Hinduism Hinduism In Film
William Elison
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0153


The subject of Hinduism in film is marked by novelty, in two senses. First, while the embrace by Hindus of visual artifacts as manifestations of the divine cannot be said to be a modern phenomenon—long traditions of temple art give the best-known examples—nevertheless, where everyday practice at the popular level is concerned, Hinduism’s “visual turn” comes with the advent of the 19th-century printing technologies that made pictures of gods widely available for devotional use. Cinema first makes its mark in India as an extension of this spectacular religious praxis. Second, as the publication dates on the sources listed here attest, the study of Indian film is a relatively young field. The output of the world’s largest film industry has only recently become considered worthy of serious analysis. And significantly, for some scholars the key to why Indian cinema has departed so far from the norms laid down by Hollywood movies—the locus classicus of film studies—is to be sought in the Hindu tradition. The convergence in India of Hindu iconography and ideology with an exuberant and prolific film culture has indeed yielded rich material for study. The selections introduced in this article address questions of morality, reality and illusion, spectatorship practices, and identity politics, among other points of interest. Indian films concerned with explicitly Hindu themes have conventionally been assigned to one of two genres—mythological or devotional—although the Hindu subtexts that underlie ostensibly secular narratives have also become a favorite site of inquiry for scholars. All sources listed are in English, a choice that indicates the dominance of English as the language of academic film studies in India and the transnational character of the film-studies conversation. Similarly, the emphasis the sources here have given Hindi cinema over films in India’s other vernacular languages is a reflection of the state of the field (when it comes to the actual number of films produced each year in different languages, the Tamil industry is especially prolific). This article closes with a consideration of representations of Hinduism in cinemas of the West.

General Overviews of Indian Cinema

The works listed in this section are recommended as reference works that can introduce newcomers to the Indian film corpus—which is enormous—and to the field of Indian film studies. If somewhat outdated, Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980 and Das Gupta 1991 are nevertheless landmark texts. Baskaran 1996 and Kabir 2001 introduce Tamil and Hindi cinema, respectively. The other two books are complementary projects that aim at all-India coverage, Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999 in encyclopedia format and Thoraval 2000 offering a chronologically and geographically organized overview. Two nonacademic websites, Memsaab and Upperstall, offer information about Indian films—including many otherwise overlooked texts—in a colloquial and accessible style.

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