Teaching Religion Through Bollywood Horror Films

Dr. Aditi Sen 

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As a horror film aficionado, I have often wondered if Indian horror films, particularly, successful Bollywood films, could be used as a source for teaching Hinduism. Horror films are rich in themes like mythology, witchcraft, folklore, and it can even help open dialogues about issues like secularism versus sectarianism, western education versus traditional knowledge, and the conflict between religion and science.

purana-mandir-horror-vintage-bollywood-poster-1First, I will very briefly trace the history of horror cinema in Bollywood, and then focus on a few horror films that I consider to be excellent texts for teaching Hinduism.

How do we define horror cinema? Here, I find Noel Carroll’s definition, where he categorically differentiates between natural and art horror, to be useful.[1] In this case, the presence of the supernatural qualifies as a horror film. I will focus on monster flicks and films about evil spirits and witches, a genre that only became popular in Bollywood in the 80s. Before the 80s, horror was not even a recognized genre. There were scary films, but they were mostly murder mysteries and suspense thrillers. These films often had spooky content, but there was always a rational explanation for the supposedly supernatural events. In fact, the protagonist was almost always a man of science who investigated the inexplicable occurrences and solved a mystery. In fact, a very common dialogue that appears in most horror films is, “How can you believe in ghosts when you are educated?” In films, believing in ghosts has always been viewed as a sign of ignorance and lack of education. It is only natural that in the Nehruvian era of nation building the belief in the supernatural was seen as a hindrance to progress, and the film industry reflected that mindset.

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So, what changed in the late 70s and 80s? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward. First of all, films like The Exorcist, Omen, and Evil Dead, did extremely well at the Box Office. These films included themes that Indians could easily relate to. Specifically, the idea of possession appealed to the audience. There are many Indian films on possession, but let me expand on two films. Gehrayee (Depth, 1981) is an excellent documentation of different types of exorcisms, and the continuous struggle between traditional knowledge and modern medicine. Another film on possession called Bhoot (Ghost, 2003) takes place in an apartment in Mumbai, thereby making possession commonplace and an urban event. Both the films explore folk shamanistic traditions, black magic, and also have an engaging storyline.

Another reason for the popularity of horror films is put forward by Valentina Vitali who maintains that the late 70s and 80s were a very difficult time for the nation. India witnessed the emergency, followed by tensions rising in Punjab, which eventually led to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, followed by the retaliation against the Sikhs. Vitali points out that horror films helped people cope with that stress, because the population increasingly felt that they had lost control of their lives and their surroundings.[1]

Horror films are also inherently subversive in nature. They often give voice to the ones who have been ignored by mainstream politics and religion. Priests are replaced by shamans, folk traditions replace yajnas, and exorcism replaces science. These films provide a platform for discussing these paradoxes. For example, in Vikram Bhatt’s Haunted (2011) the evil spirit is a Brahmin and only a Sufi fakir knows the way of dealing with him. This film is also a very rich resource for studying secularism, and how Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity find a common ground for fighting evil through compassion.

Horror films are an untapped resource that can be a very useful tool in Religious Studies. My favorite films for teaching apart from the ones I have mentioned are Purana Mandir (Old Temple),Veerana (Deserted) Raaz (Secret), Raaz 3, 13B, Raat (Night), and Ek Thi Daayan (There was once a witch).

 

 

[1] Vitali, Valentina. “The Evil I: Realism and Scopophilia in the Horror Films of Ramsay Brothers. In Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema, ed. Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto, 77-101. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[1] Carroll Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, 12, New York, Routledge, 1990.