In a scene from a popular Tamil movie, Seedan, the heroine Mahalakshmi (played by Ananya) is ready to jump into a step well. Behind the heroine carved on the rock is a peacock feather. To the culturally aware it suggests “god is always behind you.” We hear her suicidal thoughts and the then a male voice taunts her to jump in to the pond which is deep and has snakes living in it. Saravanan (played by Dhanush) wearing a simple attire appears on the camera which looks up wards at him. He is carrying a bunch of curry or neem leaves. The music changes to a grand orchestral background which is unlike the usual background that follows violin notes or single instruments of regular hero appearances in Tamil movies. A comic score underlines some kind of mischief in the scene. We as the viewers at this point of the movie, are already primed to receive Dhanush as a Good Samaritan (not the lover, who is another character in the movie) and we begin to suspect the divinity’s hand in saving the heroine as she is portrayed as a very good devotee. The scene cuts to a hilly outcrop with Saravanan (incidentally another name for the god Murugan) standing on a rock advising the girl to look towards a brighter tomorrow. (Image 1)
The truth is revealed to film viewer in the very next scene where Saravanan who is the god Murugan in human form, while talking to the girl, reveals he knows about conversations that the she has had with god in private.
This movie is typical example of the genre of modern mythological movies that have become a symbol of theistic resistances to the modern disdain of faith and religion. In this essay I examine the peculiar nature of a certain subset of genre of the mythological cinema that are not set in otherworldly imagined locations but they are rendered invisibly-visible to the audience as co-inhabiting the modern world. Recreating for us how god’s presence is invisible in the modern world, the plot usually suggests that god is always present even in this world of mobiles and cars. In the next section we explore the way these modern myths are rendered onscreen.
For a long time, movies in Tamil and other south regional cinema recount mythological stories and narratives. In fact the first films of India are based on these stories. Using special effects and on-screen magic, these movies try and represent the otherworldly grandeur of many aspects of stories of gods and goddesses. The stories follow a script that is retold from the Purāna-s, both oral and recorded.
We notice that place narratives such as stories of famous temples and sacred pilgrimage places have been adapted from religious theatre to the cinematic media. Made for popular audiences that prefer to combine religious fervour and film entertainment, these movies usually have special effects or ornate costumes. The narrative is built within a focus on the religious and devotional themes and is set clearly in pre-modern locations such as heavenly worlds or ancient undated pasts. In all these movies, the audience who is watching is very clear that they are being allowed a spectator’s access into the divine worlds.
On the other hand the movies that broke away from these typical themes into social plots or hero narratives gained popularity soon and the mythological was displaced by human stories. Despite this we find these movies have always shown up in the periphery throughout film history and sometimes end up as popular successes. The recent Dhanush starrer 2011, Seedan (Tamil) described above (a remake of the Malayalam 2002 movie Nandanam or a movie like Thaai Mookambigai (Tamil, 1982) or Devara duddu (1976, Kannada) all have gods and humans in the same location of time and space.
The films typically begin like their forerunners by introducing us to genesis and myths of the sacred place or the god. This is done indirectly through the dialogue of some character in the movie or through a narrator usually a traditional story teller. As human beings and their affairs are instrumental in creating sacred presence on earth, therefore the narration of the significance of place narratives in these type of movies, involves the myth of the founder devotee of the sacred place. After a brief introductory story of gods are goddesses of the past, (particularly in the movies made in eighties and nineties) this type of narrative moves into the current age. Somewhat like the superhero movies of today, gods and goddesses are recast into modern day and appear in the guise of normal people to help their devotees. The cinematic medium achieves the transposition of the mythical space and the everyday profane space within the narrative in the visualisation of the movie. This is done using techniques such as appearance and disappearance of the character, symbolic music or image backgrounds. And in some movies we find that the person of the god/ goddess is not directly portrayed but the narrative builds up assistance for the devotee’s troubles or punishment for the villains come through unlikely sources such as natural objects or nature. Peacocks punch out the eyes of the villain who tries to rape the devotee. Storms and trees strike down evil doers and animals shelter the orphaned baby. There are many interesting cinematic devices that are used to transpose the pre-modern on the modern in the films of this type that are not overly reliant on magic. Magic is sprinkled a bit for entertainment but mostly in the last or penultimate scenes. But besides this there are some nuances that have some immersive significance that are worth describing.
Mythos and logos
In this section, I shall point to some interrelated themes that run common to this type of cinema and discuss them in some detail. These are cinematic devices, both in the camera work and the plot through which the viewers are in the ‘know’ about the divinity in the plot. This shared knowledge is significant for the film to be a success.
The challenge that these movies face is to render the invisible (meaning- gods) visible to the audience at least in the beginning so they are in the know about the divine plan or at least they get a hint about the supernatural events in the plot. The characters in the movie are not aware of the Divine play or Lila of their beloved deity in their life, they suffer and the deity either as a character in the film or as an invisible presence is aware of them. We as the audience are now fully privy to the game that the imposter human-god is playing with his devotee. Everyone else in the film ( such in Seedan or OMG) is not aware of the imposter ‘human identity’ of god, but since we are aware, the dialogues and actions of the character have us smiling and partnering with the character as he sets out to untangle the heroine’s love life or support the protagonist in a legal case.
Sometimes a prayer to the symbolic god by the film protagonist is followed by a response from the embodied god in the plot allowing the audience to further strengthen the secret shared between them and god character in the movie. The pact of ‘being in the know’ is crucial to get a theistic response from the audience to the presence of god, even if temporary. Unlike crime or suspense thrillers, where we do not know the murderer and are forced to wait along with the film characters to find out, in these the suspense is not the main aim, sharing the secret with the viewer and keeping the protagonist in the dark is. This is achieved using symbolic clues, dialogues and plot narrative elements.
Another theme that is significant visually in these the idea of visible and invisible. In these movies the narratives transpose the invisible world of gods and goddesses on the modern world of the devotee of current times. In older versions of such movies we see the mythical god directly inhabiting the modern world (image 2, Devara duddu, Kannada 1976). In the film OMG, (in Hindi) we see Akshay Kumar doing motorcycle stunts as god.
Since these movies require us as the audience to be participating in the “lila” (divine play) or the subterfuge, the invisibility of the god has to be revealed to us as visible without being revealed to the character. Earlier movies would show an idol of a god and then a human walking out from the idol. Or at the end of his/her work, the god-person walks into the sanctum sanctorum and disappears. In later movies, the use of light or the sun as a background or the indication of a descent from above to below is used. Drawing from the idea of the location of a god in the higher regions, the first few images of the god show a descending god-person or a god looking down image in the scenes. In Seedan, the character Saravanan is framed against the light and climbs down from an attic. The movie, Oh My God, shows Krishna, (played by Akshay Kumar) who stands on a skyscraper/ high structure looking down at the protagonist in trouble. The poster of the popular Bollywood movie also shows Askhay Kumar in the sky over the protagonist both of them in a golden halo.
In the plot narrative, while other characters in the narrative are continuous to the plot, the god character usually appears as a stranger or is introduced into the plot to a chance encounter with the protagonist who is usually a firm believer or a complete atheist. The god is usually portrayed as an impersonator. He or she is not alien to the plot but someone who is expected to show up as a normal human in the story- a cook, a tenant, an elderly aunt, a household help.
In all these films I have noticed a clear climax or a crisis situation which god resolves, establishes his/her existence and vanishes. The immersed audience who knows the whole plot and also knows about the “unseen” hand of god in the life of the protagonist, is bursting with the secret information that he/she cannot convey to the characters. Seedan shows Saravanan standing on the steps of the temple in front of a full crowd , no one else is able to see him and he runs back in to the temple leaving Maha, his devotee in shock and gratitude. In OMG, Krishna vanishes leaving behind his divine keychain that the protagonist finds. In this moment the shared space of ‘god in the movie’ and of ‘god in the life’ are merged for the viewer creating a devotional experience. In an experience by analogy where the viewer realises he/she is like the protagonist in the movie, has a moment of transgression that goes beyond normal immersive experiences. The moment of the invisibility of the god person in reel is like our real life and the audience remembers he is present but invisible. The rhetoric that is repeated in dialogues, “I will not forsake my devotees” enters the real world. To the devotee watching the film this theistic assurance, albeit coming from a film character god, occurs as the actual message from the divine, leaving them grateful and religiously satiated.
Theistic Immersion through film
The immersion experience of these movies have a peculiar characteristic for the spectator. Rather than being drawn into the story, the story is drawn out into the real world through the mode of a religious experience. The spectator does not fully identify with the character in the film but can actually be himself or herself and identify with the common theistic experience. The difference is established by creating two variable registers of experience that separate the protagonist from the viewer. The first is the protagonist in whose experience, the mythos is completely at play till the last moment. For the viewer, the logos is established by the secret shared between him and the god and his experience of mythos occurs off screen when the film is over when the “god in film” and “god out here in this world” merge. This particular phenomenon has to be further studied for the way the movies not only resists the atheistic move but also re-establishes a powerful emotional response to devotion and gods.
About the Writer
Dr. Meera Baindur teaches Philosophy at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities. She is also the Coordinator of the Centre for Gender Studies at Manipal University. Meera Baindur holds a PhD. in Environmental Humanities from National Institute Of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, and is the author of the book ‘Nature in Indian Philosophy and Cultural Traditions’ published by Springer in 2015.