religioscape spreads through the world, linked by these new media. It remains to be seen what form this globalized Hinduism will take.

Although these new media may have initially been viewed as a threat to film (and the DVD seems to be a particular problem for piracy), they actually reinforce film, which remains more spectacular, has better technology and brings audiences together in pleasant surroundings, notably the new muliplexes in shopping malls. The changes in film technology, especially those of digitally produced special effects, have led to talk of a new film of the Mahabharata with superstars Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan playing Karan and Arjun (although it remains to be seen if the audience will accept Muslims, albeit superstars, in these roles).

Cinema is part of the wider project of modernization. It deals with material progress, sometimes with moral progress but it has deep ambiguities which are its strengths and which make its study so rewarding. In Film as Religion Lyden (2003) suggests that the very nature of film evokes the religious. I read this with the caution exercized by Asad in Formations of the Secular (2003), in particular his analysis of the proposition that nationalism is a form of religion, where he shows that this widely held view does not stand up to close scrutiny. While there is much that is religious in the nature of film itself, it does not necessarily constitute a religion. The differences between American cinema and religion and the Indian cinema and religion are such that great care should be taken in drawing parallels between the two. More research needs to be done into the pleasures of the religious aesthetic, of faith and of belief in a moral universe in India and in India cinema.

It may be that Indian cinema has specific traits that incline it more towards the religious than other cinemas. One must consider the aesthetics of Hindi cinema, such as its deployment of the miraculous, stars, darshan, tableaux, sets, song and dance, and the aesthetic of astonishment and its evocation of wonder and reverence. Of course it is not just the text itself, but the way the audience perceives it. One only has to think of how Gandhi came to be sen as a divine figure. While all film stars are different from mere mortals through the mechanisms of stardom, Hindi film stars are often perceived as gods by their fans, who may dedicate temples to them. Research has already shown the close associations in India of religion and performance, though this is yet to be analyzed in cinema. As Bharucha's work In the Name of the Secular (1998, p. 40) suggests: 'There is, I believe, an intensely private space in the believer's consciousness that is activated during prayer, worship, meditation or ecstasy.' Cinema creates a group identity for people who believe in the congregation (satsang) and its miraculous effects, and its 'aesthetic of astonishment' (to use the phrase employed by Tom Gunning in his chapter in Linda Williams' Viewing Positions) for an audience that believes in miracles and in stars as gods. Most people react to cinema as something ineffable: we know cinema, we feel cinema but we find it hard to analyze.
It is promising that the scholarly discipline of film studies is slowly beginning to engage seriously with religion. For some years the dominant paradigms were Freud and feminism, which undoubtedly were productive for engaging with melodrama with its study of the unconscious, dreams, desire, and fantasy. We still do not have a better language than this, and so we persist with it, despite our awareness of its limitations. Of course, for religious films, one has to be aware that psychoanalysis sets itself up as a new religion. The theories of postmodernism and the breakdown of grand narratives are not accepted by the majority, neither in the West nor in India. In Filming the Gods, most of the readings can be said to be meanings that are known to the audience and also based on the views of the filmmakers, critics and audiences, though for the first time they are historicized and contextualized rather than interpreted individually, and as a mistaken teleology.

These films, however cynical critics may be, do create religious sentiment in viewers and audiences and may contribute towards a hybrid Hinduism, whether they are taking it from the world around them or whether they are creating it themselves. The films' focus on the family, on the group, on the nation, on the transnational Indian community is all part of a search for a new morality and a new happiness. This raises the question of a Hindu imagination, for these films suggest that religion is more important than nationalism. As British Muslims now often prefer to define themselves as Muslims rather than as Pakistani or Indian, so perhaps a new Hindu imagination may be emerging where the British or North American person of Indian origin is no less Hindu than an Indian. This does not imply any necessary association with Hindutva or Hindu nationalism but with a form of popular belief that has not been redefined in these Semitic terms, nor in any form of systematic belief. If this is indeed a Hindu imagination, it needs to be defined, analysed and historicized.

[The foregoing is from Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema by Rachel Dwyer (Taylor and Francis Books, 2006). This version was extracted and slightly edited from the author's chapter in The Religion and Film Reader, edited by Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 137-40.]

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