July 14, 2020 By John

Film Studies and Religion


While few critics and film theorists have investigated religion in the cinema, one of the greatest film critics, Andre Bazin (2002), writes, ‘The cinema has always been interested in God’, usually with the most spectacular aspects of the history of Christianity. He argues that Catholicism has a ‘natural affinity’ with cinema with its formidable iconography and that these features have given rise to films that are successful but religiously insignificant because they have to work against these spectacular elements, focusing instead on the psychological and moral deepening of the religious fact, leading to a renunciation of the physical representation of the supernatural and grace. Bazin’s remarks are not applicable in the context of the Indian ‘religious genres’, in which I believe films are, in fact, religiously significant while also being highly successful commercially. Hindu iconography and its relationship of the image and the viewer have, perhaps, an even greater affinity with cinema and the conventions of Indian cinema, whether or not the operation of a melodramatic mode or its sequence of ‘attractions’ (see Dwyer and Patel 2002) subordinate the spectacular to the other requirements of cinema.

While it is widely acknowledged that the film itself has a mythological nature and is a creator of new mythologies, we also need to consider whether, as critics such as John Lyden (2003) have argued, cinema is almost a form of religion, as, like religion, it presents and examines images, relationships, ideas, beliefs, desires, fears, and brings to them its own specific forms such as the quasi-divine figures of the stars (see Lyden 2003). Cinema also has a certain mystical quality in that we may not understand films but we feel them and respond to their emotions. However, Hindi cinema’s very disavowal of certain forms of realism and its unique modification of the melodrama allow the eruption of the religious, sometimes as images actively engage in the drama, often as a hierophany, that is the appearance of the religious in the everyday. Very few films show an absence of the religious, and many that seem to have some ‘secular’ patterning of divine order through the operation of fate, virtue and redemption reshape these into meaningfulness by their divine or superhuman qualities, while also emphasizing the spirituality of the individual.

Film theory has also given little space to the study of religion. The concerns of many film critics are mostly with the modern and postmodern forms of subjectivity, audience and the dominance in recent years of psychoanalytic and feminist criticism. Scholars of Indian cinema have examined the form of film, its history, its social context and its relation to politics, in particular its relation with nationalism, but rarely discussed the spiritual realm; in fact there has been almost no research on religion in cinema in India.9 This is not surprising given how little research there has been on religion and cinema in general.10 Most books on religion and cinema are concerned with ‘religious’ films or with the depiction of spirituality in films, mostly drawing on Judaeo-Christian thought. This writing tends to focus on the image of Christ or on theology. There is yet to be a body of work that examines the non-Abrahamic religions in cinema.

My own reluctance to examine religion in Indian cinema has been due to wanting to avoid seeing religion as the essence of India, a Dumontian view of India’s cultural difference. The idea of discussing religion and Indian cinema is usually taken to mean a study of representation of religious communities, religious nationalism and religious films, a political approach which I have discussed only where appropriate to the broader areas of my study. However, as there is interest in the current worldwide religious resurgence, which has been studied more in media other than cinema, it is likely that the academic study of the Hindi film will increase.