• Indian Film Viewer: Citizen or Devotee?

    Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda

    January 18, 2019

    From the preambular silent era to well into the 1940s, the 'religious' genres were extremely popular with the Indian audiences. In addition to expanding the idea of glorious nationhood, through the use of Hindu mythology, these films also participated in the project of social reform. While the mythological and devotional films declined in Hindi cinema in the 1950s, they remained prevalent in the Telugu(and Tamil) well into the later decades of the century. The towering political success of N.T. Rama Rao(or NTR) owing large extent to his formidable portrayals of gods and kings in films, is an excellent case in point. 

    Keeping these questions around viewership at the centre, Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda's Deities and Devotees: Cinema, Religion and Politics in South India(2018), analyses filmic texts to understand religious idioms interact with practices of viewership and entertainment. Through its production of the term 'citizen-devotee', the book combines two figures that are otherwise studied as independent concepts and underlines their interaction in modern liberal democracies. Below is an excerpt from the book.

    Image Courtesy: Oxford University Press

    What is the relationship between citizenship and devotion? The term deshbhakti in many Indian languages, for example, gives us a sense of this modern demand for bhakti, that is, devotion and willing submission towards the nation, and by extension, the state. Hence, earlier forms of bhakti towards a divine authority (daiva bhakti), or towards an earthly master or lord (swami bhakti), or in the case of the woman, devotion towards her husband (pati bhakti), are now to be subordinated to this new deshbhakti, which is towards the nation. However, as I try to demonstrate in the pages that follow, in our times, citizenship and the various forms of devotion do not and cannot exist as independent categories, but necessarily shape and mould each other.

    Recent work in political theory has sought to rework the Kantian lineages of the citizen as a free, individual, reasoning sovereign agent1. This work has attempted to show that people act as political subjects not merely as reasoning agents, but also as embodied and affective beings, who are shaped by particular histories and contexts. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues, the problem with many theories of democracy today, including the deliberative model of democracy, is that they presume a certain kind of democratic subject who is imagined to be either a bearer of natural rights, or a rational subject, or a utility-maximizing agent. This subject is believed to be free of history, language, culture, and religion, all conditions which crucially shape the kind of democratic subject that emerges in particular contexts2.

    Commenting on the importance of cultivating certain attributes in the historical formation of the citizen figure, David Burchell argues that citizens are socially and historically shaped. He points out that Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality demonstrates this by focusing both on the social discipline imposed from the outside by governments as well as the internal techniques of self-discipline and self-formation undertaken by individual subjects themselves (Burchell 1995).

    The cultural politics of cinema gives us a glimpse into the terrain of struggle between governmental disciplines, the ambiguous effects of mediatization, and the counterpractices of different individuals and groups. The Indian citizen is then the creation of different discourses—some complementary but others which are conflicting. Therefore, despite her enmeshment in governmental practices, the subject of religion and cinema remains a citizen but a citizen of a particular kind, the citizen–devotee. The term ‘citizen–devotee’ allows me to demonstrate that the abstract ideal of the citizen never remains untouched by other modes of subjectivity like religiosity. The religious mode of being affects citizenship, at the same time, in a modern liberal democracy, the religious beliefs and practices of citizens are not outside the purview of the government. Despite, freedom to practice one’s religion, one has to submit to the state’s discourse of rights and duties, to its politics of identity, and the logics of majority and minority. In the modern world, religion itself is conditioned by existing power structures and the forms of media. The formulation, citizen–devotee, captures this process well.

     1. For an illuminating discussion of this idea, see Balibar (1988, 1991).
     2. Chantal Mouffe (2000), in The Democratic Paradox, cited in Laclau (2005). 

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    Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India.

    This is an excerpt from Deities and Devotees: Cinema, Religion and Politics in South India, by Uma Maheswari Bhrugubanda and published by Oxford University Press. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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