Back from its earliest days, Bollywood cinema has repeatedly dipped into its vast archive of mythological epics, legends and fairytales as source material for films. Myths in Indian culture play a role that extends well beyond their religious roots, and they’ve been repeated orally for generations. More than just tales of gods and goddesses, their fable-like narratives and moral teachings are greatly respected and admired.
It Began With Raja Harishchandra…
The history of filming myths began with Raja Harishchandra, the first-ever feature film made in India. Directed by father of Indian cinema, D.G. Phalke, the film was described thusly in the original advertisement back in 1913:
“This is a film which pictures the life of a Hindu king who, surrounded by all the grandeur and luxury that wealth could give, yet lived the life of nobility and purity, to whom falsehood and injustice were as strangers, and whose very virtues excited the wonder and the envy of the gods above.”
Tales of deities as miracle workers offering answers to life’s problems were already the mainstay of early 20th century Indian theater, and many of the nation’s earliest films were based on popular stage plays of the time. Cinema, with its trick shots, added a new and exciting element to these oft-told tales, and its popularity among moviegoers was tremendous.
Faithful to the Source Material?
Tales from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata as well as stories associated with Lord Krishna have provided a seemingly endless source of material for Bollywood filmmakers. Good versus evil, as well as the qualities of duty, sacrifice, and chastity are emphasized in the filmed version of these stories, and though audiences adore them, they are not without their detractors. Over the years there have been those who argue that that these cinematic adaptations are pseudo-devout at best, and the stories have been reduced to mere melodramas.
However, there are a handful of adaptations that are considered to be extremely faithful to the source material. These include Debaki Bose’s 1934 film Seeta, which was the first Indian film to be submitted to an international film festival, and two films from Vijay Bhatt, Bharat Milap and Ram Rajya, both of which were quite reverent to their subjects. One can only wonder what Satyajit Ray would have done with The Mahabharata, a film he wanted to make for many years.
Legends and Fairy Tales
Along with tales of gods and goddesses, other popular sub-genres are the region-based legends of the holy, kings, queens, outlaws, and stories of tragic couples who die only for love. In many cases these have been filmed as large scale costume adventure-dramas, and early examples were modeled after American serials of the 30s and 40s. Examples include films such as Hunterwali, Hurricane Hansa and Shirin Farhad. Famous fantasy tales such as Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor and The Thief of Baghdad have also been translated to the screen dozens of times over the years.
Though myths, legends, and fairy tales are no longer as popular as they once were, Bollywood still manages to resurrect a handful of these stories each year. 2011 will see the release of Main Krishna Hoon, a 3D animated epic on the life of Krishna, and there’s word that Disney will co-produce a series of films based on legendary heroes.