Bollywood’s Portrayal of Lord Ram

The recent announcement by makers of Adipurush to “rework” the film, is unprecedented in the history of Bollywood. 

The Mumbai-based industry that makes Urdu-Hindi films is known primarily for ‘masala’ entertainers, and its fans hardly set expectations of high-quality narration or technological skills. Yet, the public was angry at the teaser of Adipurush released in October.

The film is based on Sanskrit epic Ramayan, considered sacred by most Indians. The teaser received severe online backlash for poor animation and incorrect portrayal of key characters.

They felt offended that the makers were treating Lord Ram and Ramayan with the same frivolity that they treat subjects for masala films. Samrat Prithviraj and Brahmastra, touted as celebration of Hindu icons and symbols, had left the audience highly underwhelmed when Adipurush’s teaser came out.

Bollywood’s past record of inglorious portrayal of Ram added to the anger. 

In this piece, we take the readers through Bollywood’s chequered history in depicting Lord Ram and Sanskrit epics, and how it culminated at outrage against the 1.46-minute teaser of Adipurush.

From Celebrating Ram To Trivialising Ram

Most film historians are of the view  that the first drama film made by an Indian was Pundalik, released in 1912 and created by Nanabhai Govind Chitre and Ramachandra Gopal Torney. This was less than a year before Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, widely regarded as ‘Father of Indian cinema’, released his film Raja Harishchandra.

Phalke’s wife later recalled to a publication that Pundalik inspired Phalke to make films. When Phalke was coming out from the screening of The Life of Christ, he told his wife, “Like the life of Christ, we shall make pictures about Rama and Krishna.”

Phalke, who came from a Brahmin family of Sanskrit scholars, made close to a hundred films in the next decade-and-a-half. His 1917 film Lanka Dahan, based on an episode from Ramayan, became so popular that one exhibitor had to show the film every hour from 7 am till midnight. 

Those were fledging years of Indian cinema and filmmakers drew liberally from Hindu religious epics, Ramayan being a popular choice.

After the advent of talkies with the release of Alam Ara, the character of the Mumbai-based cinema changed. By the 1940s, Urdu had become the dominant language and social dramas critiquing the Hindu society, the dominant themes. Communist groups wielded great influence on the content.

Ironically, while an award named after Dadasaheb Phalke remains the most prestigious cinema award even today, the films retain none of what drove Phalke to make cinema — Sanskrit roots and Hindu epics. 

Ram was an anti-hero by the time India became independent of British rule in 1947. Cult films like Awaara (1951) and Chhalia (1960), based on wife abandonment by suspicious husbands, held Lord Ram squarely responsible. Made by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Awaara showed a judge abandoning his wife after she was kidnapped by a man he had wrongly convicted for rape. 

Comparisons of the judge with Lord Ram and his wife with Sita are undeniable: When the judge is contemplating whether to reject his wife on her return from forced confinement, the judge’s sister puts the last nail in the coffin — “Are you bigger than Bhagwan Ram?” 

Chhalia was based on the shameful episode of large-scale abduction of women during partition of India on both sides of the newly-created border.

The film’s story goes that a pregnant Hindu woman is left behind in Pakistan during Partition when her family hastily shifts to India. A kind Pathan named Abdul Rehman rescues her and raises her son as his own (this is polar opposite to the actual role played by members of the Pathan community in abductions during Partition, which can be read here). 

When the woman eventually comes to India and meets her husband, the latter abandons her, suspecting her of adultery with Rehman. An atheist named Chhalia (Raj Kapoor), who is a bystander watching this, smirks at a procession of Lord Ram that passes by at the same moment. He sings — “Gali gali Sita roye (A Sita is weeping in every street).”

Ironically, Raj kapoor, whose family had migrated from Peshawar to Mumbai after Partition and had probably felt the pain of Partition more closely than other residents of India, chose to pursue a career where Hindu faith and beliefs were consistently presented either with disdain or sexualised entertainment. The Kapoor family identify themselves as Pathans, only because their forefathers spoke Pashto.   

In ChhaliaAwaaraRam Teri Ganga MailiKal Aaj KalSatyam Shivam SundaramSangamJagte RahoDharam KaramBarsaat and Kanhaiya — there was some Hindu element he attacked.

Years later, film Lajja (2001) by Rajkumar Santoshi told the story of four Hindu women victimised by social evils such as dowry, domestic abuse and sexual crimes against women. The names of all the four women — Ramdulaari, Vaidehi, Janki and Maithili — are versions of Sita while the names of the debauched men in the films are versions of Ram, such as Raghu and Purushottam. 

In a scene, Madhuri Dixit, playing Sita in an on-stage Ramlila skit in the film, rebukes her husband Ram for asking for agnipariksha to prove her chastity (read about the dubious tale of agnipariksha by author of this piece here).

It is pertinent to mention here that the film took its title from a Bengali novel of the same name by Taslima Nasreen that told stories of communal crimes against the Hindu minority at the hands of Muslim majority in Bangladesh after demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. The crimes included burning down of temples, lynching of Hindu men, and rape and forced conversion of Hindu women.

As the social dramas of the 1960s made way for masala films of 1970s and 1980s, full-fledged mockery of Ram’s name became the new normal.

Lead characters portraying petty but endearing thieves and goons were shown chanting ‘Ram naam japna paraya maal apna” (chant Ram and indulge in loot) such as in film Namak Halaal featuring Amitabh Bachchan, Do Dil featuring Mehmood and Mumtaz and Parvarish featuring Bachchan and Neetu Singh. 

Film Muqaddar Ka Faisla (1987) showed Raj Babbar disguised as a saffron-clad sadhu looting a bank while chanting “Ram naam ki loot hai loot sake to loot”.

Watch a compilation of some such scenes here.

Lord Ram and other revered characters of Ramayan now became the butt of jokes through mockery of Ramlila.

Ramlila became a recipe for laughter because everything on the stage could be shown to go awry and the character of Ram or Lakshman getting beaten up.

Naram Garam (1981) made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee had an elaborate ‘comic’ scene where Shatrughan Sinha jumps on to a Ramlila stage and rebukes Sita for being irresponsible and crossing the Lakshman Rekha, and punishes Lakshman for leaving her at home before going in search of the deer.

This genre of ‘comedy’ was repeated in Anurag Basu’s Ludo (2020). In a Ramlila scene, a man playing Shurpanakha in a green lehenga, tries to seduce Lakshman with Bajirao-Mastani references.

Lakshman chops off her nose. When the man notices real blood oozing from his nose, he screams loud in front of the audience — “bhenc**d” — and thrashes the men playing Lakshman and Ram.

The template Ramlila joke was also recently seen at a ‘cultural fest’ of government-run All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) campus, triggering public outrage and the organisers issuing an apology.

In 2013, filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali sought to title his masala film as Ram-Leela after naming the lead romantic pair as Ram and Leela. 

The film’s promotional poster showed Ram (Ranveer Singh) pulling down the blouse of Leela (Deepika Padukone) in mutual lust. After Hindu groups objected, the film’s title was changed to Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela.

Bollywood’s hate relationship with Lord Ram post the 1980s comes across as rather surprising, given that a television serial based on Ramayan, made by Ramanand Sagar and telecast on Doordarshan, achieved unprecedented success.

A year after the TV serial’s release, Doordarshan telecast Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, where Lord Ram was portrayed as a grey character. 

Though the TV serial was an adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, Benegal took liberties with Ram’s portrayal as mentioned in Nehru’s book.

Ravan  The New Underdog Hero

While increasingly portraying Lord Ram as an anti-hero, Bollywood has been gradually elevating the status of Ravan.

Mani Ratnam’s Raavan (2010) showed Abhishek Bachchan’s character Beera kidnapping Aishwarya Rai’s character Raagini, who is a married woman, to avenge torture of his sister at the hands of Raagini’s police officer husband, who is portrayed as a jealous, doubting man. Beera is the hero of the film.

Allusion to Ramayan in the film is indisputable. 

Last year, a film was given the title Ravan Leela before public outrage forced a name change to Bhavai. The film was about a love affair between characters who played Ravan and Sita, and a commentary against Ram’s greatness.

And herein begins the public anger towards Adipurush.

The film has been in the making for at least two years because in 2020, its lead actor Saif Ali Khan told a publication that the film would justify Ravan’s abduction of Sita and present him as humane. Was it going to be yet another film extolling Ravan and trivialising Ram?

After public outrage, he apologised for his statement. Saif is portraying Ravan while Prabhas is playing Lord Ram.

Naturally, when the film’s teaser released, it was subjected to a greater scrutiny than is usual for Bollywood films. 

From poor animation that seemed to demean the subject to far-from-accurate physical appearances of the key characters, the teaser left the audience with unsettling doubts. 

Ram was shown wearing leather footwear instead of paduka or khadau. Ravan, the learned and mighty kind of Lanka who was well-versed in the Vedas, resembled what people jokingly called as ‘Al Qaeda terrorist’. His famed Pushpak Viman looked like a Targaryen dragon. 

Various scenes seemed to be lifted from Hollywood hits such as Game of Thrones, Thor, Evil Deed, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter series and Avengers. Hanuman looked bereft of any charm, sporting a hairstyle like medieval Europeans. 

People wonder why did such an expensive movie use VFX to project Angad (Vali and Tara’s son, prince of Kishkindha), styled after apes from Planet of the Apes, and why were the scenes set in such dark aesthetics? 

Kriti Sanon, who regularly plays ‘item girl’ in masala films and had tweeted in favour of anti-CAA protests in JNU, was revealed to be playing Sita. The teaser showed her ditching saffron in favour of Mauve, amplifying the public anger.

When the controversy around Adipurush was at its peak, came another ‘item number’ featuring Sanon — “Thumkeshwari”, alluding to ‘Ishwari’ used respectfully with names of Hindu goddesses. 

Initially, the filmmakers, including director Om Raut, dismissed the outrage saying the film was made for a large-screen experience and not mobile phones.

He then justified his work saying he aimed to make a Marvel-like entertainer to reach a younger audience. 

He said, “What does today’s generation want? The generation that is consuming Marvel, the one that’s consuming Spider-Man, Iron Man, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and what not. With the help of Adipurush, I want to get through to the current generation. The main objective of this film is to let the younger generation experience Ramayana in a way that they would understand and find entertaining. Because unless we talk to them in their language, they won’t consume the content which is not what our objective is.”

Ironically, a repeat telecast of the 1987 Ramayan TV serial in 2020 saw record viewership. 

Last week, he and other key members of the team announced that they would rework the film.

Slated for a January 2023 release, the film was postponed to a June 2023 release. They posted a message written in Sanskritised Hindi in Devanagari font (a rarity in Bollywood films these days) announcing the decision.

Will A Revised Adipurush Restore Public Trust?

The entire episode reveals that the audience has become more alert than ever to the kind of content dished out by Bollywood, arguably the largest medium of influence in India. 

If they unknowingly lapped up Hindu-hate propaganda all these years, they are much more aware of it, thanks to social media accounts that now highlight it.

They are asking why Bollywood reserves unsavoury creative liberties only for figures and symbols associated with Sanatana Dharma.

If one were to respond to it by saying that is because the country is largely Hindu, then the question arises: Why are the same films full of Urdu and Islamic imagery while depicting softer aspects such as poetry, music and spirituality?

An anti-Bollywood sentiment has been building up and is manifesting itself in online ‘Boycott Bollywood’ campaigns, serial failure of Bollywood films and unexpectedly high footfalls for dubbed Telugu, Kannada or Tamil films even if they are low-budget and lacking in ‘film stars’ like Kantara.   

The mistrust against Bollywood, especially regarding Hindu scriptures and revered figures, was already building up when Adipurush teaser came as a huge let down. The main challenge before the makers of Adipurush now is to restore the trust. It’s a tough task indeed, given that Bollywood has not seen a profitable project in a while. Mere cosmetic changes may not work. 

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Swati Goel Sharma is a journalist with close to 10 years of experience with India’s leading publications such as The Times of India and Hindustan Times. She writes mainly on issues concerning the deprived and marginalised groups, women and children.

Website | + posts

Against trafficking, social injustice, cruelty. Promotes Vedas, Yoga, Sanskrit. Data scientist. IIT-IIM. Founder – Sewa Nyaya Utthan Foundation, Gems of Bollywood.

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