Bollywood’s Devotional Film Bhaktha Prahlada
I don’t believe in reincarnation but in my past life I did. Whoever I was, I was definitely Indian. The food, the music, the mythology all speak to me in a mysteriously deep and resonant way that I can not explain. As early as I can remember I wanted to know the name of all the multicolored, multi-armed gods and demons that populated their pantheon. I’ve read many books about the culture and religion of India including its most famous two holy books, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Actually, I read several abridged versions of them both. Very few people have read the entire Mahabharata. It is ten times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. Its almost 2 million words long. India is a land of mind bending numbers. There are more than 30 thousand gods to supply 1.3 Billion people who follow millions of different religious traditions and sects.
Not only are there thousands of gods but they can appear in different forms and guises. Vishnu is Krishna, Shiva is Parvati but Vishnu can also encompass Shiva or vice versa. Its pretty rough going for a westerner trying to find his or her way, but it is endlessly fascinating.
Bhaktha Prahlada is a devotional movie. Bhaktha means devotee. In true Indian fashion, Prahlada has 9 different definitions but in this case it is the name of young demigod. Devotional films have been a staple of Bollywood since the very beginning of the industry. Indians love their movies even more than American’s do. Bollywood makes two movies for every one movie Hollywood produces, and Bollywood movies are twice as long. Devotional movies have the dancing and singing like other Bollywood films but instead of buxom, doe-eyed women singing in the rain, devotional films relay a magical, turbulent, cosmic, soap opera in the sky, punctuated with ambitious special effects, bloody violence, and dancing. The west’s skinny Nazarene on a cross is far outshone by ten headed demons who wrestle giant monkey gods with flaming tales. Blue skinned gods float on ten thousand headed snakes in the ocean of eternity.
Bhaktha Prahlada was made by Chitrapu Narayana Rao in 1967. It is the story of Hiranyakasapa son of Kasyapaprajapathi. Yes, I know, but you don’t have to say the names you can just watch the actors say them on screen. Hiranyakasapa is the demon king and he is out to kill Shri Hari a giant with the head of a boar. Shri Hari killed Hiranyakasapa’s brother Hiranyaksha, but little does Hiranyakasapa know that Shri Hari is Vishnu the preserver in disguise. Hiranyakasapa wants to conquer the universe and make everyone chant his name day and night. A particularly ghastly plan considering his name. There’s no point in trying to explain the plot. The film is 3 hours long, relatively short in comparison to most Bollywood productions.
With just a loose understanding of the characters you can still revel in the spectacular and unpredictable imagery. When Shri Hari and Hiranyaksha do battle they become cosmic sized giants wrestling over a beach ball sized earth in the blackness of space.
The music and dance in Bhaktha Prahlada is much more traditional than in its romantic, Bollywood counterparts. There are beautiful songs sung with tremendous skill and range. This is not your typical Bollywood pop. These songs are based on traditional ragas, and the lyrics drawn from scripture. Somehow they stuffed 23 songs and poems into the film. The dancing is exceptional as well. The moves and gestures are taken from traditional forms and look unbelievably challenging. The grace and especially the speed of the performances is breathtaking.
The warmth of the Eastman Color Negative film process and all the glittering gold and bling give the film the dreamy appearance of a Pierre et Gilles portrait. If you aren’t fluent in Telugu you could turn off the subtitles and be satisfied just watching the color and movement.
The center of the story is the relationship between the three main gods of Hinduism, Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver. Basically the film is campaign ad for Vishnu. Vishnu and his avatar Krishna is/are one of the most favored gods in India. Brahma is a bit of a bumbler and does not have a big following. Shiva can be pretty scary but he and his consort Parvati are widely worshiped as well. The moral of the film and the central values espoused are patience and equanimity. Here Prahlada explains the true nature of the universe to his father, “You conquered the universe but you couldn’t conquer the enemies within yourself. You didn’t overcome lust, anger, greed, desire, pride and envy. Once you overcome these you wouldn’t have any enemies.”
The titular character, Prahlada, is a pious male child played by a hypnotizingly beautiful female actress named Roja Ramani. She is like an Indian Shirley Temple. She even uses some of the same facial expression and gestures. Ramani is poised and lovely to watch. There is a wacky scene reminiscent of The Life of Brian where poor Prahlada is sent into the deep, dark dungeon. He sings a beautiful prayer to Ramesha (one among many names for Vishnu) and all the prisoners, who are bound with rope and bleeding from torture sing choral back up.
A large portion of the film is dedicated to Hiranyakasapa, the demon king, trying to kill Prahlada. They try to chop off Prahlada’s head, they throw him off a cliff, they trample him with elephants, but Prahlada prays to Narayan (another of 1008 names for Vishnu listed in Wikipedia) and is miraculously saved each time.
Bhaktha Prahlada could serve as a family film but there are some scary moments especially at the end which I will refrain from revealing. If you’re Hindu you already know how it ends. Part of enjoying Bollywood films involves some irony. If they have a big budget they are over the top and if they are low budget, the cheap solutions used to get the film over the finish line can be pretty funny. This film has both, but in a completely unironic fashion I have to say I love this film. I can imagine growing up with it as a touchstone of culture and heritage. It is a treasure too easily overlooked in an endless sea of Bollywood films.