26 March 2009

Mythology and cinema

(In the photo) Kamal Haasan with filmmaker Mani Kaul

The session on ‘Mythology and Cinema’ at the recently concluded FTII seminar was replete with quotable quotes, anecdotes and useful insights

FTII’s recent seminar on Literature And Cinema; a question of adaptation also touched upon the subject of mythology, a genre that has had tremendous influence over popular Indian cinema - especially in creating familiar templates. What also made it special was the panel of invited speakers. There was Kamal Haasan, fresh from last year’s Dasavatharam, along with his close colleague, actor-writer Gollapadi Maruti Rao. There was also mythologist and writer (The Pregnant King) Devdatta Patnaik and film professor Suresh Chabria who shed light on how mythology has been depicted on screen and its social and cultural impact.

Since the evolution of cinema, for the longest time, mythology has provided a treasure trove of themes for our films. Today, mythology as subject matter may be looked upon as archaic or 'uncool' but the panelists agreed that not only did it succeed in bringing in the early audiences - given its narrative familiarity and appeal--- it created templates that find resonance till date. For example, ‘the wronged son’ is Karna, ‘a woman’s test of fire’ is Sita. These are culturally imbedded images now and all are modern mythological imports. When India’s first talkie was made, it was no surpirse that it was the mythological Raja Harishchandra.
Describing mythology as the golden metaphor of a society - that tells you the ‘subjective truth’ of its people, Gollapadi Maruti Rao said, “The aphorism, ‘Tell me who your friends are and I will tell who you are’ fits perfectly with mythology, where one could say, “Tell me your mythology and I’ll tell you what your society is” So mythology is the mirror to a civilization.”

Kamal Hasaan, who chaired the session, did not give a speech but he did introduce each of the panelists in his own inimitable style - peppering the session with a few one-liners. “Mythology is nothing but a spiritual cosmetic surgery on history,” he said smiling. A self-confessed atheist in real life, even in his last film, Dasavatharam, the actor’s attempt was to question blind faith in God.

One of the most interesting panelists proved to be writer Devdatta Patnaik, who kept the audience in splits with his anecdotes on mythological films. “What is mythology? It is the subjective truth of a people revealed through stories. It is how they see ‘their’ world,” he began. He pointed at how unlike Biblical Mythology, Indian mythology is more relaxed in it various manifestations. “Look at our mythology. It is tacky, loud, our gods even gossip about each other. We treat our gods like friends. We are lovers of the shringar ras and enjoy our stories with all the colour and drama possible. Hum raseele log hain (We're colourful people),” he said, adding, “Compared to Biblical mythology, which frowns upon any humour directed towards it, Indian mythology takes on forms like nautanki and others and no questions are asked. This is also because, our mythology is seen more as fantasy, while in the West, it is viewed as a historical and is never promoted through folk and classical theatre.”

A very vital point came up in Suresh Chabria’s speech, where he spoke of mythology being the most political of all film genres. According to him, it brought a certain visual culture that ultimately creates and feeds our thinking about culture and politics. “The spectacle and narrative familiarity is the reason why mythological films were being made for more than 20 years. But there was a political agenda to it as well. Our Painters like Raja Ravi Verma and other - who depicted our mythology and gave it a form --- promoted ‘magic realism’ of a kind through it, as opposed to Western realism -enlightenment. So in a way that itself was an escape from the prison house of colonialism, one that was contesting western ideas. So mythology, both in its formal aesthetics and appeal was a political project,” he said.
The anti-colonial discourse promoted by mythology saw a change after independence. “Cinema in the South took to mythology and here the agenda was ‘regional identity’. Today, in its televisual avatar, the genre is used to mobilise Hindu ideology,” he said about the uses and abuses of mythology.

All, in all, the session saw some interesting commentary and insights.
-Sandhya Iyer


Ebrahim Kabir said...

Interesting writeup thanks for sharing this exp.

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