One of the great rescue acts of the popular turn in Indian academia of the late 1990s has been to recuperate the Indian film viewing masses from the charge of irrationality. To recap the relevant episodes of the debate: Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, or NTR, as he is famously known, floated a new political outfit in 1982 in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, a federal state in the south of India, and managed to win an absolute majority in the election that followed barely nine months later, becoming the Chief Minister of the state, thus ending in the state of Andhra Pradesh the rule of the Indian National Congress, the grand old party associated with the freedom struggle and enjoyed near total hegemony for the first couple of decades after India’s independence from the British rule in 1947. For critics like Chidananda Das Gupta (1991) and a host of other Indologists, the success of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – which marched to the hustings on the plank of Telugu pride and against the meddling of the Congress’ central leadership in the affairs of the state without any respect for the local aspirations – could only be explained by the charisma of NTR the actor, who played Hindu gods on the Telugu big screen. For these critics, the election victory of an actor who made his career playing deities in Hindu mythologies went to confirm what was a truism beginning from the early years of cinema in India – that the average Indian viewer, who was supposed to be untrained in sensibilities, is incapable of discerning the difference between the screen and reality. The Telugu masses were in fact voting for god!
This theoretical position, which enjoyed much traction, came under attack in the late 1990s when popular films came to be read for their political and economic conditions of production as well as with investigations into the lived realities of fandom among the masses. For Madhava Prasad, author of Ideology of the Hindi Film (1998), the framing of the conversations on Indian cinema in terms of tradition versus modernity was itself an ideological masking for the large scale intervention in which capitalism was affecting our lives. The critical programme should then be one of teasing out the desire for modernity that the popular films evoke for its viewers. S.V. Srinivas, who studied the fans of the Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi around the same time, underlined the conditional nature of devotion of the fans to their screen deities. The study came out initially as the path breaking essay “Devotion and Defiance in Fan Activity” (in the Journal of Arts and Ideas, 1996) and later developed into a full scale book on the Chiranjeevi phenomenon, titled Megastar (2009). Srinivas pointed out the two-way street in which power operated in the universe of fandom, where the star was as bound by the expectations of the fan as to what is admissible for the former, as the fan was to the strictures of mores and modes of conduct exhorted by the star not only in his films but also in his letters to the fans. Devotion coexisted with defiance.
Both Prasad and Srinivas expanded on their thesis in the coming years to cover the phenomenon of NTR in the Telugu world. They argued that, contrary to the earlier assumptions stated above, NTR’s filmic output in the years before his electoral triumph was not in the genre of “mythologicals”, but in the super-genre called “socials” (an all-in genre with elements of romance, thrills, songs, stunts, attractions, etc. in varying combinations). In Srinivas’s words:
By January 1983, when he became chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, NTR had acted in a total of 289 films. Only 42 of these were mythologicals as against 55 folklore films and 11 historicals. The rest were socials.1
In other words, when he took the electoral plunge, NTR’s presence was majorly as an old man with painted face playing young roles in socials. However, Srinivas argues, what was important to the electioneering of NTR was the peculiarity of the community – that this was not a political community addressed through films, but a community bonded by the cinematic affect for whom the political arena was a return to the cinematic, characterised as it was by the aura of a chaste language, and the body gestures of an evocative nature.2
Prasad has framed the phenomenon of the extra-cinematic success of the three big names from South India – MGR in Tamil Nadu, NTR in Andhra Pradesh, and Rajkumar in Karnataka – to a feature of cinema itself, which he calls “cine-politics”.3 A feature of the socials, cine-politics elaborated the relation between the superstar and his people through an arrangement of the relation between the protagonist and his cohorts on screen and in the narrative. For Prasad, one of the features of recent years has been that big capital has encroached on this relation, which was until recently a feature of “irrationality” and therefore of anxiety to the mainstream, such that the celebration of this fandom in today’s media is also a sign of its demise as a site for elaborating popular aspirations. In other words, the age of cine-politics is over.
Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda introduces her book Deities and Devotees: Cinema, Religion, and Politics in South India as an intervention in this debate. While she would be the least inclined to accept the figure of the gullible Indian film viewer who cannot distinguish between film and reality, she is also not comfortable to the incidental status that mythologicals have been assigned in NTR’s success in Prasad’s and Srinivas’s critical programme. Bhrugubanda’s effort is to study the complex linkages between religion, politics, and the genres of mythologicals and devotionals in the Telugu universe. There are a set of questions that she seeks to investigate, some of which are: is NTR’s early career successes as the on-screen deity just a fact of the past now long gone, or are there modalities in which this past continues to present itself in his success? Is there a way in which the mythologicals could have articulated a claim in the contemporary nation-state, especially one of sub-nationalism? Has religion and devotion been replicated on the screen, or is there a way in which religion and devotion – being, as they are, embodied practices – are themselves affected by the happenings on the screen? What are the ways in which the mythologicals and devotionals are affected by, and address, contemporary questions of caste assertions? The effect of these questions is that instead of the image of a film viewer who is lost in the smokescreens of mythologicals, the mythologicals themselves are now brought down to the worldliness of macro scale state politics as well as the everyday negotiations of identity.
Two concepts which are central to Bhruguanda’s thesis are those of articulation and habitus. I shall come to habitus later in this article. The concept of articulation, developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe with a view to imagining a new democratic politics in the face of global victory of capital, envisages a politics of building equivalences among disparate political groups on concrete issues. This equivalential logic is crucial for popular identities and populist politics. For Bhrugubanda, the mythologicals and devotionals were sites of articulation in which a host of disparate contemporary issues of Andhra Pradesh at the time – like those of lower caste assertion, sub-nationalism, gender-equality, communalism, etc. – could be raised, managed, or addressed. Madhava Prasad has earlier made the link between the coming of sound in cinema, the localization of studios, sub-nationalism, and the rise of the patriarchs in south Indian films. Bhrugubanda illustrates how the sonic regime of the mythologicals help in the articulation of a regional identity.The engagement with the soundscape of films, as noted in its attention to dialogues, poetry, etc. has been crucial to the study of the impact of NTR movies. This is because, as Bhrugubanda and Srinivas argue, the Telugu nation could be summoned to existence primarily through cinema by deploying a new classical sounding version of the language which would then function as the authentication of the political message. An engagement with the soundscape of the mythologicals and its performative dimension is one of the highlights of this book.
Bhrugubanda’s work is also an anthropological endeavour. While the first part of the book is a reading of the films and their negotiations of contemporary concerns, the second part of the book is dedicated to practices around the shooting and screening of mythologicals and devotionals. Here we see actors speaking about their bodily practices when they work on a mythological or a devotional, the ritual practices undertaken by the exhibitors as well as the practices of the audience in and around the screening halls. A highlight of the book is its investigation into the phenomenon of women becoming possessed in film theatres during the screening of goddess movies. The central concept which links the first section of the book with the second is that of habitus. The concept of habitus is drawn from the works of Talal Asad, who notes that our negotiations with the world are neither rational, nor natural and spontaneous, nor the result of imbibing repetition and habit. Rather, we work on our embodied selves over time developing physical response to the world around us. Our emotional being, our spiritual experiences, etc. are achieved through this our working on our own selves over time, cinema being one of the sites in which these embodiment acquires form. The concept of habitus allows Bhrugubanda to rethink the time of cinema. The mythologicals, in Bhrugubanda’s detailed illustration with support from various secondary sources, ceases to be a historical document belonging to a specific moment in history, and opens the field for investigation of a different scale of time in which these can be found to be operational beyond the historicist. If so, films have to be investigated for its citations and afterlives in the many forms it takes and in the many sites they are evoked.
Deities and Devotees is an engaging read, and is characterised by a personal voice. The book begins with the question as to why the genre of mythologicals found success for more than four decades in Tamil and Telugu even when it was short-lived in Hindi, and ends with an answer as to why the genre could now be declared dead on the Telugu big screen.
Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda, Deities and Devotees: Cinema, Religion, and Politics in South India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018).