The enduring appeal of mythological films

Dadasaheb Phalke made first Indian mythological film 'Raja Harishchandra'; well-known movie critics explain genre's lure

The year 1913 marked the beginning of an era in Indian cinema. Raja Harishchandra, the first feature film made in the country, set the stage for many productions to come. It was produced, directed and co-screen-written by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, fondly called Dadasaheb Phalke. 

Based on a story from the Mahabharata, its length was about 40 minutes. Mythological subjects work because the audiences are already familiar with the stories, says Dr K Puttaswamy, the film historian honoured with a national award for documenting Kannada cinema.

He believes the success of Raja Harishchandra gave several filmmakers the courage to explore mythological subjects. “In the Kannada film industry, Sati Sulochana was the first, and it was based on a character from the Ramayana, with ample scope for reinterpreting mythology. There were also films like Sathya Harishchandra and Chandrahasa that were popular among the people. They led to a demand for mythological films,” explains Puttaswamy.


Dr Rajkumar in Bhaktha Prahlada

A mythological film calls for money, costumes, makeup and lavish sets, he says.

The freedom movement inspired many mythological films in Kannada between 1934 and 1950, and some mixed myth with history. “We saw films like Bhakta Prahlada and socially-relevant films like Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa. After this, there was a sudden slump in the number of mythological films,” says Puttaswamy.

He attributes the decline in numbers to a newfound interest in Nehruvian thoughts and social drama. “Most mythological films depended on histrionics, costumes and music. These elements played a major role in determining the success of a mythological film. Many directors found it difficult to find the right combination and not many actors were comfortable playing mythological characters,” says Puttaswamy.

Today, the spectacle can be provided with the help of computer graphics and special effects, he believes, but mythology as a subject for films isn’t as popular as it was some decades ago. 

Revival Time

R Krishnakumar, film critic, holds a different view. He says the revival of the mythological, as a genre, is a trend in Indian publishing. “In cinema, the trigger appears to be the Baahubali films; across languages, we are reimagining our past, and reimagining it big. We’ve always had a thing for films based on the epics and Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug and Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathy were both inspired by the Mahabharata, though they were set in contemporary times,” he says.

But what Baahubali has done is crucial: it has broken language barriers and redefined the box office potential of spectacle on screen, Krishnakumar says. He finds it interesting that while hard-hitting films on gender and identity politics are finding an audience, we still revisit the childhood thrills of story-book entertainment in films such as Kurukshetra.

“In business terms, the big-ness – in the budget, cast and promotions – fuels hype. In an age of OTT platforms, the promise of a big-screen experience is a USP,” he explains.

Special effects drive mythological films

MK Raghavendra, a well-known film critic, says mythological films don’t hold the charm and curiosity they did some decades ago. In his words:

How they work today?

They no longer perform the same function and can’t be compared with old mythological films like Bhaktha Prahlada in which Rajkumar played Hiranyakashipu and Anant Nag was Narada. For all practical purposes, Baahubali was a mythological film. Judging from Baahubali, the new mythological films may be engaged in providing the public with a fanciful picture of the past, aided by digital graphics. They may not keep myth separated from history.

Do mythological films connect the current generation with the past?

Baahubali seemed to be unsure of even the meaning of dharma, a cornerstone of traditional belief. Mythological films, to be educative about tradition, must be made by people who understand it well and have thought about it. Amish Tripathi is a writer in English trying to cash in on mythology and he makes Sita a martial arts expert and a general in Janaka’s army! He apparently said he found such a reference in the Vedas. The Vedas predated even the oral Ramayana by several centuries!

Is it the content or the visual effects that prompt the remakes?

Once upon a time, a Kannada mythological film was very different from a Telugu one. In the Kannada film, the protagonist was the devotee. As in Bedara Kannappa, often played by Rajkumar. In the Telugu film, the protagonist was the God and often played by his counterpart there, NTR. Only some mythological films could be remade in other languages since every film had a political message specific to a language. But if mythological films all emphasise the same thing that is pan-Indian - our glorious past - they can be remade in any Indian language.

Why should one watch a mythological film?

Now, I think it is graphics and special effects as in Baahubali. Earlier, it was the drama as in Babruvahana. Obviously, the earlier films were better in terms of content; they were better written and better acted. But in them, you couldn’t have seen the visual effects you see today.

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