Theses Doctoral

Genealogies of the Citizen-Devotee: Popular Cinema, Religion and Politics in South India

Bhrugubanda, Uma Maheswari

This dissertation is a genealogical study of the intersections between popular cinema, popular religion and politics in South India. It proceeds with a particular focus on the discursive field of Telugu cinema as well as religion and politics in the state of Andhra Pradesh from roughly the 1950s to the 2000s. By discursive field of cinema, I refer to not only filmic texts, but also disciplines of film making, practices of publicity, modes of film criticism as well as practices of viewership all of which are an inalienable part of the institution of cinema. Telugu cinema continued to produce mythological and devotional films based mostly on Hindu myths and legends many decades after they ceased to be major genres in Hindi and many other Indian languages. This was initially seen simply as an example of the insufficiently modernized and secularized nature of the South Indian public, and of the enduring nature of Indian religiosity. However, these films acquired an even greater notoriety later. In 1982, N.T. Rama Rao, a film star who starred in the roles of Hindu gods like Rama and Krishna in many mythologicals set up a political party, contested and won elections, and became the Chief Minister of the state, all in the space of a year. For many political and social commentators this whirlwind success could only be explained by the power of his cinematic image as god and hero! The films thus came to be seen as major contributing factors in the unusual and undesirable alliance between cinema, religion and politics. This dissertation does not seek to refute the links between these different fields; on the contrary it argues that the cinema is a highly influential and popular cultural institution in India and as such plays a very significant role in mediating both popular religion and politics. Hence, we need a fuller critical exploration of the intersections and overlaps between these realms that we normally think ought to exist in independent spheres. This dissertation contributes to such an exploration. A central argument this dissertation makes is about the production of the figure of the citizen-devotee through cinema and other media discourses. Through the use of this hyphenated word, citizen-devotee, this study points to the mutual and fundamental imbrication of the two ideas and concepts. In our times, the citizen and devotee do not and cannot exist as independent figures but necessarily contaminate each other. On the one hand, the citizen-devotee formulation indicates that the citizen ideal is always traversed by, and shot through with other formations of subjectivity that inflect it in significant ways. On the other hand, it points to the incontrovertible fact that in modern liberal democracies, it is impossible to simply be a devotee (bhakta) where one's allegiance is only to a particular faith or mode of being. On the contrary, willingly or unwillingly one is enmeshed in the discourse of rights and duties, subjected to the governance of the state, the politics of identity and the logics of majority and minority and so on. Religion as we know it today is itself the product of an encounter with modern rationalities of power and the modern media. Hence, we cannot simply talk about the citizen or the devotee, but only of the modern hybrid formation, the citizen-devotee. The first full length study of the Telugu mythological and devotional films, this dissertation combines a historical account of Telugu cinema with an anthropology of film making and viewership practices. It draws on film and media theory to foreground the specificity of these technologies and the new kind of publics they create. Anthropological theories of religion, secularism and the formation of embodied and affective subjects are combined with political theories of citizenship and governmentality to complicate our understanding of the overlapping formations of film spectators, citizens and devotees.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Dirks, Nicholas B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 6, 2012