Category Archives: Hinduism and the Media

Hinduism in Bollywood

Bollywood came about in the very early 20th century with Dhundiraj Govind Phalke being credited with being the “Father of Indian Cinema” (Dimitrova 2016: 2). The name “Bollywood” came from a combination of Bombay and Hollywood, which demonstrates the enormous size of Bollywood in comparison to Hollywood (Mazur 2011: 75). The sources of Bollywood film can be found in traditional Indian Dance, Sanskrit drama, and especially from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Early on in its history, the films were made and seen by those in the elite classes and were rarely seen by ordinary people. Indian cinema has been seen as inferior to the west and has to censor to ‘protect’ the lower classes because it was originally reserved for the upper class (Dwyer 2006: 14). Though, the film industry has not changed greatly, there are some distinctions between old and new Bollywood film styles. Classical Bollywood film, [made in the late 20th century] was used to heighten emotional response and to appeal to a mass audience rather than just a narrow group (Dimitrova 2016: 4). Just like Hinduism, Bollywood films do not just employ storytelling, but also song and dance. Since Bollywood film has grown in popularity, the origins of the Bollywood industry still stay strong throughout.

Bollywood film in the 20th century was a useful tool in terms of creating a national and cultural identity. The films wanted to depict the immoral and materialist nature of Western culture and how India is a superior culture compared to them. Some films in this period showed the changing demographic in India. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s the presence of a Christian priest was common in Hindi film and those who sought shelter would often do so in Christian churches (Lal 2006). However, this was not widely represented in mainstream cinema. They also used the concept of ‘Orientalism’ in both the 20th and 21st centuries to push the stereotypes and the idealization of India itself. This concept gives them a uniqueness and gives them the ability to differentiate themselves from Western media. However, in 21st century Bollywood, the films are constantly being scrutinized for their views on contemporary politics, corruption, public perception of the state and its agencies, and the position of women in Indian society (Lal 2006). However, these films will sometime critique the treatment of women and other social issues. Furthermore, regarding the new Bollywood films some accuse the film- markers of being anti-Hindu or having Hinduphobia. This is where films will portray those who practice the religion as closeminded people, conservative, or will perceive the religion in a negative way. Though the roots of these movies will forever be from Hinduism.

Most, if not all Bollywood movies can be connected back to the two epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It even has its own genre in Bollywood, often being referred to as the mythological genre. These epics guide many Hindus on how to lead a moral life by doing one’s duties, whether that be for family or society (Mazur 2011: 219). First, the Ramayana is a popular story that many know around the world. The one thing that pushed the popularity of this story was that it became a television series and the various movies were made based on the epic. For example, the movie Awaara (1951) parallels the events in the Ramayana, where Sita is kidnapped by an evil demon Ravana. Sita is found but her chastity is questioned since she was kidnapped by another man. In order to prove herself, she went through a fire ordeal, but even after she does so, Rama abandoned Sita because his kingdom was not fond of her.  In mainstream Bollywood film, this promotes a conservative model for women because she shows bhakti [devotion, service, and surrender] to Rama who is her husband (Dimitrova 2010: 72). This can be easily seen within social life of Hindus, as wives are supposed to practice loyalty and obedience with their husbands. Even Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana TV series has contributed to the vision of the perfect Pativrata using the example of the perfect dharmic wife like Sita or Draupadi and distorts Tulsidas’s version of Sita (Dimitrova 2010: 72).

The Mahabharata is considered to be the foundation of Hinduism in part because the Bhagavad Gita is derived from the text. The story is about the Pandavas rivalry with their cousins the Kauravas which ends in a fierce battle. The Pandavas demonstrate a perfect dharmic nature and Draupadi, who is wife to all five of the brothers, also demonstrates Pativrata too. The Maharashtra Film Company made the Sairandhri (1920) based on a story from the Mahabharata which shows depictions of Indian servitude (Dwyer 2006: 20). Furthermore, in the 1980s there was a TV show that B.R. Chopra made called the Mahabharata. During the time of its release the restrictions on religion in media were relaxed. This show was less controversial because it was more of a historical epic and there were not political connections. Another film that was a retelling of the Mahabharata was Shayam Benegal’s Kalyug (1980). This story instead of being set in ancient times, had a more modern tone to it. Two industrial families named the Puranchands and Khuchands go into a bitter feud similar to that of the Pandavas and the Kauravas (Lal 2006). Though, there are not as many renditions of the Mahabharata compared to the Ramayana its popularity shows that it is still is imbedded in the roots of Hindu culture and film.

An important film that illustrates the power of these mythological stories is Jai Santoshi Maa (1975). The goddess Santoshi Maa is a major goddess in the Hindu pantheon and is generally worshipped by women in northern India (Dwyer 2006: 46). The goddess was originally was local to the northern Indian, the movie was derived from the vratkathas, a story about a fast to gain the favour of a god. The movie was popular with working women and because of that, the movie turned into a household name. This movie shows the origins of the goddess and how she is a manifestation of sakti. It also shows Satyavati’s devotion leads her to economic and martial success by worshipping the goddess of satisfaction (Mazur 2011: 78). Satyavati is the mother of Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. “The film deliberately sets up an overt contrast between ‘High Hinduism’ and folk Hinduism:  Laksmi, Parvati, and Sarasati are well-fed and lead opulent lives, but Santoshi Ma is content with offerings ofgur-chana (cane sugar & chickpeas), food consumed by the poor” (Lal 2006). To many women who are in the lower classes, it gives them hope that a goddess can be an ordinary woman similar to how many men are considered gods (i.e. Sri Caitanya). The film has been considered a devotional and a historical film unlike the films based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The film often promoted the worship of the goddess by not only being shown during festival times but also when the DVD was released there incense, a small candle, an image of the goddess, and a pamphlet explaining the vow (Mazur 2011: 78). Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) quickly gained a cult status similar to the Ramayana TV series by Sagar. This movie demonstrates that Hindi film is not strictly patriarchal and how easily the worship of a new god/ goddess can come about through Bollywood film.

Hinduism is not just strictly portrayed in Bollywood films, it is also shown in Hollywood films. Comparing how the religion is interpreted in Hollywood versus Bollywood, demonstrates how others in the world view the religion. It is important to note that Hinduism in non- Indian, western film often portray orientalism and use the sense of the “Other” in positive and negative ways (Mazur 2011: 214). In Hollywood movies, holy men bring wisdom to those in need and are often portrayed as being Gurus. Though there are never any mentions of the teachings or the great philosophies of these teachers. One of the critiques that Hinduism based movies receive is that they often take a historical approach rather than a mythical one. This is often seen with movies that are based around the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Nevertheless, there are always more negatives than positives that westerners see in these films. For example, the philosophies are perceived as full of wisdom and can be useful to westerners who see rituals are seen as foreign and weird (Mazur 2011: 215). This promotes the idea of the ‘Other’ as well as orientalism. These western movies also stereotype the religion similar to how some of the Bollywood movies stereotype western cultures in theirs. For example, in the movie Lagan (2001) the Indian villagers are portrayed as morally superior and the British are shown are superficial and cruel (Dimitrova 2016: 9). In this film, a British women named Elizabeth and an Indian women named Gauri. Elizabeth develops a love for India, immersing herself in the religion which is shown through Indian music and dance. However, in the end the boy still chooses Gauri because of the desirability of the Indian “self” (Dimitrova 2016: 10). This film is based on the mythology of Krsna and his favorite gopi and the devotional Mira who believes she is wed to Krsna, which is a common theme among Bollywood films.

Hinduism is often imbedded within Bollywood movies. These movies promote a nationalism that ties in religion and devotion to doing your duties. There are two main genres in Bollywood, which are devotional and mythological, which contribute to the idea that one should practice Hinduism and should stay devoted to it. These are genres considered to be the foundations for Bollywood cinema. The mythological genre sets a stage for what the devotion should look like, as well as shows deities to prove that they too follow dharmic ways. The devotional genre guides you through using the narratives of saints from the beginning of life to the end. Though both genres still adhere to the historical aspects of the film.


References and Further Readings

Dimitrova, Diana (2016) “Hinduism and Its Others in Bollywood Film of the 2000s” Journal of Religion and Film 20: 1-20.

Dimitrova, Diana (2010) “Religion and Gender in Bollywood Film.” In Religion in Literature and Film in South Asia edited by Diana Dimitrova, 69-81. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dwyer, Rachel (2006) Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema. New York: Routledge.

Lal, Vinay (2006) “Hinduism in Bollywood: A few notes.” University of Los Angeles. Accessed October 3, 2018.

Mazur, Eric Michael (2011) Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. Denver: Greenwood.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





Dhundiraj Govind Phalke







Bhagavad Gita


Noteworthy Websites

This article was written by:  Kailea Long (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.