There was a time when the Indian film industry, particularly the Telugu film industry, thrived on the popularity of Hindu cultural themes taken from epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Raghupathi Venkaiah Naidu, the father of the Telugu film industry, after whom Telugu cinema's highest award, the ‘Raghupathi Venkaiah Award’ is named produced films like Gajendra Moksham, Mathsyavatharam, Nandanaar, and Bhishma Pratigna.
The day on which the first Telugu film with audible dialogue, Bhakta Prahlada was completed (15 September 1931) is observed as "Telugu Film Day" to commemorate its completion. The 1934 classic Lava Kusa ran for 75 weeks uninterruptedly and created an unbroken record in Telugu film industry grossing more than 10 million.
Patala Bhairavi (1951), Mayabazar (1957), Nartanasala (1963), Sankarabharanam (1979), and Sagara Sangamam (1983) – Telugu films which were centred around Indian epics and art forms are listed among The 100 Greatest Indian Films of All Time (CNN-IBN).
However, the left intelligentsia succeeded over the years in stereotyping such Indic content as regressive, outdated and majoritarian. The dependence of the film industry on religious themes is often lamented in the historiography of the film industry. For example, The Hindu wrote, “At a time when the market was flooded with mythological films, Indian Art Cine tone attempted a social, Prema Vijayam (1936) directed by Krithiventi Nageswara Rao. However, the success of reformist filmmaker Gudavalli Ramabrahmam's Malapilla (1938) starring Dr. Govindarajula Subbarao and Kanchanamala and Rythubidda (1939) with Ballari Raghava and Suryakumari gave an impetus to Y.V. Rao, B.N. Reddy and others to produce films on social themes.”
The Wikipedia entry on Telugu cinema reads, “...Its success prompted the production of dozens of other immensely successful 'social films', notably 1939's Vandemataram, touching on societal problems like the practice of giving dowry, Telugu films increasingly focused on contemporary living: 29 of the 96 films released between 1937 and 1947 had social themes.”
Similarly, the shrill political discourse which gained momentum after the demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya in 1992 often decries the massively popular TV serials on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as responsible for creating a mass hysteria which led to the demolition! Many scholarly dissertations have been made pinning the blame on these serials for saffronizing Indian society.
Sample this extract from an article written by a scholar of the Jadavpur University: “However, from the very beginning the religious undertone of the serial was there, which later on became an invaluable tool for shaping the Indian identity into a Hindu one. It was on the 25th of September 1990, that the then president of a prominent Indian political party, arranged a Ratha Yatra, from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. Following his arrest in November, 1990, some karsevaks or loyalists of this movement in 1992 demolished the Babri Masjid, triggering off yet another communal riot, which has been an integral feature of the Indian sub-continent.”
During the 139-day protest by the students of the FTII against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of FTII, the fact that he played the role of Yudhishthira in the popular TV serial was often thrown up and ridiculed.
The left has thus tried hard to demonize any expression of Hindu religion and culture in the visual media. Indian art forms have always had an inseparable and integral connection with religion and spirituality. For the Hindu mind, any art form is a free medium to express the innate divinity of the cosmos. This is the reason why repeated attempts by the left to separate art forms from religion have never yielded much success nor led to the creation of any significant new evolution in Indian art.
Whenever an inimical ideology tried to suppress it’s innate religious and cultural aspirations, Hindu society responded by embracing its own svarupa with a renewed exuberance. When the Periyar-led DK movement attacked the symbols of Hindu identity in Tamil Nadu, the masses responded with renewed religious enthusiasm through the Sabarimala pilgrimage and Mel Maruvathur Adi Parashakti movement. The descendants of politicians who started their careers by throwing chappals at Rama’s pictures now publicly proclaim their allegiance to the very deities they despised.
Baahubali signals the revival of Hindu imagery and symbolism on the big screen. It stands in sharp contrast to the superficial criticism of religion witnessed in recent Bollywood movies like Paresh Rawal’s Oh My God and Amir Khan’s PK. Distorted and politically correct narratives of Hindu history as seen in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s productions like Bajirao Mastani and the upcoming Padmavati have caused much heartburn and anger in the public mind which is extremely sensitive to the way their warrior kings and queens are portrayed on the screen.
Contrast this even with Hollywood which has unabashedly borrowed ideas and themes from Hindu culture over the decades, be it the brilliant Matrix series which portrays the Indian philosophical idea of Maya or illusion to the recent blockbuster Doctor Strange which successfully converted Hindu-Buddhist yogic lore into a superhero story.
Baahubali is doing to the Indian film industry what Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana and B R Chopra’s Mahabharata did to the television in India – breaking the stranglehold of cultural Marxism over the Indian mind. While I agree with critiques who have pointed out that the Baahubali movies fall short on many counts compared to classics like Mayabazar, the popular frenzy surrounding Baahubali has to be understood in the above context.