The beginnings of Indian cinema go back to 1896, when the first cinematography show was presented at the Watson’s Hotel in Bombay. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (Dadasaheb Phalke, 1870-1944) is venerated nowadays as the “Father of Indian cinema.” His first movie, Raja Harischandra, widely regarded as the first Hindi movie, made its debut in Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph Theatre in 1913. Sound and music arrived in Indian cinema in 1931 and in the following two decades, several studios made important contributions to further the development of the Hindi film industry. During World War II, there were shortages of film equipment, and priority was given to films supporting the war, this resulted in the production of numerous war movies. During and after Partition of 1947, the importance of the Bombay film industry grew, as the film industries located in Calcutta and Lahore lost their employees and audiences (Ganti 2004). The post-independence film industry was thus shaped by the history of displacement and migration. Bombay became one of the few centers in India where Urdu was kept alive, as Hindi films continued to be made in Hindustani, building on a common Hindi-Urdu vocabulary, and not in the highly Sanskritized Hindi (Ganti 2004). Today, the Bombay film industry is the dominant media institution within India and plays an important role in constructing and defining the concepts of traditional and modern, global and local, and notions of “Indian,” “culture” and “nation.” (Ganti, 2004).
The origins and sources of the aesthetic of Bollywood films are to be found in Indian music and dance, folk dramatic tradition, Urdu literature, classical Sanskrit drama, and the epic narratives of the Mahabharat and Ramayan from Hinduism (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999, Ganti 2004, Dwyer 2006). The basics of Hinduism can be boiled down to the fact that humans as inhabitants of planet Earth are all connected. Humans are a part of the oneness that is life, and we are all working towards Brahman (ultimate reality). This means that we have either achieved Moksha, or we have excelled past the illusion of the world (Dennis 2020). The way that happens is through reincarnation — where what you are reborn as is dictated by your Karma – what you penance is what you owe the world – and whether or not you have paid enough of it to be born human, or something lesser.
Hinduism is also easily malleable; you can pick and choose different parts of the religion to make a story of your own. Even if you do not consider yourself to be a storyteller, Hinduism is a religion where many of the known works are considered stories and not history, so they can be taken and used as plots. Hindu philosophy in particular has a very specific understanding of the universe and the inhabitants of it that can help build an entire story from scratch. According to The Guardian, movies like The Matrix or Interstellar are examples of such instances. The Matrix takes its plot from the Hindu ideal of Moksha and Brahman. Neo spends the film having realized the world he lives in is a deception, and the plot comes from his trying to take down this lie from the inside. Interstellar’s evil entity ends up being humans themselves, directly taken from the Hindu idea of the ultimate reality (Dhaliwal 2014). In this vein, this paper discusses the similarities between the Hindu epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat in two popular Indian films – Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) and the Baahubali duology (2015-17).
Hum Saath Saath Hain, directed by Sooraj Barjatya, is a Bollywood film released in 1999. The phenomenal box-office success of Barjatya’s previous film Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), established the dominance of the genre of “family entertainers” in 1990s Bollywood (Dimitrova 2016). Hum Saath Saath Hain explores themes of love, family, and morality, and shares several similarities with the Hindu epic Ramayana, one of the most revered texts in Hinduism.
In the film, Ramkishen and his wife Mamta live with their three sons, Vivek, Prem, and Vinod. Prem and Vinod already have their love interests, and the eldest son Vivek is typically reserved and coy due to a birth handicap. The family meets with Adarsh and his daughter Sangeeta, and there is a spark between Sangeeta and Vivek, who decide to get married. Mamta becomes insecure after their wedding, believing that Vivek, her stepson, would become self-centered and take over the family business. To protect her sons Prem and Vinod, Mamta schemes with a family friend to alienate Vivek from the inheritance. Vivek chooses to go on a self-imposed exile to his father’s native village and decides to work on a smaller project. He is accompanied by his wife Sadhna and his step-brother Vinod. This divides the family. Out of love and respect for his step-brother, Prem refuses to accept the role of Managing Director of the company and performs the role as a deputy, and waits until the return of his older brother.
From the general setup, both Hum Saath Saath Hain and Ramayana portray the family unit as the foundation of society. In Ramayana, Lord Rama’s family is the epitome of an ideal family, with strong bonds of love, respect, and loyalty. Similarly, in Hum Saath Saath Hain, the family is depicted as a tight-knit unit that values togetherness and unity. Both the film and the epic lay emphasis on the importance of duty and responsibility. In Ramayana, Lord Rama’s sense of duty towards his kingdom and his people is a recurring theme. When he agrees to undertake his exile for fourteen years, he is willing to sacrifice his happiness for the greater good of his kingdom. Similarly, in Hum Saath Saath Hain, Vivek prioritizes the well-being of his mother and his family in general.
Vivek is Lord Ram who goes on an exile to the forest for fourteen years at the request of his stepmother Kaikeyi. His wife is Goddess Sita who insists on going with him, and Vinod is the loyal brother of Lord Lakshman who also accompanies them. Prem is Lord Bharat who is the firstborn child of Kaikeyi and acts as his brother’s deputy. He rules the Kingdom until Lord Ram returns from exile to take the crown. Though the Ramayaan is vast with multiple subplots, Hum Saath Saath Hain thus follows a small portion of the saga and focuses on themes of family values and togetherness.
Another film that follows a starkly similar storyline to a popular Hindu saga is the duology of Baahubali, based on the Hindu epic Mahabharat. The first of two cinematic parts, Baahubali: The Beginning follows Shiva, an adventurous young man who helps his love interest rescue Devasena, the former queen of Mahishmati who is now a prisoner under the tyrannical rule of King Bhallaladeva. The second film, Baahubali: The Conclusion, traces the story of the previous generation and follows the sibling rivalry between Amarendra Baahubali (Shiva’s father) and Bhallaladeva (Shiva’s uncle); the latter conspires against the former and has him killed by the royal guard Kattappa. The two generational stories are bridged when in the second film, Amarendra’s son Shiva returns to avenge his father’s death. The second film became the first Indian film to gross Rs 1,000 Cr. at the box office and created a milestone in Indian cinema: never before had a film garnered so much popularity and been dubbed into twelve different languages. One cannot help but notice the glaring similarities in the plots of Bahubali and the epic Mahabharat. This story of intergenerational family conflict for the throne, interwoven with sub-plots of loyalty from a royal guard and public humiliation of a princess had previously been explored in the Hindu epic Mahabharat.
In Baahubali, the character of Bijjaladeva is based on Dhritarashtra, the father of Duryodhan. Both these characters, in the film and Mahabharat, are physically challenged – one from the hand and the other from the eye. Both believe that it is their disability that didn’t let them become the King and therefore want their sons to be the King. Despite having a physical disability, both were extremely strong in their hands. Next, the characters of Kattappa and Bhisma are extremely alike. Both were unbeaten in any duel but were forced to follow the King’s words because of past promises. It is due to this reason that both were compelled to take the side of dharma (injustice). Eventually, both had to fight their loved ones – Bhishma fought Arjuna, while Kattappa fought and killed Bahubali. The characters of Bhallaldev and Duryodhan are also quite similar not just in terms of the weapon they both use (the gadda), but also in their selfish virtues. Both characters were jealous of their brother and spun vicious strategies to get to the crown. Lastly, the protagonists, Baahubali, the father, and Shiva, the son, are a combination of values exhibited by the five Pandava brothers. Though they are a part of two different generations, both were ace archers like Arjuna, powerful warriors like Bheem, ardent followers of dharma (justice) like Yudhistir, intelligent like Sehdev, and smart like Nakul.
There is an important subplot in Mahabharat that involves outraging the modesty of a woman and then the woman taking an oath against her molester. After the Pandavas had lost everything to the Kauravas in a game of dice, Duhshasan was asked by Duryodhan to drag Draupadi to the court. When Draupadi resisted, Duhshasan held her by her hair dragged her into the court, and started disrobing her. Her dignity was guarded by Lord Krishna and she took an oath to not tie her hair unless she washed it with Duhshasan’s blood. In a similar setup, in Baahubali, Devsena was publicly humiliated by Bhallaldeva. She was sentenced to exile for chopping off the finger of her molester and was aided by Baahubali who pledged to leave with her. She took a vow to burn Bhallaldeva’s corpse, which she eventually did in the film’s final scene. Again, though the epic of Mahabharat is vast with multiple subplots, Baahubali follows a small portion of the saga and focuses on themes of intergenerational conflict values, and righteousness.
Both Hum Saath Saath Hain and Baahubali were well-received by audiences in India and around the world. A survey conducted by the Hindustan Times (1999) found that 72% of audiences who watched Hum Saath Saath Hain rated it positively and 80% of audiences appreciated the film’s portrayal of traditional Indian values and culture. The film’s emphasis on the importance of family values and togetherness was particularly well-received, with 67% of audiences stating that they were moved by the film’s message. Today, Hum Saath Saath Hain has become a cult classic and is often cited as one of the best family dramas in Bollywood. Similarly, according to Box Office India (2015, 2017), both Baahubali films were massive box office successes, breaking several records, including becoming the highest-grossing Indian films of all time. A survey conducted by The Indian Express (2017) found that 90% of audiences who watched Baahubali: The Conclusion rated it positively and 69% of respondents stated that they cherished the films’s film’s storyline and performances.
The vast popularity of these films poses the question if their filmmakers intentionally chose of using storylines from religious texts to attract larger audiences. In an interview, Rajamouli, the creator of Baahubali said “All my movies are inspired by Mahabharat and Ramayan because those are two epics that have been fed to me right from my childhood. I get my emotional connection from those epics”. Rajamouli is not the only filmmaker who made such a choice. Film director Manmohan Desai (1936-94), recognized for his blockbusters Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Coolie (1983), and Mard (1985), once stated in an interview that he believes all his films are based on the Mahabharata. Perhaps because of their gargantuan length, the Hindu epics of Mahabharat and Ramayana have been hospitable to a vast array of theories and practices, and maybe Indian cinema is firmly grounded in the mythic world of Hinduism – sometimes explicitly like Dwyer’s (2006) genre of “mythological”, and sometimes subtly like Barjatya’s Hum Saath Saath Hain and Rajamouli’s Baahubali.