The mythological, being unique to Indian cinema, is also its founding genre. Starting with Dadasaheb Phalke’s 50-minute silent movie Raja Harishchandra (1913), mythologicals dominated the silver screen before Independence. Their numbers began to dwindle post-1947, and by the 1970s, they had been relegated to the B-circuit.
This was until Jai Santoshi Maa, a low-budget movie featuring unknown actors, became one of the highest grossing films of 1975, alongside Sholay and Deewar.
Anita Guha, the actress who played Santoshi Maa, described the movie’s success in these words: “Audiences were showering coins, flower petals and rice at the screen in appreciation of the film. They entered the cinema barefoot and set up a small temple outside... In Bandra, where mythological films are not shown, it ran for 50 weeks. It was a miracle.”
Apart from reviving the dying mythological genre, the movie also popularized Santoshi Mata, a goddess with no Puranic base. This was path-breaking since earlier mythologicals, such as Vaman Avatar (1934) and Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950), were largely based on Puranic gods. The story of how Jai Santoshi Maa’s spectacular success made the local goddess a household name is worth telling.
Santoshi Mata was first worshipped in the 1960s by women in Uttar Pradesh and has no base in any Puranic myth, according to Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus. Only five temples, located at widely separated sites, were dedicated to this local goddess and she was known mainly through vratkathas (literally, stories of a fast).
These kathas are generally stories of fasting as a form of worship and the benefits it begets. Santoshi Mata’s vratkatha is the story of how a woman, mistreated by her in-laws, observes Santoshi Mata’s vrat for 16 consecutive Fridays and the goddess fulfils her wishes.
The vratkatha also details how Santoshi Mata’s fast is to be observed: On Fridays, consuming only one meal throughout the day (strictly no sour or bitter foods), reciting the vratkatha and offering gur-chana (jaggery and chickpea) as prasad to the goddess. Thus, before she catapulted to fame, Santoshi Mata was one of many local goddesses with a small set of worshippers.
As the story goes, one of her few devotees was the wife of Vijay Sharma, a film director. She name encouraged him to spread the word about Santoshi Mata through the cinematic medium. And so, Jai Santoshi Maa was born.
The film starts with an image of a vermillion-smeared Santoshi Maa as a voice in the background extols her greatness. This is followed by a heavily Sanskritized credit sequence, which even includes deliberate neologisms such as digdarshak (director).
The plot revolves around Satyawati, a devotee of Santoshi Maa, whose in-laws torture her after her husband abandons her, whose unwavering devotion towards Santoshi Maa ensures that the goddess keeps rescuing her from every peril she faces.
Parallel to Satyawati’s story is the tale of three conniving Puranic goddesses, Saraswati, Laxmi and Parvati (wives of the Puranic trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh), who are jealous of Santoshi Maa and keep making matters worse for Satyawati in order to test her devotion.
The movie has a happy ending, where not only does Satyawati get her husband back, but Santoshi Maa is also hailed as a “true” goddess by the three other goddesses.
Despite being largely based on the vratkatha, the movie lent to Santoshi Mata what the vratkatha could not: a dynasty. Even though the vratkatha names the goddess, it never explains her origins or introduces her.
The opening scene of the movie declares her to be the daughter of Lord Ganesh, who procreated rather reluctantly and under pressure from his wives and sisters.
By doing so, the movie elevated the status of Santoshi Mata from a local goddess to an important Puranic goddess. Furthermore, the movie had a wider reach than the vratkathas and appealed mostly to lower-middle-class women. This had a lot to do with the everyday-ness of the film. The story of Satyawati’s mistreatment by her in-laws was a common trope of saas-bahu drama that women in India could relate to.
Moreover, Santoshi Mata’s worship was fairly inexpensive and she was a “gentle, benevolent and a dependable goddess”, according to Veena Das’s 1981 paper The Mythological Film and its Framework of Meaning: An Analysis of Jai Santoshi Maa.
Unlike Kali, who fights actual demons, Santoshi Mata would fight the everyday problems of her devotees. Also, her ability to grant wishes in an increasingly materialistic society made her the goddess to approach for practical and obvious blessings—such as a new household appliance.
The movie, by using unrealistic sets and amusing special effects, eventually became so entwined with the goddess that watching the film itself became an act of worshipping Santoshi Mata.
In Popular Hindi Cinema: Aesthetic Formations of the Seen and Unseen, Ronie Parciack calls this the “dynamism of darshan”, which transforms the act of film viewing as a devotional act.
The movie achieved this by filling the whole screen with the goddess’s image, with the darkened hall repressing the world outside and weeding out any boundaries that exist between the viewer and the goddess onscreen. This is precisely why, as Guha had recounted, people entered the cinema halls (showing Jai Santoshi Maa) barefoot and threw flowers at the screen.
Forty-one years later, Santoshi Mata is still largely known by her onscreen avatar. Even now, one can find the movie telecast on Hindi film channels on Fridays (fasting day for Santoshi Mata’s devotees). The movie’s most popular song, “Main toh aarti utaru re Santoshi mata ki” (I worship Santoshi Mata) is often sung at rituals associated with Santoshi Mata.
A new version of the cult film, released in 2006 and only available on DVD, completed the process of inextricably linking the goddess to the movie. One can purchase the DVD as part of a gift set accompanied by a variety of ritual implements: an aarti book, a small murti (idol) of Santoshi Mata, a diya, puja bell, thali, mata’s chunari (scarf), incense sticks and a garland.
The stunning success of Jai Santoshi Maa spurred a growth in mythologicals. Vijay Sharma himself made Mahalaxmi Maa (1976) and Mahasati Naina Sundari (1979) but none could repeat the magic. Even regional cinema saw a rise in the production of mythologicals such as the Gujarati movie, Jai Bahuchar Maa, which did not perform well at the box office either.
Indian cinema could never replicate the success of Jai Santoshi Maa, neither commercially nor spiritually. Perhaps it has something to do with the goddess’s blessings.
Ruchika Sharma is a doctoral student of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org