Friday, September 25, 2020

Seeing is believing? An essay about encounters with religious cinema

[Last year I wrote an essay for the “India and Europe” issue of the Swedish journal Ord&Bild, as part of my fortnight-long writing residency in Stromstad. The piece is a personal one about my experiences with religious/spiritual cinema, both Indian and European, over the decades, and how this intersected with a personality conflict with my grandmother. It also touches on such real-world events as the milk-drinking Ganesha statues of 1995 (this month marks the 25th anniversary of that “miracle”) and the Babri Masjid demolition. 

While the translated version of the piece was published in Ord&Bild, here is the original. Note that it was written primarily for a non-Indian readership, hence some over-explanation]




In one of the most successful Hindi films of the late 1970s, Amar Akbar Anthony, a blind old woman, on the run from villains, is drawn towards a devotional song being performed in a shrine dedicated to the 19th century saint Shirdi Sai Baba. The loss of this woman’s eyesight, early in this story, is just one in a line of tragedies that has beset her in strange succession (the others include tuberculosis and a traumatic separation from her husband and her three little sons), but now things are going to take a rather brighter turn. When she strikes her head on the hard floor of the temple, the Sai Baba statue decides enough is enough. As the song (sung, though she doesn’t yet know it, by her youngest son) reaches its crescendo, two glowing lights emerge from the statue, enter her eyes and restore her sight. 


Blind faith, this scene proposes, can make you see. Not through a glass darkly – to evoke the title of a famous Ingmar Bergman film about faith and despair – but with absolute clarity.


In another major Hindi film, Deewaar, made two years earlier, the same actress, Nirupa Roy – a specialist at playing suffering mothers – lies in hospital perilously near death. Meanwhile her embittered son Vijay (played by the country’s then biggest star Amitabh Bachchan), though an unbeliever, has entered a temple for the first time in decades to perform a monologue that combines prayer with condemnation. “Punish me,” he rages at a statue of the god Shiva, “but don’t punish my mother for my sins.” A swell of music and a forward tracking shot combine to make the statue seem animated and responsive (though this is still less dramatic than the lightning flashes and canted camera angles of many other similar films) – and cut to Ma recovering in her hospital bed.


There are other exciting sideshows in these scenes: for instance, the villains pursuing the blind woman in Amar Akbar Anthony are stopped at the shrine’s entrance by a serpent, clearly a divine emissary. This film in particular has everything one could hope for from a “masala” Hindi movie of the time, including tonal disunities – the narrative jumps from heavy drama to light comedy to songs to action sequences – as well as leaps of logic and heaps of melodrama. It’s the sort of film that those who insist on art being grounded and understated – and that most overused and misused of words, “realistic” – tend to view as unintentionally funny.


And yet, as a reminder that even the most hyper-dramatic Hindi films can simply be mirrors to the hyper-drama of everyday Indian lives, here is a real-life memory of the carnival surrounding another “miraculous” statue.


In September 1995, the elephant-headed God Ganesha apparently began drinking milk in temples across Delhi and elsewhere in India. It made lots of news: the devout and the sceptical thronged temples, each emerging with their own interpretation of events. The main one proposed by those in the rational camp, including scientists, was that this was a marriage of mass delusion, surface tension (in the material that made the statues) and capillary action: the milk wasn’t being drunk by the deity as spoons were placed below his proboscis, but was simply accumulating on the floor. If one cared to look closely. Which (a few of them added, sotto-voce) is something that religious people rarely do.


Naturally, the faithful had a different view of these events.


I was in college at the time, and despite all the excitement around me, with groups of classmates heading off together to temples, I felt no interest in investigating these wondrous events – not even idle curiosity. A non-believer, especially averse to performative religion, I didn’t fancy being in a crowded temple at a time like this. And I had a blasé, perhaps nihilistic take: it wasn’t so much that I had decided for certain that this could be no miracle; my attitude was, let’s say it really had happened, but so what? What did it amount to apart from a few minutes of gimmickry? Would it make the world a better place? Would people everywhere, chastened by this evidence of God’s presence and power, suddenly stop doing bad things? I was sure none of that was on the cards; ergo, I shrugged my shoulders and chose not to think about it.


Returning home, I found exactly the sight I had anticipated. My mother and maternal grandmother, my nani, had visited the neighbourhood temple: mum was mildly taken aback by what she had seen, but open to the possibility of a non-supernatural explanation; nani, on the other hand, always a true believer and a steadfast Hindu, was thrusting her hands to the heavens and alternating worshipful sounds with much weeping and blubbering.


This is a terrible thing to say about someone who loved me dearly, and to whom my divorced mother and I owed so much, but in that moment I felt a visceral dislike, bordering on contempt, for my grandmother. Nor was it the first or last time. I had felt similarly three years earlier when, watching a live telecast of the demolition of the Babri Masjid (the medieval mosque demolished by fundamentalist Hindus with the encouragement of a leading political party), she had whooped like a football fan whose favourite team has just gone up 3-0 at halftime. (Nani had her justifications for her dislike of Muslims: she and her family, who had lived through India’s independence and Partition, and the tragic communal riots of 1947, were full of stories about the violence visited on their friends and acquaintances; the sorts of stories that each community has about the Vicious Other, stories that have allowed mutual resentment to simmer for decades and percolate down the generations. But the baggage she carried was not mine. And being influenced by my more open-minded mother, who was sad about the demolition, I knew – even at a time when I wasn’t close to being “political” – what my stand was.)


I had felt a milder version of this dislike for my nani all through childhood, affecting even more mundane, everyday occasions. There was a strong personality divide between us. I was a shy and nervous child, needing a lot of personal space; nani was boisterous, demonstrative, bullying (even if this came from concern and good intentions) – sticking her head into my room and trying to small-talk just when I had immersed myself into a book; treating introversion as a disease to be swiftly cured.


But one of the biggest facets of this personality clash was manifest in her religiosity and the chest-thumping ways in which she expressed it. I cringed when she proudly described me as a “Shiva bhakt” (worshipper of Shiva) to a visiting friend. I was an avid reader of the mythological stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics, and Shiva always seemed one of the uber-cool deities, sitting up there on his mountain with the river Ganga flowing through his long hair, a snake around his neck, smeared with ash, surrounded by grotesque minions, capable of destroying the universe by opening his Third Eye or performing the grand Nataraja dance. I saw him as a comic-book superhero, as a superbly realised fictional character. To have that perspective appropriated by my grandmother and turned into a simple statement of God-worship was very upsetting, and it gave me even more reason to distrust her faith.


And this in turn added – in ways that I can’t fully articulate or even understand – to my increasing wariness about mainstream Hindi cinema. Much as I had loved films like Amar Akbar Anthony and Deewaar as a child, the overwrought temple scenes became too closely linked, in my head, to the crassness with which my nani celebrated every idea about Hindu supremacy. I should mention that these films themselves – in terms of their content – were not to blame: they were conscientiously secular, calling for equality and comradeship between Hindus, Muslims and those following the other religions that made up a unified vision of India. Though popular Indian cinema is often sweepingly dismissed as “regressive”, a case can be made that the idea of India propagated in countless such films was more progressive and idealistic than what was happening in the much more polarised and conflicted real world. Events in present-day India, where the buried resentments of the Hindu community are being stoked by a fundamentalist ruling party, only seem to confirm this.


Hindi cinema is another form of religion for those who have grown up with it and been passionate about it; as I reached my teens, I was becoming agnostic in this sense too, having become jaded by watching too much of this type of film throughout my childhood. I was ready to begin exploring new forms. It may also have been a sort of mutiny against my grandmother, this moving towards foreign films that she wouldn’t be interested in or understand, or even be able to decipher the accents in which these funny firangs (foreigners) spoke to each other. Living in a flat that had been bought for my divorced mother and me by the woman I had such ambivalent feelings about, watching such films – in my room, on my own video-player with the door locked – was the closest I could come to rebelling.


Of the new cinematic idioms I discovered, a dominant one was the Hollywood film of the 1930s and 1940s (a period I still cherish), but there were also European films covering many decades: British, French, Swedish, Danish, Spanish and Italian films; the works of Godard and Bunuel and Bergman and many others. Accessing such treasures was often hard work for a Delhi native in the early 1990s, but I made frequent trips to the city’s embassies and rented videocassettes from their libraries. And very often, I found that the reserved, subdued forms of expression in these films chimed with my personality (or what I thought was my personality).


I don’t want to make a facile comparison that goes: Hindi cinema = loud melodrama; European cinema = understated realism. It’s much more complex than that: each of these forms has many modes of expression, and cultures and behaviours around the world are far from homogenous. (An Indian film that depicted the melodramatic behaviour of someone like my grandmother – or many other similar people I knew – could be realistic and truthful; but many viewers, even Indian viewers who know this culture well, might instinctively denounce it as over the top. And much of European cinema – some Italian genres, for example – is loud, goofy or hyper-dramatic in ways that are comparable to the mainstream Hindi film.) But for a young Indian who had grown up mainly watching the commercial Hindi movie – descended from our colourful and episodic local theatre forms – much of the “world cinema” I now encountered felt like exercises in coolness and restraint. Being emotionally undemonstrative myself, I was struck by how there wasn’t a need to talk all the time, how silences in cinema could be meaningful.


And I found myself intrigued by films that depicted religion and spirituality in ways other than the showy ways I had known. The first encounters include the early scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal where the sad, tired knight, played by Max von Sydow, enters a small church. He glances at the crucifix; we get a close-up of Christ on the cross; and I am shaken: this was a tormented, depressed, emaciated-looking Jesus, so different from the beatific versions placed above the blackboards in the classrooms I had studied in, at a convent school in Delhi. And the scene itself was so intimate, so interior… and so hopeless. I don’t know if I consciously compared von Sydow looking at this Saviour (who seemed in no condition to do any saving) with Bachchan raging at the Shiva statue in the mandir and having his prayer answered, but that comparison hits me now. And I see why, at a certain age, as a youngster who didn’t believe in God (or at least not in a God who was compassionate or concerned with human affairs), this bleak image from The Seventh Seal was more appealing to me – felt more mature and profound – than the demonstrations of blind faith (and its immediate rewards) in dozens of Hindi films.


Long before I knew that spiritual emptiness and the absence of faith were key themes of Bergman's cinema, there was an intuitive sense that here was a very different idiom from the God-devotee relationship in Hindi films. Perhaps my subconscious was also making other comparisons: between the subtlety of the Dance of Death in the film’s final shot (the camera watching from a safe distance as the Grim Reaper leads his new acquisitions to the Hereafter) and the flamboyance of Shiva’s Nataraja dance in Amar Chitra Katha comics or mythological Hindi films.


Or take the work of the great Carl Dreyer, including the 1954 Ordet, with its depiction of a young woman rising from the dead – apparently through the power of faith; or could there be a more rational explanation? Two decades earlier, Dreyer had made Vampyr, one of many films that intriguingly link horror and religion – and a few years before that the superb silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, a harrowing depiction of Joan of Arc’s trial. This isn’t a story about the heroine who led French troops to war, God firmly by her side every step of the way; it’s about a frightened, lonely, even confused young girl being questioned and cross-questioned by a group of tyrannical inquisitors. The haunted, faraway expression on the face of the protagonist (played by Maria Falconetti) could represent the unwavering conviction of a girl who has experienced divinity first-hand – but it could just as easily be the face of someone who is no longer sure of anything.


Years later, watching these films again, I realised that some of them were not as restrained as I had imagined. They had a subdued aesthetic, of course, but the behaviour of the conflicted characters was often highly expressive. There is great passion (religious pun unintended) and theatricality in the childlike mood swings of Harriet Andersson’s character Karin in Through a Glass Darkly, or the neurotic Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) in The Silence. And there is the unforgettable scene in The Seventh Seal where von Sydow’s face crumbles in pain as he watches a young “witch” being burnt on the cross, and his squire (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) stands behind him, first whispering and then shouting into his ear – like the ghost Betaal hissing at King Vikram in stories from Indian folklore – that the poor dying girl doesn’t see God or salvation, all she sees is emptiness. On the other hand, the consistently spare and restrained films like Winter Light (one of my favourites) have shrieks of despair or hysteria implied in their very silences, even when the camera barely moves and no one says anything – the shot where a pastor (Björnstrand again) stands near a river, looking down at the dead body of a man (von Sydow again!) who has been driven to suicide by the pastor’s inability to be consoling, is placid on the surface, but full of unexpressed inner turmoil.


When I watched Hollywood epics such as Ben Hur, King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, which were straight, often worshipful tellings of Biblical stories, I could link them with the mythological sub-genre in Hindi cinema – depictions of Gods, asuras (demons) and apsaras (celestial dancers) in movie versions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the many other religious stories. But watching some of the major European films, I saw a more detached relationship with religion and worship. Take the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, with his irreverent depiction of Christ in The Milky Way, or his ironic use of a Last Supper-like tableau in Viridiana. Or the over-the-top, scatological comedy of Monty Python in Life of Brian.


Other European films had a relatively benevolent, respectful if still ambiguous, view of faith. In the climax of one of my all-time favourites, the 1944 A Canterbury Tale, made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and set in a small English town during wartime, a traditionalist named Colpeper and a sceptic named Peter are having an argument. Though they maintain a veneer of civility, the dialogue becomes intense and edgy. The train pulls into their destination station – Canterbury, where pilgrims go for benediction – and in a final sarcastic response to one of Colpeper’s observations, Peter says, “I’ll believe that when I see a halo around my head.” At this precise moment, the sunlight coming in through the carriage window creates an ethereal glow behind and around his face. Two of the basic components of film – light and time – are used to create a mystical effect. The moment lasts just a second (and it is a singularly cinematic effect, impossible to capture in writing as I am trying to do here), but that’s more than enough. A short while after this, in the film’s great closing sequence, Peter experiences a small “miracle” too – getting the opportunity to play a church organ, a long-cherished dream.


The soul-searching in these films was miles removed from the depictions of religious faith in the Indian cinema I grew up watching – though this may be the time for a reminder that Indian cinema is a lot more than mainstream Hindi cinema. To take the obvious example of an Indian filmmaker whose style and approach Western critics could relate to: the Bengali master Satyajit Ray, a rationalist who took a more detached, anthropological view of religion than that of most mainstream Indian filmmakers.


In his 1960 film Devi (Goddess), Ray offered his most scathing denunciation of how common-sense humanity can be suppressed by religious fervour. The story has a pious old man coming to believe – after a dream – that his young daughter-in-law is the goddess Kali incarnate – this creates a situation where the girl is closeted off from the rest of the house, turned into an object of veneration to be brought out for public display when devotees come asking for blessings and miracles. Bowing under this weight, the reluctant “goddess” Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) comes to look as scared and tired as Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. In its portrayal of the control exercised by religious authority and by elderly men in patriarchal societies, Devi also reminds me of Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, in which a young woman in 17th century Denmark is accused of being a witch and eventually comes to believe it herself.


By the time I watched Devi, I had certainly experienced enough of religious rituals to be able to share in Ray’s revulsion for them. In 2009, my nani – whom I had never been able to show affection to in the way she might have liked – passed away, and her cremation provided one of my worst experiences with the ugly, demanding side of organised religion. I had to conduct the funeral rites, the first time I had ever played so central a role in something like this, and it was only on the repeated prompting of older, more experienced family members that I realised what the meaningful glances and pauses of the pandits (priests) at each small step of the process meant: that I had to hand some money over to the individual concerned. (Though it was always passed off as an offering to God, it would invariably be pocketed and tucked out of sight, even as the “holy man” in question was robotically reciting hymns; this happened even with the currency notes that everyone had been asked to place at the feet of the dead body.)


Having watched nani’s painful deterioration over two years as cancer spread through her body (and having myself become a little surer and more confident of my place in the world, less prone to feeling bullied by extroverts), I was finally in a position to pity her, to regret that our relationship hadn’t been healthier, and to dwell on the part that my own stubbornness and ingratitude had played in this. But now, in a situation where I would have liked to reflect on what had been good and affirmative about my time with her, things were tainted by the rituals and sideshows of the religion she had loved so much.




And yet, despite this accumulated negativity towards religion, when I did eventually return to the fold of Hindi cinema – watching old films through new eyes and new spheres of experience – much that had once seemed embarrassing or risible now began to make sense. For instance, I realised I still had an appetite for the song sequence: I was capable of being emotionally stirred by religious songs like the one that accompanied the Sai Baba miracle in Amar Akbar Anthony, or the much later “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” from a film I didn’t much like, the 2008 Jodha Akbar, or “Bhagwan, Kahaan re Tu” from the 2014 PK.


In the Hindi cinema I had grown up watching, the definition of “nastik” (atheist) was always hazy, and one that had felt like a copout. It never quite meant unbelief: that didn’t even seem an option. It was more a case of “bhagwaan se katti hoon”, which can be loosely translated as “I am not on speaking terms with God” – “katti” being a word we often used as children to indicate that we had fought with a friend. Essentially, what Bachchan was saying when he refused to enter a temple in the early scenes in Deewaar was not “I don’t believe in God’s existence”. It was: “I’m miffed with God because He allowed bad things to happen to my family.” Early in another Bachchan-starrer Nastik (Atheist), the child version of the protagonist Shankar sulks and tells an idol “Aaj se mera-tera koi vaasta nahin.” (“From now, we have nothing to do with each other.”) But in the film’s climax, when God (or rather the gleaming, jewellery-studded statue that represents Him) shows belated willingness to help (the villain is impaled on the idol’s trident during a fight scene), “katti” is suspended and it’s back to clanging the temple bells.


Around the time when I was growing weary of Hindi films, these tropes had felt formulaic and manipulative. Perhaps, in some objective sense, they are. But when I revisited those films, I found myself appreciating them in the same way that I have always enjoyed the countless intersecting stories that make up Hindu mythology – especially the stories around the most “natkhat” (mischievous) of Gods, the Vishnu incarnation Krishna. I saw them as variants on the Hindu theme of playfulness or leela, built around a friendship between God and worshipper. If you can get angry with God in the way one gets angry with a perfidious friend, it implies an informal, affectionate relationship – and perhaps this was the way to read all those apparently maudlin scenes where an old widow speaks with the idols in her house temple, or a hero bargains with God for his family’s well-being.


It helped me make sense of much that I had rarely thought about earlier. In one of the most famous Hindi films ever made, the 1975 blockbuster Sholay – about two small-time crooks helping a village to get rid of dacoits – the garrulous Basanti (Hema Malini) goes to the nearby temple to have a candid chat with a Shiva statue. My hands have become rough driving a tanga (horse-driven cart), she tells him. Please find me a nice well-off boy whom I can get married to. Unbeknownst to her, the film’s hero Veeru (Dharmendra), who has been trying to woo her, is standing behind the statue using a can to generate a booming God-voice; he speaks to her, pretending to be Shiva, and pleads his own case. Initially surprised by this “chamatkaar” (miracle), Basanti quickly takes it in her stride – while also expressing reservations about the God’s choice of groom for her. Take another week if you need it, she tells him, and see if you can find someone else. I’m not in such a hurry.


The scene is a beautifully performed bit of light comedy, but it also makes a point about the familiar, bantering way in which the God-devotee relationship works in the moderate Hindu tradition. And it is telling that the clownish Veeru, standing behind the statue, though dressed in his trademark western outfit of T-shirt and denim jeans, is also barefoot as one is supposed to be in a mandir. Respect and camaraderie coexist.


Seven years ago, while writing a book about the director Hrishikesh Mukherjee (associated with the “Middle Cinema”, neither too mainstream nor too arty in its depiction of middle-class Indian lives), I found another, subtler form of spirituality. In many of the “Middle” films, there is a Krishna-like figure – a regular human being who acts as a guide of sorts, intervening in people’s lives in a playful, gentle and ultimately positive way. One example among many is the role that Rajesh Khanna plays in Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1972) – a cook who takes up employment with a squabbling joint family and helps them see the error of their ways and how to live in harmony; the story can be seen almost like a genial reworking of Krishna’s role as mediator (and eventually, facilitator of a cleansing war) in the Mahabharata.


This reacquaintance with Hindi cinema has, in the past few years, made me more aware of my divided selves, and how the art we consume can resonate in very different ways with the many aspects of our personality. Today I can enjoy both the melodramatic language of Hindi cinema and the hushed minimalism of such Scandinavian directors as Dreyer, and draw succour from both forms. One tells me it is okay to be quiet and inward, while the other provides an outlet for another, showier side of my personality. And while I don’t see myself ever embracing religion, both types of films have – in their different ways – made me just a little more understanding of the faithful and their relationships with their faith. Whether the relationship involves friendly banter with silver idols, lacerating agony caused by doubt, or just the thrill of participating in a fantasy – which, after all, is something that all movie-lovers, Indian or European, do as well.


[An earlier, related post about my nani's cremation, and the hegemony of religion]

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