The Malayalam cinema has a tradition of Biblical mythologicals traceable to P.J. Cherian’s stage work (e.g. Snapaka Yohannan, 1963; P.A. Thomas’ Jesus, 1973; the biblical epic shot in 1991 for TV by Appachan), but the genre effectively refers to the Hindu mythological and is also known as the Pauranic genre. ‘Puranas’ or ‘ancient stories’ have become mere religious fables and cant, whatever historical content they once possessed having become encrusted with myth and diluted with semi-religious legends. The stories were collected and elaborated into the Mahabharata, a text going back to 400 BC and undergoing a series of mutations until c.AD400. This process, which saw the rise of a caste system in India, also evolved a textual hierarchy with the ‘official’ Sanskritised text repeatedly rewritten to justify the accumulation of agrarian surplus by the Brahmins (priest caste). There are several popular versions presented for the benefit of the lower classes but these also continued the oral and pictorial traditions of the ‘heroic lays of ancient war’ (Kosambi, 1962). Major historical interventions include the Buddhist revolution and the regional linguistic proliferation leading to the medieval Bhakti and Sufi movements. Industrial genres immediately preceding film are evidenced in the visual arts (see Pat Painting and Ravi Varma) and in the theatre (see Radheshyam Kathavachak and Betaab). An economically developed commercial stage in most urban centres often adapted modes of folk performance to the European proscenium, creating technical precedents for several of the earliest conventions of film shooting and editing (see Phalke). The most famous traditions are the Ramleela and Raasleela (later assimilated into Parsee theatre; cf. Indrasabha, 1932), the Yakshagana, Nautanki, Bhavai, Burrakatha and Jatra. The form has been and continues to be used for explicitly ideological ends. Among its first industrialised manifestations were Ravi Varma’s self-conscious appropriation of Brahmical ‘classicism’ for the benefit of his royal patron and the Mysore court (cf. G.V. Iyer). The stories were also used as encoded messages of nationalist patriotism (e.g. Phalke’s work, or Bhakta Vidur, 1921), as a way of conveying ‘Gandhian’ national chauvinism in Vijay Bhatt’s films, to bolster regionalist separatism in Rajkumar’s Kannada films or simply to shore up temple cults with a mass following (e.g. the films on the Guruvayoor and Sabarimalai icons in Kerala). Recently, mythologicals have been used to propagate Hindu chauvinism, e.g. in Ramanand Sagar’s TV Ramayan (1986-8). The genre can also be seen in terms of its performative traditions shading into the melodramatic idiom, condensing complex contemporary tensions and codes in its figures. Ritwik Ghatak mobilises this dimension as do Raj Kapoor and several others, e.g. in their references to the goddess Seeta when wives and mothers are at issue. In spite of the pervasive references to the myths in Indian cinema, mythologicals cannot be regarded as a matrix or a master text for Indian narrative art in general, but rather as a nationally familiar and flexible stock of figures and topoi which can be used as shorthand to register more immediate historical issues (cf. Bhakta Vidur, 1921). The invocation of myths is less important than the way the stories are treated as a genre, modified as narratives or formally deployed as allegorical relays within a conservatively constructed notion of the social as a cinematic genre.


Last modified 6 years ago Last modified on Jun 26, 2012, 7:58:58 PM