Mythology in Films

Indian Mythology, Society, World Mythology 15 Comments

This is a pointer to my talk in the conference on “Literature and Films” at the Film Institute, Pune, on 22 March 2009


Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ” is a mythological film. But he will never call it that. For him, and his audiences, it is a historical film. Never mind the fact that it shows “resurrection” in the end. Never mind the fact that it adds visual elements to it that are not mentioned in the Gospel but does exist in the imagination of the screenplay writer and cinematographer. And so, the Jews look cunning and their king looks gay. Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic and homophobic stance is known to all. This naturally makes his way into his ‘Audio Visual Storytelling’….yet one is told, this is not a mythological. It is history, hence true.

Compare and contrast this with a Bollywood film, “Jai Santoshi Maa” – which does not even attempt to be historical.It tells the story of a woman who is tortured by her sisters-in-law and who is delivered from it by praying to Santoshi…a simple story based on a complex belief in the Karma System. Karma is not explicitly mentioned in the story but is implicit and assumed by the audience who believes in it – the woman is suffering not becuase God hates her but because of her past karma; if she prays to Santoshi, that bad karma is wiped away and happiness will follow. This is not the same as deliverance by the Christ…Christ offers permanent solution to the Original Sin….Santoshi Maa offers temporary relief in a householder’s life….a bhakti pill to deal with karmic chaos.

The Bollywood film is loud and kitsch….a folk play full of bawdy lines and slapstick humor where even the gods are not spared. There are stories here about gods that are not found in any Purana – that the elephant headed god, Ganesha, had a daughter called Santoshi – and yet, no one, not even opportunist politicians, are/were upset with it. And until this film was released in 1975, most of India had not even heard of this goddess. The film, that was as successful as Sholay, was accepted as mythology. It was also accepted as the truth.

Mythology is truth. Subjective truth. Truth of a people, of a culture, of a community. Truth that is believed, regardless of evidence.

The Mythology of Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam) is firmly placed within history – history is part of the mythological script, the fallout of what happened in Eden when God kicked Adam and Eve out for the Original Sin of Transgression. Had that event, described in the Genesis, not happened, there would be no role for Prophets, there would be no need for the idea of deliverance, no need for the Christ.

The Mythology of Hinduism is rather different. There are divine tales that are not bound by history or geography, time or space. They exist everywehre all the time. The story of Santoshi, for example. Then there is human history going through cycles, where events occur again and again, as if on a merry-go-round.

“The Passion of The Christ” deals with LINEAR mythology – where there is one life to repair damage done by the Original Sin. “Jai Santoshi Maa” deals with CYCLICAL mythology – where one has many lives to repair the damage done by past Karmas. Yet globally, the former is seen as religious history and the latter is seen as religious mythology….this reveals a poor understanding of religion and faith, where one’s faith is beleived to be true (read, History) and the other’s faith is false (read, Mythology)

  • usha

    you, who are always clear in your ideas and presentation , have failed in this piece. What do you wish to convey is not clear– is our mythology wrong? Our believe system is comlicated and many-layered. It cannot be summarily disposed off like this. Moreover, there are a number of grammatical and other errors.
    I, a retired prof, understand your abilities to discuss our myths and tales but do not be perfunctory, please.

    • Prabal

      Usha ji,
      I think you understood the article in a way it was not intended to be. You can read it again and see what you feel.

  • usha

    One more thing: Have you read A.K.Ramanujan’s discussion on context-free and context-sensitive cultures? Ours is a context-sensitive culture and so the cyclical mythology.

  • usha

    Mr. Devdutt,
    I was a little harsh in my comment above. Sorry. On re-reading your piece, I could get the feel of it. In fact, there has been so much Hindu-bashing of late that I immediately spring up to its defence,almost blindly; Lose my reason, my cool and my rationality. That’s enough in my defence. you will understand.
    I saw the power-point presentation also. And I appreciate your approach and in-depth knowledge.
    Continue, we want people like you — like Swami vivekananda

  • Rajat

    ” bhakti pill to deal with karmic chaos ” :)

    ” Take a dip in Ganga and you will be free from all of your sin ”
    i think this is a trick to avoid people from doing more sin; coz if one realize that he did a sin and will be punish in hell
    then may be he do more sin [coz he confirmed his ticket to hell by doing one sin;more sin do nothing worse !]

    • kiran2

      No its not a trick. Its test of ones faith. Only those with faith will be free from sin.

  • Ramesh Subrahmaniam

    When you a poor understanding,Is it due to the way the religion is followed/prescribed?
    viz., In both christianity and Islam,both Bible and Koran are nothing but the narrations of the Events that had taken place, and the followers are ordered to obey, and hence questioning of that has started very recently.rarely have I read anything, questioning the authenticity of these documents. Whereas, In Hinduism, Iconoclastic/
    questioning was always allowed, like Jabali in Ramayan.

  • Well written.
    When I watch the zillion tamil movies on various forms of the goddess and her miracles, i literally roll on the floor laughing. An example from the top of my mind –
    A snake recognizes that a woman is goddess in disguise. The goddess fears that the snake may ‘speak out’ this truth to others in her family and makes it swear that it won’t “tell” anyone the truth :D

    Jokes apart, i have no idea where the filmmaker derived inspiration from for the story on Ganesha’s daughter. However, i remember hymns that extoll the goddess as ‘mAnasantOshiNi’. I was always under the impression that Santoshi maa derived from this name. May be I’m wrong or may be the filmmaker is just a twisted freak who’s thrilled by distorting ancient lore!

  • Vinay

    Couple of points:
    – Maybe both of these are representative of the populist versions and not really representatives of the tradition.
    – Maybe we should compare movies like:
    and GV Iyer’s Adi Shankaracharya or Do Aankhen Barah Haath.

    • What is true and what is popular will always remain a matter of opinion… long as thoughts are provoked….


    • Prabal

      Santoshi maa exists for those who beleive and does not exist for those who do not believe. Everybody has their subjective truths.

  • Nikhil


    DevDutt, thanks for the work you are doing, I am sure all the lost knowledge is dig deep again and spread to illuminate our (so called modern) mindset that we appreciate the true meaning of life and its purpose.

    While we are on this blog, I would also like to take an advantage (non-commercial) in stressing the need for a forum like Question and Answer site where people can pose relevant questions and experts or knowledgeable can answer the questions pertaining to the context. The answered questions can serve as archive for later references too.

    DevDutt sahab’s website already serves as a purpose of serving vehicle for distributing the aggregated facts and myths of our ancient and still relevant modern culture. My only intention is to have a forum like site where people
    can be active participants too from all around the internet world.

    I have come across this very popular site called StackExchange which has all the ingredients readily built to serve as the necessary forum or Q & A site. This site has expressed to encourage ‘Hinduism’ to have its own seperate site of Q&A hosted on top of it for free of cost. Fortunately, for this site needs committed followers and requires people to actively participate on the forum.

    This link that there is already has a proposal put forth by someone else but needs more followers and active participants to get the software layer pushed into production and can accept regular users.

    I see this very site of DevDutt sahab to be popular among the seekers and followers of Hindu Mythology and Hinduism, so am assuming that I can spread across the information here and those who are willing to participate in those Q&A site can register themselves onto the site and follow the proposal. Once the proposal gets more required number of people, this site will be tested and will get its own public name like ( and then on people can use it for free exchange of knowledge and information on the question and answers. There is also some incentive as well, people who perform better abiding to the behavior ruleset of site laws, will gain privileges on the site as and when they question and answer more, thus increasing community’s trust value for giving relevant answers.

    So, DevDutt sahab and people, I request whoever is interested can get register themselves and start posting relevant and inciting, thought provoking, preserving material. (I am trying to do my part in a very little and vague manner, not that I am affliated with that site in anyway except for looking at it as a purely vehicle for sharing knowledge).

    Thanks for reading. Hope to see you on Hinduism’ site on StackExchange.

    Jai Bholenath!!