Goldie Osuri on Hindi Cinema

Goldie Osuri photo‘Ma’ and a Political Theology of Hindi Cinema

by Goldie Osuri

A discussion of Hindi commercial cinema as a visual grappling with the enmeshments of earthly law and divine justice (political theology) can prove an interesting and illuminating exercise. The more interesting issue is how the films address the adequacies of law to justice. Hindi cinema’s mother figures, in particular, have historically expressed the dilemma of this (in)adequacy, even the injustice of law, at times embodying its powerful melancholic force.

A recent example of the use of political theology to understand Hindi cinema can be found in Anustup Basu’s Bollywood in the Age of New Media: The Geo-Televisual Aesthetic (2012). Basu suggests that, read as a continual mix of assemblages in different political eras, Hindi cinema indicates how the divine and the worldly or tradition and modernity are combined in eclectic ways, and do not necessarily indicate binaries. In these assemblages, sacred and profane ideas of law and justice are frequently referenced to make sense of the narrative.

Two films, Mother India (1957) and Deewar (1976), have been fodder for scholarly analysis of the ethical conduct of the mother in unjust worlds where questions of law and justice are pertinent. Mother India is a post-independence film and illustrates a mother’s struggle against feudal yoke in an Indian village. The film ends with the inauguration of a dam—a reference to India’s Nehruvian modernization program, a secular force which may provide a way out for the harsh times that the village has faced. Deewar was released a year after the National Emergency was declared in 1975 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when severe state repression sought to break labour movements in a climate of food shortages, rising prices, and increasing unemployment.

Both mothers (Radha in Mother India and Sumitra in Deewar) in these different eras have a pair of sons who stand for differing notions of law and justice. One of each pair of sons (Birju in Mother India and Vijay in Deewar) transgresses the law in pursuit of a vengeful and/or criminal means to justice. Radha and Sumitra’s motherly love for these transgressing sons is indubitable, but the sons are killed by the mothers, directly or indirectly according to the dictates of a divine sense of order loosely consonant with the principles of secular law. Radha shoots her son Birju for attempting to kidnap, perhaps even rape, the daughter of a landlord/moneylender who has dispossessed her family. This is the landlord/moneylender who has in the past attempted to violate her ‘honour’. When Radha shoots Birju, the rationale provided is that as mother, she is also the mother of the village, and hence will uphold a divine sense of morality–mother as an embodiment of goddess. In Deewar, the mother hands her son Ravi, a police officer, the gun which will shoot Vijay, her other son, who flees the law. Vijay’s criminality is a critique of the failure of the postcolonial state to deliver on a number of its promises—e.g, the basic needs of a dispossessed family living on the footpath. The dispossession is unjust as the father, a trade union leader, is held hostage to signing off on a deal with the corrupt owner of the company. For the shame of this act, the penniless father travels forever on the Indian railways leaving Sumitra and her sons to struggle in the grime of urban poverty.

Tejaswani Ganti (2004) has argued that law and justice are distinct in Hindi cinema, but that their codes are complicated. In Deewar, Vijay is an exemplary son in that his purpose is to avenge the wrong done to his family and his mother. But his violation of secular law means that the mother hands a gun to her police officer son Ravi to kill Vijay the criminal, and then hurries to meet Vijay at the temple before his death. The iteration of this complexity is rendered through Sumitra’s statement: ‘Aurat apna farze nibha chuki; ab ma apne bete ka intazar karne ja rahi hai.’ Translated the statement means, the woman has done her duty, now the mother will go and await her son. This statement is all the more poignant as Sumitra has just given the gun to Ravi declaring bhagwan kare, goli chalate waqt tere haath na kape. A rough translation would be, may god see to it that when you shoot the bullet may your hands not tremble. The mother is thus a woman-citizen, steady in her resolve against the criminal while the broken-hearted mother holds the bleeding, dying son, the son for whom justice meant transgression of the law. Ganti argues that ‘the real “hero” of the film is actually Vijay who is concerned with justice’, and that ‘the triumph of the law in Deewar appears particularly hollow and unjust’ as he lays dying (2004: 123).

Basu states that since the 1990s, a time of neoliberalization, the assembling impulse of Hindi cinema asserts ‘a new nationalism’ through affect rather than through ‘narrative resolutions’ (2012: 5-6). We could ask some additional questions. What does this new nationalism entail? What forms of affect pervade the relationship between law and justice? What has become apparent in the last decade is the way in which a muscular and vigorous attitude toward terrorism appears to drive a number of Hindi films.  In these films, the mother of yesteryears does not seem to have played as powerful a role embodying the melancholic conundrums of law and justice as she did in the 50s or the 70s.  Instead, the mother has begun to evolve in some interesting ways.

The conundrums of law and justice seem to be referenced now by the female lead. Fanaa (2006), for example, addresses the politically charged dilemma for Zooni Ali Beg, a blind Muslim Kashmiri woman, who kills her separatist militant Kashmiri husband once she finds out he has been involved in terrorist activity. The necessity of this killing in the interest of protecting the nation, however, does not deter her from telling her son that his father thought what he was doing was right.  Zooni’s grief in the last scene makes for a sobering end. Yet, the sense of utter loss and melancholia as part of embodying a good woman-citizen felt in Mother India and Deewar somehow seems to be absent in this film. Perhaps this is because the film does not convey any in-depth sense of the Indian state’s bloodied relationship to Kashmir or the argument for Kashmiri independence.

In Kahaani (2012), a slow suspense thriller, the lead character Vidya Bagchi is an ‘expectant’ mother. The film has been called woman-centric not because it is about women per se, but its lead is a woman. Vidya Bagchi is a software engineer in search of a missing husband. Through a number of twists and turns in plot and a loving feel for the city of Kolkata in which it is set, Kahaani manages to show how Vidya outwits not only the assassins but also the police as she hunts down and kills her husband’s killer. As the scene is set in Kolkata’s famous Durga puja festival, which in part celebrates the Goddess’s killing of the demon Mahishashura, the sacred and the profane are referenced in the preservation of the order of ‘good’ and the state against evil.

It is interesting to compare Kahaani in relation to the affective consequences of abiding by the law in Mother India and Deewar. The last scenes reveal who Vidya Bagchi’s character really is, an intelligence agent out to fulfil a ‘secret’ national security mission in the assassination of a rogue Intelligence Bureau agent turned terrorist. In doing so, she also settles a personal vendetta (the death of her husband in the terrorist attack). Vidya weeps in the final scenes. Her tears, however, do not water the inadequacies of law to justice per se. They are tears that appear to signal the movement of aurat or woman to aurat as intelligence agent and assassin. An enthusiastic feminist mapping of Kahaani might discuss this shift in roles. And, it is interesting to note that the mother as an embodiment of a goddess has been enfolded into this lead role. But the rogue-intelligence agent turned terrorist does not highlight the problem with monotheistic state-craft. And the referencing of Durga, a creation of the three Gods to uphold the domestic order, appears to leaves intact the patriarchal sovereignty of the divine and the secular while a woman exercises that sovereign power.

The question that such a line of thought might provoke is: Is there a correlation between the loss of the mother figure of yester years and the disappearing capacity of Hindi films to express the melancholia which once accompanied the dilemmas of the injustice of law or state? A political theology of Hindi cinema might suggest an affirmative in this regard.


Basu, Anustup 2012, Bollywood in the Age of New Media: The Geo-Televisual Aesthetic, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ganti, Tejaswini 2004, Bollywood: A Guide to Popular Hindi Cinema, Routledge: London and New York.

Kabir, Ananya Jahanara 2009, Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir. Permanent Black: Delhi.

Khan, Shanaz 2009, ‘Nationalism and Hindi Cinema: Narrative Strategies in Fanaa’, Studies in South Asian Film and Media, 1 (1): 85-99.

Lal, Vinay 2011, Deewaar: The Footpath, the City, and the Angry Young Man. Harper Collins: Delhi.

Mazumdar, Ranjani 2007, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City, University of Minnesota Press; Minneapolis.

Mishra, Vijay 2002, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, Routledge: London and New York.

Dr. Goldie Osuri is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology. She holds a PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, USA. Prior to her appointment at Warwick, she worked at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She has recently published a monograph, Religious Freedom in India: Sovereignty and (Anti) Conversion (Routledge, 2013).

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