This essay seeks to study villainy in three films Prabhat Film Company released in the interwar period, so as to understand the broader political agendas of the studio and its prescriptions for a better society. I have hermeneutically chosen these three films—Amritmanthan (1934), Wahan (1938) and Gopal Krishna (1938)—because they all fall broadly under the fluid genres of historical/mythological/costume drama and yet have been helmed by three different filmmakers.
This essay has three sections: in the first part, I present the visages and motivations of agents of ‘evil’ in the three films as ritualism, material/economic gain, and imperialism respectively. In the second part, I chart their sphere of operations. I argue for the villain in Amritmanthan as being inside the primal ideologies of the subject, and for religious orthodoxy as being tyrannical, but without a visible veneer; for the twin villains in Wahan as being part of the ruling establishment and yet peripheral to the state, while the villain in Gopal Krishna represents an extra-territorial entity ‘state-jacking’ the community. In the third part, I analyze the antidotes suggested to these villains in the films. As an epilogue, I try to read the latter allegorically into modern South Asian history.
Poster of Gopal Krishna
While the history of Prabhat Studios has attracted many scholars in recent years, analyses of tropes of villainy in popular Indian cinema have been scarce. Scholarship about villains in Hollywood too has been modest, with a large part focused on films of New Hollywood, despite a recent outpouring of material on postmodern villains in cinema and television. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty famously documented ‘The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology’ in the late ’70s, with a focus on theodicy—'the defense of the justice of God in the face of the fact of evil' (O'Flaherty 1976:1)—but this essay has more humble ambitions. I merely seek to undertake a discourse analysis of representations of ‘good and bad’ in three interwar films as I try to situate them in the colonial-era discourse. In this quest, I have restricted myself to analyzing broad discursive strokes in the three films and do not claim any close scrutiny of entire plots. The aim, ultimately, is to contribute to the burgeoning scholarship about Prabhat.
Poster of Wahan
Identifying the Evil
Based on writer Narayan Hari Apte’s novel, a fable woven around the Hindu originary myth of the churning of oceans3, Amritmanthan tells the story of an ultra-orthodox high priest who enacts human and animal sacrifices to propitiate a cult goddess and his ultimate defeat by the reigning queen, a brother-sister duo and the people of the kingdom. The film opens with a meeting of Chandika cult followers in a dungeon amid low lights and mysterious shadows. The leader of the cult—who is only portrayed through an extreme close-up of his eye with sinisterly flickering eyelids—commands a commoner, Vishwasgupta, to kill the rationalist king Krantiverma, the latter having just banned human and animal sacrifices in the kingdom. The king is subsequently murdered but the assassin gets double-crossed and is sentenced to death.
Here, I would like to focus on the multiple shots of the eye, famously shot by V. Shantaram with a German telephoto lens.4 Geeta Kapur has argued that the pictorial conventions of Sant Tukaram (Dir. Damle and Fattelal, 1936) ‘give its imagery an iconic aspect, taking iconic to mean an image into which symbolic meanings converge and in which moreover they achieve stasis’ (Kapur 1993:23). Her analysis of the representation and performance of Vishnupant Pagnis as Tukaram draws on C.S. Peirce's division of the linguistic sign into its iconic, indexical and symbolic aspects (Kapur 1993:26, 44). Thus as an index, the representation of Tukaram has a manifest connection to reality (that of the screen image of Tukaram to the actor Vishnupant Pagnis), while as an icon Tukaram’s image emblematizes sainthood. While Kapur stresses on the ‘iconic and indexical modes’ in the Peircian sense, I would like to make the case for the third ‘symbolic mode’ as operating in the presence/absence metric in case of the eye shots.
It is interesting to note here that we are never shown the full frontal face of the high priest Rajguru (played by Chandramohan) during the opening scene, but only in the latter scene when the scapegoat killer Vishwagupta’s son Madhavgupta is also condemned to death. The eye shots are constantly supplemented by voice and space clues so as to reveal the identity of the priest who hatched the plot to kill the kin, and since then is out to destroy the evidence.
In C.S. Peirce’s semiotics, the symbolic mode is assigned arbitrarily and has to be ‘learnt’ as a part of the sign system. Therefore, the relationship between the representamen and what the sign stands for—its object or referent and the sense behind it, the interpretant—must be learnt (Lee and Urban 1989:265) Shantaram gradually trains the viewer to associate the image of the eye with religious orthodoxy and ritualism. Through the presence/absence of the ominous, murderous eye, he seems to be telling us that religion can have two sides, one of societal cohesion and the other of tyranny. After all, it is only in the scenes where the filmmaker wants to depict the most malignant side of the high priest that the eye makes an appearance.5
Chandramohan, the actor playing the villain in Amritmanthan, also plays a central role in Wahan, but takes a backseat to a profiteering tavern owner and a priest, both of whom have set out to ‘corrupt the veins’ of the nobles and usurp the reigns of a mythical kingdom. Based on Diwakar Krishna’s story ‘Dandakaranyatil Pranayini’, Wahan offers a complex matrix of two love stories set against issues of caste, slavery and labour in a fictional kingdom co-habited by Aryas and Anaryas. K. Narayan Kale’s directorial debut mixes Prabhat’s ornate period movie style with the pre-modern iconography of Cecil DeMille epics and social hierarchies reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The setting evokes an ancient Aryan society ruled by Kodandvarma (Chandramohan), a dictator committed to ideals of ‘justice and power’. The collapse of a stone statue of Justice threatens to crush many slaving Anaryas, but the situation is saved by Jeevan, the king of the Anaryas (the slave caste). Jeevan then falls in love with Princess Jayanti (Leela Chitnis), Kodandvarma’s daughter. In the course of a complex plot, the villainous aide to the king, Madhuvrat, engineers state apprehensions about the bonafides of Uttam, Jayanti’s fiance and the heir-apparent. A concurrent love story is between Uttam and a slave girl, Lata (Shanta Apte), who is set up to seduce Uttam and obtain the keys that might set Jeevan free. The latter is holed up under Uttam’s custody, and Lata is ensnared with the prospects of the end of Anarya slavery.
While it is not my project here to delve into the intricate and multi-layered plot machinations of Wahan, I wish to point out that although Kodandvarma plays a ruthless despot, his intentions are at best to maintain the status quo. By the climax of the film, we see him expound the state policy that Aryas and Anaryas should co-exist as an unequal citizenry, and that the leaders of the Anaryas can have administrative autonomy. The evil in the film then is concentrated within Madhuvrat, the tavern owner and the scheming Purohit, both of whom have larger political ambitions.
Madhuvrat runs an illegal drinking den which is ostensibly a granary. Not afraid to push for Ishq Devata (the god of love) in place of the official Nyaya Devata (the god of justice) he is shown as having no qualms in engaging female services to entice the nobles to his tavern. He runs the business for the Arya clientele in the hope that the intellectual corruption of the ruling class will result in the realization of his personal fantasies of power. While the nobles of the elite class are his biggest target, he also maneuvers to retain the slave Anaryas under his control. He does so by incarcerating Shambuk, the king of the slaves, and then torturing him by cutting off his tongue on the boundary between Arya Nagar and the river. His accomplice Purohit tricks the slaves into offering their food grains to Ishq Devata, so as to aid Madhuvrat’s alcohol business.
Thus the villainy in Wahan is deftly located within two individuals of the ruling elite class and they operate by duping the state apparatus into acquiescence and bureaucratic helplessness. I read them as part of political scientist Pranab Bardhan’s ‘dominant proprietary classes’: industrial capitalists, rich farmers, among others; coalitions which take shape in the struggle between urban and rural classes, public and private elites, and federal and regional authorities. This is what Bardhan refers to as a ‘patron-client regime fostered by a flabby and heterogeneous dominant coalition preoccupied in a spree of anarchical grabbing of public resources’ (Bardhan 1984:70–71).
As against Amritmanthan and Wahan, the setting of Gopal Krishna is more direct. This was V. Damle and S. Fattelal’s next venture after Sant Tukaram and was a remake of the 1929 silent mythological Gopal Krishna. It tells the tale of young Krishna (played by future Marathi superstar Ram Marathe) and his battle against the evil king Kamsa who rules over Gokul village. After slaying Kamsa’s general, Krishna raises Mount Govardhan to shelter the residents of Gokul from the torrential rain and ensuing flood unleashed on the city by Kamsa (not Indra as in the myth). The film abounds in idyllic shots of cows and cowherds wandering the countryside and the milking of animals. Its discourse is best conceptualized when Krishna delivers a soliloquy against Kamsa accusing him of trying to build a war chest to fuel his military ambitions at the cost of an economically self-sufficient hamlet.
A scene from Gopal Krishna
Many scholars have read mythological and fantasy films of the late-colonial period as anti-imperialist allegories (see for instance Bhaskar 1998, Chaudhry 2000). Here, I would restrict myself to focus on the representation of the villain Kamsa in the film. The tyrant ruler gets scant footage and is largely shown in the company of his lieutenants at the court. He never directly communicates with his subjects and is always shown at a distance from them. This is best exemplified in the final scenes when he orders the cows of Gokul to be confiscated for the royal treasury. After realizing the disadvantageous position of the Gokul cowherds in this fight, Krishna urges for clemency from Kamsa, a message he relays through a soldier. At this point, Kamsa is shown atop a triple-horse–drawn cart, but geographically distant from the Gokul village from where Krishna makes the plea. The cart is shown in an iris shot,6 and the soldier rides some distance to get to his master. Even as he makes a verbal promise of rescinding the royal decree, he conjures up a natural catastrophe to destroy the village.
I would like to posit the villainy in Gopal Krishna as being an extra-territorial entity that has put on the robes of the state. Although it projects the facade of limited interference in the affairs of the people, it ultimately rules via the hatchet of plunder and death. In other words: the colonial state.
Attributes of Evil
I have situated the evil in Gopal Krishna in a limited but appropriative state that seeks to destroy the self-sufficiency of a village community. The state, despite being conscious of its infinite power, feels threatened by a restive population. This is manifested by Kamsa who routinely dismisses the saintly prophecy of Krishna being his eventual slayer, but constantly works to undermine and weaken him as pre-emptive defense.
Thus, the evil in Gopal Krishna appears to be outside the spatial and human constraints of the oppressed community. The diegetic Gokul may not have direct access or visual correlates of the villain, but the audience is constantly reminded of his might and avarice. The evil is outside the natural order, both geographically and existentially, and hence is easily identifiable and recognizable. This, as we shall see, contrasts immensely with the villains in Amritmanthan or Wahan. Damle and Fattelal seem to see cinema as a document of realism towards a filmic record of the ills of society, which lie not within it, but outside of it. Extrapolating it to the colonial power is an obvious next step, but what strikes the critic is the hue of anti-imperialist nationalism that is offered as the solution. We shall come to this in the next section.
As against the transcendence of evil in Gopal Krishna, I read the evil in Amritmanthan as lying inside the society, and as immanent to its culture. The presence/absence of the eye may point towards the appearance/disappearance of the ritualistic high priest, but it also hints at the nature of evil. Since it is transfixed to the eye, it also means that the society cannot see the venom directly. Further since evil lies occult with the system, it can take several forms much to the consternation of the people that constitute it. In the film itself, the legend of the churning of the sea is told twice: once by the priest to show how evil must be exorcised, and again by a good general to show how demons often appear disguised as gods. Shantaram sees it as the duty of cinema to unmask the covert, deeply ensconced malady, so as to usher it towards healing.
Priya Jaikumar has contested Kapur’s claims of iconicity as being the hegemonic aesthetic for colonial-era cinema and says the transferable signification that Kapur posits cannot be extended to Shantaram’s Prabhat Studios films. Terming Amritmanthan as a modernist myth, she writes ‘…images and sequences become iconic through dense and allusive references to mythic texts. Their tangential commentary on the film breaks a potential stasis of meaning and disrupts the commutation of significance between referent, index, and icon’ (Jaikumar 2006:223). She argues that Shantaram’s films convey a formalist opacity rather than a transfer of meaning between icon and image, suggesting that there was no single model for the use of myths in colonial film in this respect. ‘The sequences are thus embedded in the narrative at the service of opposing characters, which effectively transforms the represented gods into polysemous icons whose meanings are mobilized equally by good and evil narrative forces’ (Jaikumar 2006:224)
Even as Shantaram conceptualizes the social evil that has been immanent in religious and social orthodoxy, Kale in Wahan points his finger elsewhere. The journalist and theatre critic Kale was deeply influenced by Henrik Ibsen, G.B. Shaw and Konstantin Stanislavsky and devoted a large part of his pre-Prabhat career to radical activist theatre (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999:114). In Wahan he seems to posit that the Raj-era political institutions of the state were fairly well-equipped to tackle social inequities, but the state empowered elite classes that were engaged in promoting social disharmony. It is the Madhuvrats and the Purohits who are conniving, by sidestepping the operational state, to further reinforce caste and labour backwardness. In a sense, for Kale, the villain is not inside of traditional religion per se, but is situated in decrepit economic and merchant practices. These profiteering actors are co-terminus with the system, but not direct agents of the state. They source their power from the state authority but are out to dislodge it for self-serving political agendas.
I would also like to situate this discourse in the tradition of the Subaltern Studies collective that started as a critique of two contending schools of history: the Cambridge school and that of the nationalist historians. The founder of this historiography stream, Ranajit Guha claimed that both of these approaches were elitist. The strand critical to the functioning of authority in Indian institutions was that of direct domination and subordination of the subaltern by the elite. As Guha said in his first contribution to Subaltern Studies, this strand of domination and subordination ubiquitous to relationships of power in India ‘was traditional only in so far as its roots could be traced back to pre-colonial times, but it was by no means archaic in the sense of being outmoded’ (Guha 1982:4). I want to read Kale’s intervention as against this dominant elite class of the society and his vision for cinema as exposing their sinister character.
Slaying the Evil
In this section, I want to lay out my hypothesis about the antidotes offered by the three films to the diegetic villainy constructed as part of the plot. Picking up from our last section, Wahan very immaculately brings about a churning of the identities of its characters in the course of the film. After Kodandavarma catches his daughter Jayanti with the Anarya prince Jeevan planning an uprising to overthrow the Arya order, he gives orders to put Jeevan in jail. To prove his Arya worth to Kodandvarma, Uttam has to guard Jeevan, while the villain in the matrix wants to kidnap Jeevan to discredit the heir-apparent. Lata, the slave girl, now becomes a pawn in the game, as she is duped into procuring the keys to Jeevan’s freedom. The next few events are elided (perhaps to suggest that the keys get stolen) and Jeevan is released by Madhuvrat’s men. Uttam’s heir-worthiness is promptly under suspicion. In the climactic scene, the Arya king learns about Madhuvrat’s illegal business, which is subsequently destroyed. Lata names the Purohit as his accomplice and he too is marked out as corrupt. Addressing the assembled collective of Aryas and Anaryas, Kodandvarma declares that both communities should co-exist in a state of mutual autonomy, but the two-tiered govermental structure of Arya Nagar would not be dismantled.
In the denouement of the two simultaneous love stories, Kale presents his final discursive vision. Lata kills herself in a bid to rescue Uttam from his ideological conflict between his public duty to protect the purity of Arya-dom and his personal desire for the slave girl. The Anarya prince Jeevan and the Arya princess Jayanti express their wish to marry but are denied this by the Arya king. The couple decides that the only way out of this vicious nexus of class, race and gender is total withdrawal. They urge the assembled to come along but are rebuffed. The film ends with the couple taking steps towards a hopeful future, beyond the horizon: a temporally and spatially deferred utopia.7
I would like to situate this discourse in what the Tagore scholar Michael P. Collins calls his subject’s ‘distinctively universalist philosophy’ (Collins 2012:22). Collins describes Tagore as a man guided by a fundamental belief that there is an inherent impulse in us—beyond instrumental reason and self-interest—for ‘creative, active love, which leads us to bonds of unity with our fellow men’ (Collins 2012:157). Tagore is thus portrayed in his acute concern for both ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’. In their rejection of what they believe to be an ideologically polluted Arya Nagar, the princess and the slave prince offer a stringent critique of the modern idea of a nation, the nation-state and its ideological corollary of nationalism. Much like Tagore, they believe that the conflicts of race, class, religion and nation pose a great challenge to a transnational politics of love and friendship that was originally supposed to transcend them. In their politics of ‘anti-politics’, Jeevan and Jayanti remind us about the possibility of a spiritually poignant modernity, shorn of discriminations born out of tradition.
However, this contrasts with the resistance to evil suggested by Gopal Krishna, where Krishna, as the leader of the cowherds, directly opposes any external threats arising out of the imperialistic plundering tendencies of the villain Kansa. I would argue for this as the Gandhian other to the Tagorean universalism. Partha Chatterjee has made a case for not seeing Gandhian politics as explicable under the umbrella of ‘romanticism’ since, unlike romanticism, Gandhi’s ideas and practice were not conceived at all within the thematic bounds of post-Enlightenment thought (Chatterjee 1993:99). Nandy claims that Tagore and Gandhi—as did all other Afro-Asian reformers—tried to grapple with and reconcile three basic sets of contradictions or oppositions: that between the East and the West; that between tradition and modernity; and that between the past and present. In the case of Tagore, these oppositions are primarily dealt with in the realm of ‘high culture’—that is, within India’s classical Sanskritic traditions—albeit leavened on the one hand by elements of European classicism, including aspects of the European Renaissance, and on the other by India’s own diverse folk or ‘little traditions’ (Nandy, 2001:153) In other words, in Tagore’s world, ‘modernity had a place’, whereas in the case of Gandhi, the resolution of the contradictions was possible primarily within the little traditions of India and the West, and occasional imports from Indian and Western classicism, but almost entirely outside modernity (Nandy 2001:153) However through his close examination of the Gandhi-Tagore correspondence, Collins argues that the positions of Gandhi and Tagore may be more dialectically and dialogically related rather than being a case of sheer contrasts.
A scene from Gopal Krishna
Here, I believe that the version of ‘consciousness’ proposed by the Subaltern Studies collective can serve as a missing link. In Gopal Krishna, the rebel Krishna uses his flute and the merry strength of his cowherd friends, first to kill the villain’s general. In the climax, he again uses his magical powers, which are presented as native wizardry, to raise the mountain to shelter the villagers. Guha (1983) has addressed the logic of peasant consciousness at the moment of rebellion. He calls them ‘practices’ of insurgent peasants in colonial India, and not of a reified category called ‘consciousness’. The self-sufficiency-oriented nativist rebellion of Gopal Krishna should be read in this spiritual mode rather than in a direct Manichean anti-imperialist tradition.
Once convinced of the need to put an end to Rajguru’s tyranny in Amritmanthan, the queen and her subjects decide to storm his palace. After they abort a planned human sacrifice, Rajguru's evil eye is seen as being attacked by a dagger by one of the queen’s men. The expressionist tropes that led to the divulgement of the evil machinations of the priest are re-employed in the climax to signal his end. Blinded, and now powerless, Rajguru heads towards the goddess Chandika’s temple where he severs his head and offers it as a sacrifice to the goddess. The film ends with a quip about Rajguru by Madhavgupta, ‘He was a true slave of his rituals.’ Thus, Amritmanthan offers a direct humanist-rationalist solution en route to a progressive future of enlightened religion.
By Way of a Conclusion: Reading the Evil back into History
Meaning in film arises out of the juxtaposition of various modalities such as images, sounds, music, and camera effects, which are arranged by an editing process to suggest (or indeed, not to suggest) a preferred reading. The critic or the spectator, through her active participation, finds connections between these modalities and constructs a discourse structure guided by reasoning and inference. This essay has tried to employ a certain ‘logic of film discourse interpretation’ based on functional and formal semantics to interpret the idea of a film’s textuality (Wildfeuer 2014) The main thrust was to situate the state and its relationship to the source of evil and here it yielded three different layers. We situated the evil in Amritmanthan, as internal, immanent but inexplicit within the community boundaries. In Wahan, we inferred that the villainy was internal to the society, but stemming from extra-state but elite entities. Lastly in Gopal Krishna, the evil was external to the community with an extra-territorial agent subsuming its entirety.
I would argue that three films can be read retrospectively as symbolic of three distinct phases in South Asia’s modern colonial history. Amritmanthan evokes the period beginning from early 19th century to 1885, the year when the Indian National Congress was launched. This span was characterized by a socio-religious reform movement where Christian missions, indigenous social reformers and then the colonial state itself, stressed the need for institutionalized education to rid the Indian society of superstition and orthodoxy. This phase was most active in Maharashtra, Bengal, current Andhra Pradesh and parts of Kerala. For instance in Maharashtra, reformers like Jyotirao Phule, Pandita Ramabai and Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur worked for the upliftment of untouchables and education. Raja Ram Mohun Roy, founder of the Brahmo Samaj worked for the abolition of the sacrificial ritual of Sati. The walking into the sunset (and beyond the horizon) in Wahan could be read as part of the Bengali Romantic Renaissance. Although largely restricted to the Bengali (upper class) Bhadralok, the movement, which culminated in the literary and art works of Rabindranath Tagore, promoted intellectual freedom and European values of the progress of man. Gopal Krishna could be read as the text of Indian National Congress led anti-colonialism, powered by Gandhian ideals of self-sufficient villages and peasant/artisan solidarity.
To sum up, in this essay, I tried to show that the three Prabhat filmmakers employed complementary cultural discourses to redefine the genres of mythological-fantasy-costume dramas in an effort to bring a new idiom to colonial-era Indian cinema.
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 Deepa Gahlot and Tapan Ghosh present popular accounts, but offer a wealth of ideas for theoretical intervention.
 See Rafter (2006), Norden (2007). Villains in post-celluloid films appear to be fertile territories for theories.
 The story appears in the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata and the Vishnu Purana, and explains the origin of amrita, the drink of immortality, over which the gods and the demons fight.
 Shantaram writes in his memoir that he hit upon the idea of using the eye as a filmic device in one of his dreams (Shantarama, 1987).
 In 1939, Film India praised Shah Nawaz’s character Balraj in Wadia Movietone’s Kahan Hai Meri Manzil: 'a menacing figure...his characterization is impressive though it has been obviously modelled after Chandramohan’s Rajguru in Prabhat’s Amrit Manthan.'
 An iris shot is a technique frequently used in silent film in which a black circle closes to end a scene.
 In Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), the hero and his love interest also walk into the sunset and away from the diegetic society in search of a better future.