Monday, April 4, 2011

Jai Santoshi Maa

In contrast to movies like Amar, Akbar, Anthony that are social movies with undertones of religion, as described in Rachel Dwyer's article, Jai Santoshi Maa is a true mythological religious film. The movie opens abruptly to the god Ganesha, the elephant headed remover of obstacles, creating a daughter, whose name is Santoshi, or satisfaction. Although the special effects are probably the worst I’ve ever seen, the transitions are nonexistent, and the sets are fake looking, I can see why Jai Santoshi Maa became such a cultural and religious phenomenon. The movie illustrated important cultural, religious, and domestic concepts within the guise of a simple, one-dimensional movie.

The movie tells its story in the form of a parallel narrative that tells the story of Satyawati while concurrently describing the Santoshi Maa’s ascension of power within the major pantheon of gods in dev lok, the world of the gods (Lutgendor 14). Satyawati, Santoshi Maa’s most faithful servant on earth, falls for Birju, the seventh son of a farming family. Similtaneously, Parvati, Lakshmi, and Brahmani discover that Santoshi Maa is more loved and worshiped by people on earth. They get angry and jealous and decide to torment Santoshi Maa’s biggest fan, Satyawati. Back on earth, Satyawati manages to marry Birju without any major hitches, but after the wedding, the problems start cropping up. First of all, Satyawati’s sister-in-laws are dreadful human beings, and constantly tear her down – even on her wedding night! Secondly, not only do the jealous sister-in-laws torment Satyawati, they also constantly degrade Birju, calling him useless and even feeding him leftovers, which ends up offending Birju to the point of him storming out to prove himself useful. The goddesses then send a storm against Birju, to punish his wife for worshiping Santoshi Maa. Santoshi, however, saves Birju because of the request from her faithful Satyawati to keep him safe. Even though their plans are foiled, the goddesses still manage to convince his family (with the exception of his wife) that Birju is dead. Now, with Birju out of the picture, the sisters-in-law starve, beat, and dump all their household chores on Satyawati. Satyawati keeps faith and preys to Santoshi Maa. Eventually, because of her great faith in Santoshi Maa, and her completion of the ritual described in the movie, Birju comes back to Satyawati, with a small fortune in tow.

After seeing Satyawati’s bad treatment at the hands of his relatives, Birju and Satyawati leave his family home to start a new life in a new house. Satyawati, because of her forgiving nature, holds a party in Santoshi Maa’s honor. This is where the conflict in heaven reaches its climax. The scheming sisters-in-law ruin Satyawati’s party by breaching the food taboo that forbids Santoshi Maa’s followers from consuming sour foods. Santoshi Maa goes into a rage, throwing the universe out of balance, on its head. Satyawati, however, comes the rescue and pleads with her goddess to fix everything. Santoshi Maa fixes everything on earth and even appears to her followers in person. In heaven, the goddesses realize the only way to appease Santoshi Maa is to accept her into the pantheon of gods, which they promptly do. Everything is right in the universe, and the screen goes black.

The articles used several words to describe Jai Santoshi Maa, some of them conflicting, but the one thing the articles agreed upon was that the movie was the perfect representation of the mythological genre of films (Watkins 84-5). The mythological genre primarily focuses on representing the Hindu gods, in this case, their codependent relationship with humans and their interactions with other gods (Watkins 85). Mythological films sometimes have elements of the supernatural, a fantasy element represented in this movie by cheesy side effects (my favorite one was when Santoshi Maa made the little plate of offerings fly towards her). This particular story wasn’t adapted from the famous epics of India like the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, but from local folk stories and smaller religious stories in the Puranas (Watkins 91). This particular story is also representative of vrata, a form of worship specific to a local place or culture (Watkins 103). This form of worship is when a people worship gods that aren’t traditionally a part of the pantheon of great gods (Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati, Lakshmi, etc.) but are unique to a specific place (in this case Northern India). Over the course of a movie with vrata, the local god or goddess gains a place in the traditional pantheon (Watkins 103-104). The ascension of Santoshi Maa is described in great detail Veena Das’ article, basically typifying the gods into six different categories. The category that Santoshi Maa reached was the sixth one, the “transcendence of all formal rules through devotion (bhakti)” (Das 46).

The phenomenon of cultural and religious impact of Jai Santoshi Maa can be explained due to several social and cultural reasons, not the least of which concerning the upward mobility of the female goddess, a very modern idea of social fluidity (Watkins 104). The goddess wasn’t the only woman to better her lot in life in the movie; Satyawati (a common housewife) also becomes more powerful and richer over the course of the movie because of her faith and her devotion to Santoshi Maa (Das, Lutgendor 8; Watkins 103-4). Not only was the concept of women moving up in the world attractive (and the concept of justice for the just), the movie also touched on universal life experiences for women: dealing with the in-laws, moving out of her family’s house into his. Santoshi Maa provided relief from “the everday tensions of existence” because she is “gentle, benevolent and dependable” (Das 54). Because of the attraction for women, Jai Santoshi Maa accessed a previously untapped demographic: rural housewives and women. This is very different than the urban young male audience of most of the masala films of the day (Lutgendor 2). The movie appealed to the rural class of Indian, the poor, everyday people of India because of the authentic rural Indian culture on display in the movie, presenting the audience with familiar dress, food, religion, song, and dance. The movie made familiar allusions to the Mahabharata, Seeta and Rama, and Krishna, stories that everyone in India would understand, not just highbrow Brahmins.

Besides a cultural phenomenon, the film created an uprising of Santoshi supporters. The religious phenomenon even went to the extreme that people were going to the movie to worship and appreciate the darshan of the goddess (Watkins 92, Lutengendor 12). Perhaps the extreme support for the goddess arouse because of her unique meaning to India. As the goddess of satisfaction, she was accessible, she gave her followers what they wanted only by following simple rituals, and she was clearly more forgiving and inclusive of her followers than some of the other deities based on her acceptance of jaggery and chick peas (a food exclusive to the poorer classes of India) (Das 44, Lutgendor 8, 12). One critic even notes that the fact that Santoshi Maa “is satisfied with such offerings again underscores her benevolent character as well as her accessibility to poor devotees.” (Lutgendor 12). In addition, the medium of the story of the goddess is important to note because it reached the illiterate groups of India. And in fact, the movie was reportedly made to “spread the…message” of the goddess, the easiest way of which is through film because of the illiterate nature of some of the population (Lutgendor 8).

The religious topics that stood out in the movie were undeniably darshan and iconicity. The icon of Santoshi Maa is shown several times in the movie, showing the importance of icons in Hindu worship (Watkins 92-3). Darshan, the concept much used in Indian religion and mythological films, is characteristic of seeing and being seen by the god as a part of a religious experience is highly emphasized in the first song with all the ocular references and the close ups on both Santoshi Maa’s idol and Satyawati’s face (Lutgendor 14; Watkins 102)

One topic that was not discussed in the articles that I noticed about the movie was the representation of women in the movie and the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ traits in women. These traits were represented dually in the goddesses and the mortal women. Santoshi Maa’s traits were primarily described in devotional hymns, called bhajans (Lutgendor 14). Her followers literally sung praises of Santoshi Maa being “glorious, tender, beautiful, mother…very powerful, merciful, giver of life.” These traits were reflected in her servant, Satyawati, who was once described by Birju as having “innocence, mischief, and all my dreams” in her eyes. Isn’t this just a diluted version of the goddess – a goddess who at once is very good, but can be very bad (as seen at the end of the movie)? At the same time, the jealous major goddesses act petty, angry, and less then kind. These traits are reflected in the sister-in-laws, ironically named for goddesses, Durga and Maya – who are jealous, interfering, nosy, and mean in every action. I find it unusual, coming from a culture that fears God and probably wouldn’t dare to make fun of him, that three major (usually venerated) Indian goddesses are portrayed as jealous and petty. This kind of representation of gods (and the representation of how the gods interfere in human affairs) is reminiscent of the Greek pantheon.

The difference, though, is the intense devotion these characters have for Santoshi Maa, something that I never found prominent in Greek myth. This film’s main topic is the goddess, and the songs are proof of that. They reveal basic truths about the goddess and how to worship her, something I find more important. Because truthfully, even though there are several layers to the film about class and about religion, the main point of the film is to spread the word and worship of Santoshi Maa. It is purely devotional in this way, with song lyrics describing the fact that “she has a lot of powers.” The songs order the audience to “prey to her,” and “surrender your life to her,” in order to “attain salvation,” all with the message that if you do all these things, “your life will be better.” In addition to these simple messages of salvation, the movie shows that because Satyawati followed Santoshi Maa, she became rich, got her husband back, and, in short, got the life she deserved just because she was faithful to the goddess. This kind of implied causal relationship shows audiences that Santoshi Maa is a kind mistress, truly a goddess of satisfaction because she gives her followers whatever they want. I think this is what created such a religious outpouring of support for Santoshi Maa. Because this movie proves how easy it is to worship her and the rewards for worshipping her, Santoshi Maa became very popular amongst lower class women.

In conclusion, Jai Santoshi Maa may look simple from the outside, but within the bad effects, cheap sets, and dramatic acting lay a movie that affected a lot of people, culturally and religiously in India. Not only does it provide an articulation for “contemporary social desire,” and darshan but it represents a lot of issues for Indian women and religion (Watkins 103). So, I must admit that even though I was at first pained by watching it, I looked deeper and saw something more than a ‘simple devotional film’ and now I respect, if not like, the movie better for it.

Works Cited

Das, Veena. “The Mythological Film and its Framework of Meaning: An Analysis of Jai

Santoshi Maa.India International Centre quarterly 8:1. (1981) 43-56. Print.

Dwyer, Rachel. “Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema.” Routledge. 2006. Print.

Lutgendor, Philip. “Who Wants to be a Goddess? Jai Santoshi Maa Revisited.”

Watkins, Gregory J. “Teaching Religion and Film.” Oxford University Press. 2008.


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