Saturday, February 6, 2010

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Cute animated offerings to Jai Santoshi Maa turn into the movie's credits...and vice versa.

Like most people who blog about Bollywood, I disapprove of the sloppy American media tendency to describe everything in the world in terms of Western imagery: i.e. Shah Rukh Khan as “the Indian Tom Cruise,” a statement that is wrong on so many levels. But I’ve watched four devotional Goddess movies so far, in three different languages, and I have to say that all of them are basically Cinderella stories. Maybe the truth is that "Cinderella" is really a village Goddess story. Which would explain all those fairy godmothers.

In each film, there’s a virtuous young woman who is persecuted by either an evil mother-in-law or an evil stepmother, along with attendant evil sisters-in-law or evil step-sisters. They are generally cruel to her, and, in particular, force her to do all the housework, which is depicted as extremely hard labor. But the heroine doesn’t shirk her duty, and in the end, her devotion to her goddess ultimately makes everything right, and whoever tormented her is punished and, usually, turned into a devotee and redeemed. Unless they're an evil tantric, in which case, the wrath is a little more graphic.

The ones I've seen so far are:

Jai Santoshi Maa: 1975. Hindi. Here's a lovely, lovely clip, just before the heroine gets the final twist of the knife. The back-up devotees are her scheming sisters-in-law.

Ammoru: 1995. Telugu. I can resist no opportunity to re-post this scene from the climax. It's kind of long, and becomes quite gory, but it's fantastic.

Jai Daksineshwar Kaali Maa. 1996, according to the certificate. Hindi. Another scene of great Goddess action!

Maa Meldi Tari Mer: Netflix says 2005. The info on this clip says 1999. The IMDB doesn't know it exists. It is, however, in Gujarati.

So far, I haven't seen any devotional films dealing with male gods (although I own a Hanuman film and a Balaji film, which I will get to one of these days). I did watch Hema Malina's Meera, about the famous poet and hardcore Krishna devotee. But that's more a straight biopic, so while it has devotional elements, being about the life of a saint, the whole tone is different from the goddess movies.

The immense popularity of Jai Santoshi Maa is generally credited with kick-starting this particular devotional trend. I really like the fact that in this version, the heroine's love interest was fleshed out a little more than in some of the others (although that didn't stop me from thinking he was an idiot, when he acted like one). He starts out as a happy-go-lucky younger brother, playing the flute and singing with a band that goes to devotional festivals. When he and pretty Satyavati meet up, the course of true love runs surprisingly smoothly: their families are totally agreeable to the love match.

It isn't until after the wedding that the bride discovers her sister-in-laws are two-faced schemers, and as for the groom: the family is hoping that marriage will pressure the artistic son into settling down to farm labor. The family that's made him the favorite resents him for it -- a detail with some emotional honesty to it -- and it eventually breaks out into open conflict, spurred on by the most evil bhabi.

Santoshi Maa is also the only one I've seen so far with a heavenly macrocosm/earthly microcosm element: the goddess herself, relatively new to the pantheon, is resented by the other goddesses, who are no longer as popular as the new, more approachable girl in town. They plot against her best devotee much like Adversary torments Job (but unlike the Old Testament God, it's done against Santoshi Maa's wishes, and she actually comes down and helps out when things get worst).

Of the films, Ammoru is definitely the most sophisticated, and not just because of the Western-style special effects. The heroine’s in-laws, a Tantric black magician and his enabling mother, are more devious than outright abusive, which makes her seem like less of a doormat and, crucially, her husband less spineless than the men in these movies sometimes appear. I can’t be the only one yelling at the father in Dakshineswar Kali (who is, by the way, Alok Nath!) that he wouldn’t need to rely so much on Mother’s help if he stood up even a little to his henpecking wife, who seems to have married him solely to make him and his daughter miserable.

Also, in Ammoru, the heroine’s relationship with the goddess includes the possibility of doubt and misunderstanding. It doesn’t stay simple. She has always been the most devout girl in the village, but the complications of life cause her to doubt the unquestioning faith that once came so easily to her.

When the evil relatives concoct a false story against the mysterious, miracle-working little girl who’s really a manifestation of the goddess, it puts the heroine in a position where she feels she has to choose between loyalty to her family and devotion to the goddess. While the specific situation is fantasy-oriented, the basic conflict is a realistic one. Later, when terrible, worst-thing-that-could-happen tragedy strikes, she feels that the goddess has abandoned her, and that there’s no point in calling on her for help; exemplifying, in other words, a spiritual despair verging on atheism. At that point, the storyline demands that she has to make the first move back toward the goddess, but when she does, the goddess delivers and then some.

In Dakshineswari Kali's test of its heroine's faith, by contrast, it’s absurd that the saintly Jyoti's loving in-laws would so quickly believe that she’s cheating on her husband, especially since it requires them to believe the story of someone they already know is a criminal and an enemy of the family. It makes no sense that she would strive to cure her husband of insanity, the subplot in the early part of her marriage, when that would obviously make it easier for her to cheat on him. However, metaphorically, it's a real extra torture for her, since she was already treated so badly in her own family, then belatedly found the loving mother she never had, only to lose everything again.

This film does, however, benefit from the presence of top-billed Hema Malini, as Kali. She and Ammoru's Ramya Krishna are, so far, my Best Actress in an All-Powerful Deity Role nominees.

When I look back on Maa Meldi and Dakshineswar Kali, I think of them as being low-budget, even kind of cheesy. But when I go back to them for a peek at a particular scene (and why haven't I bought Maa Meldi? Ahh, because it's "out of stock" on Nehaflix, like too many of their devotional films), I start getting completely drawn in. They're surprisingly compelling, even when they just open up with a long hymn to the goddess in question, before introducing the characters -- a tactic which helps remind us just who the star of the film really is.

Cinderella stories that they are, all of these movies have an element of martyrdom which is sure to drive some viewers crazy, but it usually comes across more like the conundrum of religious devotion than it is does a generic woman's lot in life. Not only are the heroines all particularly devoted to their goddesses, always singing at the temple and whatnot, but they are shown giving food to the poor, and crucially, turning the other cheek.

In Christian terms, as in, for example, 1 Peter 3:9: "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." Or, as in one of my favorites (Luke 6: 32-35): "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked."

The reason that's a favorite is because of that "he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" bit, which is such a rebuke to the more judgmental of the religiously inclined.

Similarly, the scenes in which the poor beggars or elderly women are given charity by the heroine, then turn out to be visiting deities in disguise, has an echo in Jesus' famous "whatever you did for one of the least of did for me." (Matthew 25:40). In Ammoru, the most pious believer proves to be the one who takes some of the food meant for Mother's offering and gives it to a hungry visitor. One guess who she turns out to be:

I only bring up the Christian slant because I am, of course, in the middle of whitebread America, and that's the environment in which my religious concepts were formed. The extent to which these high-minded sentiments go completely against the grain of human nature is clearly visualized in the suffering devotee sections of these films, which I think could frustrate many viewers almost beyond the ability to sit through them. Whatever suffering or persecution comes their way, these heroines absolutely refuse to return evil for evil, and it's hard to even watch. But a lot of people believe in religions that actually call upon them to do this, despite its going against almost every instinct.

Of course, I can only speak for myself, but it might be easier for me to be more forgiving and cheek-turning if I knew I had a kick-ass Goddess on my side, who'd not only knock heads on my behalf, but slash them off if necessary.


Anonymous said...

First off, agreed on this: "Like most people who blog about Bollywood, I disapprove of the sloppy American media tendency to describe everything in the world in terms of Western imagery: i.e. Shah Rukh Khan as 'the Indian Tom Cruise,' a statement that is wrong on so many levels." Yes, on SO SO many levels. I have see Jai Santoshi Maa a couple years back and did enjoy it especially the Cinderella like evil sisters. Weren’t they so evil? I will have to check out more devotional/mythological in the future since they’ve been on my to do list for some time. Ammoru sounds good, as does Dakshineswar Kali with Alok Nath. For a male god devotional, I would recommend Bajrangbali(1976) starring Dara Singh as Hanumanji, or bajrangbali if you prefer. His devotion is very touching. And like you point out, "even when they just open up with a long hymn to the goddess in question, before introducing the characters -- a tactic which helps remind us just who the star of the film really is," I recall that this film started this way too, but I could be wrong.

Purification through suffering does seem easier to take, if you know there’s a trident close at hand, hai na? ;)

All the best,

p.s. hope to see you in Minneapolis this coming weekend if you make it down to civilization. ;)

Anarchivist said...

"Bajrangbali" is the one I have! It was recommended to me by Antarra of the eponymous Ramblings, as being right up my alley. It does look very cool -- my list is just too long! At least I'm in good company there.

memsaab said...

Bajrangbali is sitting on my shelf of "need to get to soon" dvds. As is Jai Santoshi Maa.

And would like to point out that you have several "kick-ass" Goddesses on your side that I know of personally, and probably at least a few more than that :)

Anarchivist said...

Which is possibly how I bear up to the rigors of "public service" as well as I do! :)

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