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Divine Inspiration

It’s an old joke but the passage of time hasn’t made it any less funny: a professor of creative writing explained to his class that the four key ingredients of commercial writing were royalty, sex, religion and mystery as they attracted maximum reader attention. As an assignment, the students were told to write a piece that co-opted all these four elements. One bright pupil didn’t need too much space for his submission. In fact, he managed to combine everything in one short sentence: “My God,” said the Queen, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it!”

Jokes apart, it is true that that sex, religion, royalty and mystery are way up there in
the list of attention grabbers – be it in works of fiction or in news reportage. And as the most popular modern art form, our cinema too has very often leant on these themes for its narratives.

Suspense/thrill is an essential ingredient of our films – either as the central genre or combined with other elements. Similarly, while censorship makes it difficult to exploit sex as a narrative theme fully, filmmakers have found ways to get around it through suggestive depictions and double entendre. And as Indian society becomes increasingly liberal with time, the boundaries of what is ‘passable’ in our films keep expanding. Interestingly, the last decade or so has seen the evolution of a new sub-genre that combines sex and mystery for the erotic thriller that often also co-opts horror. 

Unlike the British, we may not have a contemporary royalty after the abolition of privy purses and derecongnition of titles. However, kings and queens – whether real or imagined – have consistently provided creative fodder for our filmmakers, right from the very first talkie, Alam Ara in 1931, to last year’s blockbusters, Bahubali: The Beginning and Bajirao Mastani.

This brings us to the fourth narrative pillar: religion. For an industry that kicked off more than a century ago with a mythological, Raja Harishchandra, and then continued to draw from its abundant wealth of religious texts in its initial years, Hindi cinema seems to have turned its back to religion as the central theme for its mainstream projects.  

When you really think about it, in terms of immediate recall, it is hard to think of successful films in the genre beyond Shirdi Ke Sai Baba and Jai Santoshi Maa more than four decades ago. More recently, we did see a spate of animated films that drew inspiration from the Mahabharat and Ramayan and deities like Lord Ganesha and Hanuman, but even these have tapered off both in volume terms as well as their commercial returns.

Our seeming reluctance to cash in on the divine seems baffling on so many levels.

For one, we are a very demonstrably religious country as attested by the plethora of places of worship in every nook and corner of our country and the abundance of religious imagery all around us, besides the multiple festivals/religious occasions that frequent our annual calendar.

Secondly, we have the unique advantage of being home to literally hundreds of varied religious creeds and sub-sects, as opposed to the monotheism that dominates most other countries and cultures. From a filmmaking perspective, that means that not only do we have multiple religious sources and material creatively, but also multiple target audiences and niches that can be served commercially.

Finally, and most importantly, the fact that religion sells is underlined not only by the bumper sales of obvious products like pilgrimage tours, religious literature, idols and posters, paraphernalia like incense sticks etc., but more relevantly, by the way others in the media and entertainment space have cashed  in.

While physical sales and downloads of bhajans and religious discourses provide much needed succor for the music industry, mythology-based programs are a regular staple for television broadcasters, besides a host of 24×7 channels catering to different faiths. DTH operators and digital platforms, on their part, have a multitude of offerings like subscription-based packages that offer live darshans of various important shrines and pilgrimage centers.

It would seem obvious, therefore, that there is a substantial and proven demand for entertainment products based on religious themes and we, the Hindi film industry, have failed to tap into it. At a time when many of us are moaning about depressed market conditions and the need to reset both our business models as also our content, it may be worth our while to take a good, hard look at the religious genre.

This may be at odds with our ‘chase-the-youth’ mantra and may not seem very ‘cool’, but let us not forget that there is a huge audience out there besides the one that documents its life on Instagram or turns to Netflix for its daily entertainment fix.

Moreover, conditions to get the creative juices flowing in that pious direction may never have been better…what with the Prime Minister’s demonetisation announcement putting the fear of God in many and drawing us closer to spirituality with the reminder that wealth is so ephemeral!  

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