Myth in the age of mass media
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The excitement around the film Krishna aur Kans may be mostly about its scale of production and animation techniques, but it represents a lot more. For nearly hundred years, Indian cinema has been doing something remarkable when it comes to mythology, negotiating the cultural balance between sanctity and secular entertainment in ways no one could have predicted. In the 1920s, mythological cinema was sometimes seen as an allegory for the independence struggle. In the 1930s, movies about saints and their devotion underlined the need for social reform. In the 1950s and '60s, even as Hindi films moved to other themes, mythology remained a glorious, star-filled genre in the South, forever elevating actors like N.T. Rama Rao to an image on par with their divine roles, and more importantly, finessing a sensibility about mythology that has rarely been equalled. Closer to the liberalisation era, the Doordarshan epics of the 1980s, and the numerous TV and animated productions ever since, have led to more mythology than one could absorb in a lifetime. It is easy to see all this in terms of a commercial or political narrative, but there is an abiding and intriguing question that remains at the heart of the genre: what do the gods mean in the age of mass media?
A generational perspective might illumine it more than a textual one. In the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for audiences to respond to the images on screen as if the gods were right there (that happened with NTR too, but there it was perhaps as much him as it was Lord Krishna getting the worship). Even in the 1980s, one heard of Sunday morning domestic piety as viewers lit incense and lamps near their television sets to welcome Lord Ram. In the present animated mythology era though, a different sensibility is also at play: the gods as merchandise-ready superheroes. Hanuman, Chota Bheem, Lava and Kusa and, of course, Krishna, are not just gods but also pop culture icons on a scale that children of earlier generations, even with Amar Chitra Katha dreams, did not have to contend with. Critics might see this as too much commerce or even subliminal Hindutva, but I believe the yearning for the divine (even if tempered by the craving for entertainment) is too human, universal and important to be dismissed so easily. At the same time, one cannot value every piece of animation, TV melodrama, or violent fantasy equally in the name of our heritage and culture.
What a film like Krishna aur Kans, with its substantial commercial and creative investment, might achieve at this moment is a return to a more careful sort of storytelling about mythology, rooted, not in the transmission of pedagogy or peddling of ever-more bizarre action fantasy, but in the cultivation of sensibility. For nearly two decades, we have been faced with a barrage of careless and sometimes tasteless productions that have sought to tantalise young viewers with sordid violence and cheesy posturing while placating parents with some sort of promise that the children are learning their heritage. There have been exceptions, of course, but one cannot help feel that there is a need for something to cut through the clutter, on screen, and in our minds. You might not go to the multiplex to watch a mythological in the same spirit as you go to a temple, but you cannot watch Hanuman or Krishna without a lingering sense of the sacred about them. Knowing what that meaning is precisely takes more intellectual work than what we have given it until now, and that is well worth the effort to change.
As Diana Eck writes in her new book, India: A Sacred Geography, "what is at stake is not the capacity of the gods to be present in the world, but rather the human capacity to apprehend that presence", a point as relevant to entertainment perhaps as religiosity. And what we need to learn to apprehend perhaps, more than ever, is not just the heroism of the gods in battle, but their kindness and decency in the mundane as well. The Krishna who fights may entertain us, but there is nothing like the Krishna who delights.
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