(downloaded July 2004)
Nowadays those sites are gone and the articles are available at: *Manushi 131*
A few editing errors corrected, both parts joined, and footnotes hyperlinked, by FWP.

A SPECIAL TREAT: The author has also made available his own version of the article, which is ILLUSTRATED. It is available in three parts: *Part 1*; *Part 2*; *References*.

Further treats for Lutgendorf fans:

*"Like Mother, Like Son: Sita and Hanuman," Manushi 114, pp. 22-35*

*"Dining Out at Lake Pampa: the Shabari Episode in Multiple Ramayanas"*
a draft of an article that later appeared in Paula Richman, ed., Questioning Ramayanas: a South Asian Tradition (Berkeley, Univ. of Cal. Press, 2001), pp. 119-36.

MANUSHI 131 (July-August 2002)

A Superhit Goddess:
Jai Santoshi Maa and Caste Hierarchy in Indian Films

by Philip Lutgendorf

"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 aren’t shown, it ran for fifty weeks. It was a miracle". —Anita Guha, (actress who played goddess Santoshi Ma; cited in Kabir 2001:115).

Genre, Film, and Phenomenon

Cecil B. DeMille’s famously cynical adage, "God is box office," may be applied to Indian popular cinema, the output of the world’s largest film industry, albeit with certain adjustments—one must pluralise and sometimes feminise its subject. The genres known as "mythologicals" and "devotionals" were present at the creation of the Indian film and have remained hardy perennials of its vast output, yet they constitute one of the least-studied aspects of this comparatively under-studied cinema. Indeed, I will venture that for scholars and critics, mythologicals have generally been "hard to see." Yet DeMille’s words also belie the fact that most mythologicals—like most commercial films of any genre—flop at the box office. The comparatively few that have enjoyed remarkable and sustained acclaim hence merit study both as religious expressions and as successful examples of popular art and entertainment.

Of the four hundred and seventy-five Indian films released in 1975, three enjoyed enormous success. All were in Hindi, the lingua franca of the entertainment industry based in Bombay (a.k.a. Mumbai), lately dubbed "Bollywood," which (although it generates less than a quarter of national cinematic output) enjoys the largest audience throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Sholay ("Flames") and Deewar ("The Wall"), were both heavily-promoted "multi-starrers" belonging to the then-dominant genre sometimes referred to as the masala ("spicy") film: a multi-course cinematic banquet incorporating suspenseful drama, romance, comedy, violent action sequences, and song and dance. Both were expensive and slickly made by the standards of the industry, and both featured Amitabh Bachchan, the male superstar whose iconic portrayal of an "angry young man" would dominate the Hindi screen for the next decade. Female characters were marginal to both, and this was not surprising given that their target audience was young urban males, who strongly identified with their themes of honor and revenge.

Superhit Goddess

The third "superhit" of 1975 could hardly have been more different, however, and came as a complete surprise to both the industry and the press. Jai Santoshi Maa ("Hail to the Mother of Satisfaction")/1/was a low-budget film featuring unknown actors, cheap sets and crude special effects, and a plot and audience dominated by women. Dedicated to a little-known Hindu goddess, it belonged to a film genre that had been considered marginal for more than three decades. Yet Jai Santoshi Maa became a runaway, word-of-mouth hit, packing cinemas in major urban centers and smaller provincial towns. It also became something more: a phenomenon that gave a new and specifically Indian inflection to the American pop phrase "cult film," for audiences commonly engaged in ritual and devotional behavior during its screenings, and temples and shrines to its titular goddess soon began to appear in many parts of India. As the years passed, the film acquired the status of a "cult classic," and was regularly revived, especially for women’s matinees on Friday, the day associated with the vrat or ritual fast and worship of Santoshi Ma; by all accounts, hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of women periodically participated in such worship. Media accounts of the sudden emergence of a modern "celluloid goddess" attracted the interest of scholars interested in the impact of film on religion and popular culture, and as a result Jai Santoshi Maa became unique among mythological films by becoming the subject of a modest scholarly literature. To establish a context for my own examination of the film, I will briefly survey the history of mythologicals and their evaluation (or more typically, omission) by scholars, as well as the responses, from several disciplinary perspectives, to the Santoshi Ma film and phenomenon.

Early Mythologicals

The chronology of early cinema in India closely paralleled its development in the West, from the first demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinématograph in Bombay in July of 1896, only six months after its unveiling in Europe. Both in its technology and content, early cinema carried the cachet (or stigma) of being a foreign innovation, and was largely confined to the new commercial cities of the British Raj, where it was patronised by European residents and the Anglophone elite. Even after Indian producers became active—this is generally dated to May of 1913, when D. G. Phalke released his 50-minute feature Raja Harishchandra—the bulk of films shown on Indian screens continued to be foreign, with American output dominating, a situation that prevailed until well into the sound era of the 1930s./2/ Both nationalism and religious feeling inflect Phalke’s oft-quoted account of his 1911 viewing of a film called The Life of Christ, which caused him to mentally visualise "the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra," and to ponder the question, "Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?" (Rajadhyaksha 1993:49). Phalke’s 1913 effort, based on an episode in the Mahabharata, was the first of nearly a hundred films he would make over the next two decades, almost all based on epic and (puranic) tales. These included Lanka Dahan ("The Burning of Lanka," 1917), depicting the monkey Hanuman’s exploits in the Ramayana and said to have been "India’s first big box-office hit" (Rangoonwalla 1983:33), and Shri Krishna Janma ("The Birth of Lord Krishna," 1918). The appearance of the divine incarnations Rama and Krishna in the latter two films is said to have elicited a powerful response from viewers, as "…men and women in the audience prostrated themselves before the screen" (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980:15). Significantly, Phalke seems to have catered to—indeed, helped to create—a different audience than that which patronised foreign films. He advertised in vernacular newspapers rather than in the English-language press, and took his shows to the hinterland, often by bullock cart, to offer inexpensive screenings to rural audiences who sat on the ground before makeshift screens (ibid.).

Other producers followed Phalke’s example. The Elphinstone Bioscope Company of Calcutta issued its own version of the Harishchandra story, nearly double the length of Phalke’s, in 1917, and later that year offered Prahlad Charitra ("The Deeds of Prahlad"), based on the Bhagavata Purana story of a legendary devotee of Vishnu (Rangoonwalla 1983:33). The first film made in south India was 1919’s Keechaka Vadham ("The Slaying of Keechaka"), likewise adapted from the Mahabharata. Such films, which themselves celebrated swadeshi or indigenous manufacture, embodied a nationalist message through traditional tales presented via a fascinating new technology; they helped to draw new constituencies into the cinema, and into a project of Indian modernity. Other films of the period centred on the legendary biographies of poet saints of the medieval bhakti tradition, such as Bilwamangal and Kabir Kamal (both 1919; ibid. 34-35). Such hagiographic films were sometimes called "devotionals," to distinguish them from "mythologicals," which featured divine and semi-divine heroes. However, many accounts merge both under the umbrella label "mythological" (Dharap 1983:80).

New Competing Genres

Mythological/devotional films accounted for all but one of the twenty-five feature films made by Indian producers prior to 1920 (Rangoonwalla 1983:35), but cinematic content changed rapidly in the next decade. Dhiren Ganguli’s Bilat Ferat ("England Returned," 1921), offered a contemporary comedy of manners, and Madan Theatres’ Barer Bazar ("Marriage Market," 1922) dramatised a social problem (ibid. 40-49). There were historical dramas like Simgadh ("The Fortress of Simgadh," 1923), on the life of the Maratha king Shivaji, and thrillers like Kala Naag ("Black Cobra," 1924), based on a sensational murder case in Bombay (ibid. 49-50; Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1995:227). The variety of nascent genres suggested by these titles reflects the pressure of competition within a growing industry (by 1930, India was producing close to 200 films per year), which caused filmmakers to seek new sources of appealing narrative. Mythologicals continued to be produced (and re-produced: e.g., the Mahabharata tale of Savitri had been filmed at least eight times by 1937; Barnouw and Krishhnaswamy 1980:100), but they comprised a shrinking percentage of output. According to B. V. Dharap, they accounted for roughly seventy per cent of films made prior to 1923, but only fifteen per cent of those made between 1923 and 1930 (Dharap 1983:80). They experienced a brief resurgence with the coming of sound in 1931, accounting for some forty per cent of films during the next three years, but then their output fell again, to an average of between five and ten per cent of annual production (ibid. 81). These statistics cover the whole of India and thus include regions of the South where mythological films continued to be made in sizeable numbers (e.g., the Telugu language cinema of Andhra Pradesh; Shah 1950:120-122). In the dominant Hindi language cinema, according to Nasreen Munni Kabir, the mythological "had virtually disappeared by the 1950s" (Kabir 2001:114)—a fact that would make the success of Jai Santoshi Maa more striking.

Absence of Scholarly Study

There exists no major scholarly study of the mythological film genre, and only a handful of articles devoted to it. This is surprising, since mythologicals constituted the most distinctive early product of Indian cinema, one that "earmarked for the Indian film an area of subject matter that won for it an immediate and powerful hold in India and neighbouring countries…." (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980:20). Moreover, these films were instrumental in "laying down the operative norms of Indian films, both in form and content, which are still in use after seventy years" (Rangoonwalla 1983:31). Yet beyond the Phalke era (to which the two preceding quotes refer), standard surveys of Indian cinema make, at most, only scattered reference to mythologicals (e.g., Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980:90-91, 100-101, 173; Chakravarty 1993:2, 35-36, 42), and the most theoretically ambitious recent study of popular cinema, M. Madhava Prasad’s Ideology of the Hindi Film, dispenses with them in two footnotes (Prasad 1998:4, n.3; 135, n.19).

Decline of Mythologicals

Explanations for the fluctuating commercial fortunes of these films have been offered, however. The preference of early directors for mythological subjects has been attributed to the social and technical constraints they faced: in order to reach a mass, multi-lingual, and largely illiterate audience without the use of sound, they relied on culturally familiar stories that permitted them to develop complex narratives without dialogue (Kabir 2001:110). Such narrative familiarity was relied on whenever a new technology was introduced, which explains the brief resurgence of mythologicals in the early sound era (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980:90)./3/ This argument may be further extended to the expansion of television viewing in the 1980s, which received a boost from phenomenally popular serialised versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata—the most successful examples of mythological-style entertainment after Jai Santoshi Maa (Lutgendorf 1990:127-141).

A further explanation for the decline of the mythological is that it was subsumed within an emerging super-genre—usually termed the "social," a label loosely applied to any film set in modern times—that assumed a cinematically-sophisticated audience and that abounded in inter-textual allusions to epic and (puranic) myths as well as to folklore, current events, and previous films (Booth 1995, 2000; Thomas 1987:304; cf. Prasad on the emergence of the "social" as "the all-inclusive film" which absorbed other genres; 1998:46-47, 135-136). The implicit argument that mythologicals marked a transitional phase in Indian cinematic practice, offering accessible entertainments that, among other things, taught Indians how to watch films, is one to which I will return in reference to Jai Santoshi Maa, a film that, once again, seems to have drawn new audiences into cinema halls.

Political Allegories

What is the cause for the scholarly neglect of mythological films? The slim literature on the topic bears a tone that is variously apologetic, disapproving, or dismissive—suggesting that mythological films are, frankly, embarrassing: the most tawdry and regressive products of an otherwise much-maligned industry, and the expressions of a religious vision that is particularly alien to "progressive" and westernised sensibilities. Attempts to rehabilitate the genre approvingly note the veiled political motives of some early filmmakers; thus P. K. Nair observes that, under the strict censorship of British authorities, ancient stories of demon-slaying heroes could serve as allegorical critiques of the colonial Raj (cited in Kabir 2001:103-105). This is an argument indirectly supported by some of Phalke’s own writings, as well as by historical evidence concerning the reception of specific films—thus the 1919 film Sairandhree, about the attempted rape of the Mahabharata heroine Draupadi, is said to have been widely interpreted as a critique of the policies of the Viceroy, Lord Curzon (Dharap 1983:82). Similarly, Geeta Kapur’s appreciative if headily theoretical analysis of Sant Tukaram ("Saint Tukaram," 1936), one of the most popular "devotionals" of the early sound era, characterises it as a "naïve" Gandhian nationalist allegory with implicitly subaltern sympathies (Kapur 1987:79-96). Such arguments are not without merit, and may be applied equally well to older performance forms—for religious storytelling in India has often made allusions to social and political conditions—but they are clearly not the whole story, and ignore issues of reception based on class and gender, as well as considerations of religious meaning.

Caste Hierarchy in Films

Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar’s playful "caste system" of film genres—which posits the mythological as brahman (priest/sage), the historical film as kshatriya (warrior/aristocrat), and the action-packed "stunt film" as shudra (serf/manual laborer; Kakar 1989:25)—has some validity for the early cinema. Many conservative and pious people condemned films as corrupting and immoral—likely to "arouse passion and cause sexual promiscuity, leading to masturbation, loss of eyesight, and…impotence" (Khare 1985:142), but would sometimes make an exception for religious films. Thus Mahatma Gandhi, who disapproved of cinema, is said to have seen only one film in his lifetime: Vijay Bhatt’s 1945 mythological Ram Rajya—"Rama’s Reign" (Dharap 1983:82). "Stunt films" popular in the 1930s and 40s, featuring avenger-style superheroes intervening in defense of underdogs, appealed particularly to the urban working classes. Yet Kakar’s invocation of ancient varna categories obscures other social divisions in contemporary India. As noted earlier, Phalke targeted his mythological films at a vernacular-speaking and partly-rural audience rather than the urban middle class who patronised Anglo-European films. In subsequent decades, stunt films and mythologicals were in fact often made by the same studios, whose directors "talked of mythologicals as ‘nothing more than stunt films that happen to be about gods’" (Thomas 1987:304-305). Both were aimed at less-educated and generally less-prosperous audiences, urban for the stunt films, rural for mythologicals—though the latter were also known to appeal particularly to women (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980:47; Shah 1950:106).

Although the advent of sound led to Indian-language films gradually edging out foreign competition, the growing status of English as elite lingua franca led to new conventions of coding for target audiences. In Bombay cinema, "A-grade" films (generally "socials") displayed their titles and credits in Roman script and using English terminology ("director," etc.), and peppered their dialogue with English words and phrases. The fact that the opening credits of Jai Santoshi Maa appear entirely in Devanagari script and feature Sanskritised-Hindi neologisms (e.g. digdarshak for "director") is an immediate signal that it aims for a different audience, as Bombay journalist Ashok Banker forthrightly observes in his notes on the film.

By the 1970s mythological movies were seen as downmarket and vernac, suitable only for films made in other ethnic Indian languages. (Vernac is short for vernacular. It is a common Indian English word for a person of an ethnic Indian background without much education, English or sophistication who speaks only a local ‘vernacular’ language. The equivalent of a country bumpkin or backwoods bozo. [sic]) So when this low-budget B-movie broke all records to become one of the highest-grossing films of the year…it took everyone by surprise. (Banker 2001:59)
Such observations suggest that, in the "caste system" of post-Independence Bombay cinema, where the "stunt film" was subsumed within the omnibus masala "social" aimed at urban male audiences, it was the "downmarket and vernac" mythological that became the cultural shudra of film genres—shunned by "sophisticated" audiences, as well as by the neo-brahmins of academia.

Lower-Class Kitsch?

There are other problems with mythologicals. On an aesthetic level, their cheap production values and special effects, evoking the staging conventions of rustic folk theater and lower-class notions of opulence, are perceived as gaudy kitsch by wealthier and more educated people. Further, such films typically portray the Hindu gods displaying human emotions such as desire, fear, anger, and jealousy. Such portrayals pose little problem for rural and more traditional audiences, for whom even laughter at the gods can coexist comfortably with feelings of awe and devotion. But they are at odds with two influential currents in elite discourse: a Protestantised ideology of religion, absorbed through English-medium education, that advocates solemnity and dignity in the portrayal of divinities, and a brahmanical and lingering orientalist preference for advaita monism, that holds the worship of physically-embodied deities to represent a "lower" level of theological understanding. To these must of course be added the overall hostility to religious expression of Marxism and psychoanalysis, two of the most influential ideologies of the humanist academy during the second half of the twentieth century.

Many Indian intellectuals of the post-Independence era nurtured the hope that technological and economic progress would gradually solve the "problem of religion" in their famously-devout land. Dharap’s essay on mythologicals is saturated with the vocabulary of Victorian rationalism, invoking "fatalism" as a catch-all for everything that is wrong with India: "…so long as ignorance, illiteracy, poverty, superstition rule the large mass of people in this country; so long as fatalism is taken for granted, such pictures will always have an audience…." (Dharap 1983:83). Remarking on the devotional reaction to Phalke’s early films, Dharap sneers that "the illiterate spectators actually prostrated themselves, taking the screen-Gods as real." There is indeed a curiously naïve faith displayed here: Dharap’s own assumption that a "scientific" understanding of cinematic artifice properly precludes the experience of "real" divinity—this despite the fact that Hindus routinely and knowingly impute divinity to iconic materialisations of all sorts, permanent and transient, natural and manufactured: from clods of earth to painted surfaces to consecrated human actors./4/ The persistence of such cinematic idolatry is especially troubling to Dharap, and he attributes it to the "illiterate, ignorant and hence, credulous" nature of Indian viewers: "Even after seven decades of films,gullible members of the audience were seen laying themselves prostrate before the screen deity in motion picture theatres throughout the country, when Jai Santoshi Maa was shown" (Dharap 1983:82). Yet, as already noted, the outstanding success of a handful of mythological films, and the failure of many others, suggests that even the "illiterate" and "credulous" can be discriminating cinema goers. The question of what made Jai Santoshi Maa one of the most successful films of its period remains unaddressed.

A Goddess Analysed

Given the above, it is not surprising that the modest literature on Jai Santoshi Maa reflects mainly the work of sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of Indian art and religion, rather than of film scholars. Although these authors provide a good deal of insight into the Santoshi Ma cult, I think it is fair to say that, broadly speaking, they are more interested in Hindu goddesses than in Hindi films, and show relatively little interest in the aesthetic and narrative qualities that contributed to the film’s success.

Sociologist Veena Das’s 1980 essay on the film includes a synopsis of its plot, but quickly moves to an ambitious typology of mother goddesses within which she situates Santoshi Ma; she then speculates on the socio-religious concerns of the film’s primary fans, whom she identifies as lower-class urban women. Although Das makes factual errors that suggest a perhaps cursory viewing of the film (thus she identifies the Santoshi Ma fast as comprising twelve Fridays rather than sixteen, and asserts that the goddess becomes angry with her devotee in the climactic scene), she offers, albeit in passing, two penetrating and related observations. These concern the relative centrality of the human heroine ("It seems to me that in an important sense one may justifiably ask whether the true subject of this story is not Santoshi Ma, but Satyavati"; Das 1980:49), and the parallel structure of the film’s two main narratives, divine and human ("Every significant chain of events relating to Satyavati points to a successive movement in the evolution of Santoshi Ma…."; ibid.). Surprisingly, neither of these insights seems to have been pursued in subsequent scholarship, but I will return to them shortly.

Four years after Das’s essay appeared, a panel on "Santoshi Ma, the Film Goddess" was presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, showcasing the work of young Western scholars who had become interested in the film and cult./5/ Art historian Michael Brand traced the history of the goddess’ worship to the early 1960s, when five temples to Santoshi Ma were dedicated at widely-separated sites in northern India. He also showed how the iconography of the goddess, which seems to have developed during the same period, rapidly became standardised through poster images. Brand’s paper indicates that the cult of Santoshi Ma was already spreading among women—through word of mouth, pamphlet literature, and poster art—well before the making of the film. Indeed, it was reportedly one woman’s devotion to Santoshi Ma, acquired through a pilgrimage to a temple in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, that made her urge her filmmaker husband, Vijay Sharma, to "spread the goddess’s message" through the cinematic medium (Hawley 1996:4).

Another presenter on the AAR panel was Kathleen Erndl, whose work on Santoshi Ma was part of research on goddess cults of the Punjab hills, which eventually resulted in the monograph Victory to the Mother (1993). Its chapter on "The Goddess and Popular Culture" devotes a section to Santoshi Ma, who "has taken all of northern India by storm"; yet Erndl says little about the film, beyond noting its massive popularity (Erndl 1993:141-152). She summarises Santoshi Ma’s story based on written sources, and identifies the goddess with the lion-riding Sheranvali popular in northwestern India, an unmarried goddess who is both virgin and mother, and whose historic worship through shakta and tantric ritual (including blood sacrifice) has been sanitised, in recent times, by her increasingly urban and middle class devotees (ibid. 3-6). Contra Das and Brand, Erndl argues that there is nothing particularly "new" about Santoshi Ma, apart from her unusually rapid diffusion through the media of print, film, and radio (ibid. 144).

Another presenter at the 1984 panel was Stanley Kurtz, then a graduate student in anthropology at Harvard, working on a dissertation on the Santoshi Ma cult. In the course of his fieldwork, Kurtz concluded, like Erndl, that Santoshi Ma was not perceived by devotees as distinctive or new, and was in fact confused with other popular goddesses (Kurtz 1992: 2-4, 15-16). Like Das, he became principally interested in creating a comprehensive typology of female deities, but in the service of a yet more ambitious agenda: a reworking of Freudian theory to account for the different cultural aims of Hindu childrearing. His resulting book, All the Mothers are One (1992) includes an extended discussion of both the printed and cinematic narratives of Santoshi Ma, focusing on the tension Kurtz identifies between an Indian child’s "natural" and "in-law" mothers (the women of its father’s family, who play a key role in childrearing; ibid. 111-131). Kurtz’s critique of the cultural biases inherent in earlier psychological studies of Indian childhood is often fascinating, yet his use of Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality to explain the multiplicity of Hindu goddesses (as reflecting unconscious memories of early experiences with multiple female caregivers) is certainly open to question.

The analyses of both Das and Kurtz explain the popularity of Jai Santoshi Maa in terms of factors that are unseen by and (in a conscious sense) unknown to most of its viewers. In this process of peering, as it were, beneath the surface of the film, that surface appears to have largely been overlooked—indeed, it is Kurtz’s stated intent to "dissolve" the apparent specificity of Santoshi Ma into a generic Mother Goddess shaped by infantile experience (ibid. 13-28). Yet there are many aspects of this film that Indian viewers may be expected to "see" and understand quite readily, and that seek to engage them through reference to familiar beliefs, discourses, and practices. It is my conviction that a re-reading of the film in terms of such contextual elements will reveal Jai Santoshi Maa to be an intelligent, witty, and well-crafted film that deserves the success it has enjoyed. I will argue that, within its aesthetic conventions of flatly-painted backdrops and gaudily-costumed gods who appear and disappear with a clash of cymbals, the film presents a carefully-structured narrative abounding in references to folklore and mythology and offering trenchant commentary on social convention; it also develops a "visual theology" that is particularly relevant to female viewers. In addition, I will propose that Das’s pioneering and commendable effort to place the film in a socio-historical perspective, may now, more than two decades later, be reconsidered./6/

From Katha to Camera

Whereas most mythological and devotional films of previous decades were either based on episodes in Sanskrit epic and puranic literature or on the legends of spiritual exemplars of the past, Jai Santoshi Maa, which has as its principal human character a village housewife living in (more or less) present-day India,/7/ is based on a story drawn from a popular pamphlet belonging to the genre known as vrat katha. A vrat is a disciplined religious observance for a fixed period (usually a day), involving partial or complete fasting, the ritual worship of a deity, and the recitation or hearing of a relevant katha or "story." Vrat stories generally fall into two categories: one explains the origin of the vrat or of the deity in whose honor it is observed, and the other describes the paradigmatic observance of the vrat by a human devotee; something usually goes awry in this observance, with disastrous consequences that are overcome by performing the vrat correctly a second time. Some vrat rituals may be undertaken at any time; others occur on fixed dates that recur at weekly, monthly, or annual intervals. Some have specified aims--often the protection and wellbeing of relatives, especially husbands, brothers, or sons--whereas others seek the fulfillment of wishes. Although Indian men sometimes perform vrats, women are far more inclined to this type of ritual and many vrats are passed down within families through women's oral tradition (Pearson 1996:3-11).

The ideology and practice of vrats may be very ancient--a form of folk religion that developed parallel to the sacrificial and ascetic practices attested in Sanskrit texts, but that was transmitted orally and largely ignored by male ideologues. Numerous vrats are described, and their stories recounted, in the later puranic literature, which suggests a belated brahmanical recognition of the appeal of these rites, as well as an effort to standardise and regulate their practice--e.g., through the stipulation of priestly mediation at some of the rituals. Such aims are also reflected in the modern literature of inexpensive pamphlets sold at religious bookstalls; the authors (when identified) are usually Brahman pandits and the language Sanskritised Hindi. Nevertheless, the easy accessibility of such pamphlets, coupled with the gradual increase in women's literacy, has facilitated the independent performance of vrats by many women.

Long neglected by scholars of Hinduism, vrat rituals and stories have recently attracted interest as part of a broader recuperation of women's religious experience (Pearson 1996:xv-xvi). Scholarship encompasses both critiques of vrats as "rituals contributing to the subordination and disempowerment of women"--and indeed, vrat stories generally encode a patriarchal ideology, making a woman responsible, through correct ritual, for the health and success of her male kin--and accounts that stress women's perceptions of agency, creativity, and ritual empowerment through vrat performance, as well as the role of such observance (which may include group rituals done outside the home) in maintaining women's social networks (ibid. 8-9). Moreover, although written vrat stories generally present a mechanistic vision of ritual performance, in which seemingly minor errors provoke divine "anger" and prompt retribution--hardly surprising when one considers that the authors draw on the fastidious model of Vedic sacrifice--women practitioners sometimes modify or simplify the rituals, or indicate their conviction that "intention," "faith," and "devotion" take precedence over ritual precision (ibid. 113-119).

As I noted earlier, the worship of Santoshi Ma through a voluntary vrat observed on Fridays with the aim of fulfilling wishes had been spreading in northern India for more than a decade prior to the making of the film. The film itself incorporates both a modified enactment of the story and a paradigmatic performance of the ritual. It may be assumed that many women who viewed it already knew the vrat story, or would learn it through their own film-inspired performance of the ritual (which, as noted, includes a reading of the story), hence the inter-textual relationship between the two versions of the tale must figure in an analysis of the film.

Santoshi Ma is Distinctive

I must disagree with the claim that there is nothing new or special about Santoshi Ma, despite her physical resemblance to some other goddesses and her worshipers' claims, in certain contexts, that "all Mothers are one."/8/ Her distinctive features figure implicitly in both her vrat and her film and doubtless contributed to the success of both. In identifying these features, I want to expand on Das's observation that Santoshi Ma appealed especially to lower-class urban women seeking relief from "the everday tensions of existence" by invoking "a goddess who is gentle, benevolent and dependable" (Das 1980:54). Santoshi Ma is the daughter of Ganesh, god of favourable beginnings, who is worshiped to "remove obstacles" and insure success. His auspicious elephant head, generous paunch, and hand-held bowl of rounded laddus (a rich sweetmeat that is his favorite) suggest his association with the achievement of this-worldly aims, as do the names of his wives, Riddhi and Siddhi--"prosperity" and "success" (sometimes collapsed into the hyphenated name of a single consort). Although references to Ganesh's family life (apart from his childhood relationship with his own parents, Shiva and Parvati) are rare in classical mythology, the revelation that he has a daughter named "Santoshi" seems not inappropriate. This word, connoting "satisfaction," "fulfillment," or "contentment," invokes the constellation of terms and practices associated with what John Cort calls the "realm of wellbeing"--the pursuit of "health, wealth, mental peace, emotional contentment, and satisfaction in one's worldly endeavours," rather than the attainment of spiritual liberation, salvation, or a more favourable future birth (Cort 2001:7, 187-200). It is also important to note that, in the context of this goddess, the word alludes both to "fulfillment" in general, and also to the fulfillment of specific requests made by the observer of her vrat. Unlike other popular vrats enjoined on women by their families, such as karva chauth (observed for the welfare of husbands) or Bhaiyya duj (done for the benefit of brothers), the Santoshi Ma vrat is elective and is open-ended in terms of its goal.

Simple Vrat and Rituals

The simplicity of the vrat is striking: it is to be observed on a series of Fridays (some pamphlets prescribe that it be continued until one's wish is granted; others specify four months or sixteen weeks, a timespan popularised by the film) by doing puja or ceremonial worship with flowers, incense, and an oil lamp before an image of Santoshi Ma and offering her a bowl of raw sugar and roasted chickpeas (gur-chana)./9/ These are simple, inexpensive foodstuffs--the former a raw ingredient for making sweetmeats, the latter a common snack, especially of the poor--and the instructions require a very small quantity of each--in effect, a few pennies worth./10/ That Santoshi Ma is satisfied with such offerings again underscores her benevolent character as well as her accessibility to poor devotees. The worshiper should take a bit of gur-chana in hand and recite or listen to the katha. Afterwards, the offerings in the bowl may be fed to a cow, or distributed as the goddess's prasad. The only other stricture is that the performer of the vrat should eat but one meal during the day and should not eat, or serve to anyone else, sour or bitter foods. When one's wish has been granted, one is required to serve a festive meal--which should likewise not include any sour dishes--to eight boys; this ceremony of thanksgiving, common to many vrats, is known as udyapan or "bringing to conclusion." The vrat story to be recited or heard as part of the ritual may be summarised as follows.

The Vrat Katha

An old woman's seven sons were all hardworking except the youngest, who was irresponsible; hence his mother served him each night, without his knowledge, the leavings of his brothers' dinners--food that was jutha or polluted. His wife became aware of this and told him; horrified, he left home to seek his fortune. He found work with a wealthy merchant and became prosperous, but forgot about his wife. Years went by and the abandoned wife was abused by her in-laws, forced to cut wood in the forest, and given only bread made of chaff and water served in a coconut shell. One day she saw a group of women worshiping Santoshi Ma; they told her about the sixteen-week vrat that fulfills wishes. The wife successfully performed it, wishing for her husband's return. As a result, Santoshi Ma appeared to him in a dream and told him of his wife's plight. By her grace, the husband quickly closed his business and returned home with great wealth. Angry at his wife's mistreatment, he set up his own household, where his wife conducted the udyapan ceremony. But his in-laws contrived to have sour food served to the eight boys, offending the goddess; as a result the husband was imprisoned for tax-evasion. His wife prayed for forgiveness and performed the vrat and udyapan a second time, successfully. Her husband was released from prison and she soon gave birth to a handsome son. Later, Santoshi Ma paid a visit to the family, assuming a fearsome form. The couple's in-laws fled in terror, but the pious wife recognised her patron goddess and worshiped her. Her in-laws then begged for forgiveness, and the whole family received the goddess's blessing. "As Santoshi Ma gave to this daughter-in-law, so she will give to all." (Simha and Agnihotri 2000:338-339)

Several features of the story merit comment. That its characters are nameless and generic--"an old woman," her "seventh son," and so on--is typical of what A. K. Ramanujan calls the most "interior" kind of folktales: those generally told by women within domestic space. When such tales move outside the home and are taken up by professional bards in public space, the characters acquire names and more complex personalities (Ramanujan 1986:43-46)--as will those in the movie. Secondly, the goddess in the story, though named, is not explained or introduced (although the booklets identify her elsewhere as the daughter of Ganesh and Riddhi-Siddhi); she simply is, although the heroine does not initially know about her. The third notable feature is the mechanistic nature of the vrat: when a ritual error occurs through no fault of the heroine's, an evil result befalls her automatically, which can only be remedied through her corrected ritual performance. All of these features were significantly altered in the transformation of this minimal narrative--comprising but a few pages in most published versions--into a two hour and twenty minute feature film.

Jai Santoshi Maa Re-Viewed

The film opens with a still of a carved temple image of Santoshi Ma, stained red-orange with sindur (a paste made of vermillion and oil), and adorned with jewelry and fabric. The smoke of incense rises, and an unseen narrator announces:

"The greatness of Santoshi Ma is limitless. Each devotee has extolled her greatness in a unique way. This film's story is likewise based on some religious books and on popular stories (lok kathaem). We hope that you will accept it in a proper spirit. Hail to Santoshi Ma!"
The request to accept the film "in a proper spirit" alludes to certain potentially controversial episodes in the film (to be discussed below). The claim that it is based on sources that include texts and folktales is a further disclaimer of imaginative license (which, in religious stories, is condemned in theory, though in practice it is rampant and generally relished). There follows a clever credit sequence superimposed over another, more humanised image of Santoshi Ma as a young maiden holding a sword and trident--an adaptation of the standard poster, and also the icon that the film's human heroine will be shown worshiping in her own first appearance. The credit titles emanate, via rays of light and little puffs of smoke, from the goddess, hover briefly in front of her, then dissolve into cartoon-images of the standard trappings of worship that array themselves around her: garlands, bells, sweets, and most significantly, a row of clay lamps that slowly form at the base of the image; there are sixteen by the end of the credits, alluding to the Fridays of the vrat. Within the animation, there are visual puns: thus the name of a singer, "Pradip," appears with its first syllable (pra) omitted and replaced with a lamp, (dip in Hindi); the lamp morphs into the missing prefix, then back into one of the sixteen votive lights. The accompanying music is jaunty and lighthearted, setting a mood that is playful and entertaining rather than solemn and dramatic.

I will describe the film's early scenes in some detail, for they introduce its principal characters and themes. It opens in what is obviously dev-lok--the "world of the gods"--a setting immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen a mythological film. The basic elements of this heavenly realm, imagined as lying above the clouds, are decorated walls and plinths that rise out of a drifting, dry ice-generated fog. Ganesh and his family are seen celebrating the autumn festival of Rakhi (a.k.a. raksha bandhan, the "tying of protection"), when sisters tie string bracelets on the wrists of their brothers and receive from them sweets, gifts, and the promise of protection. Ganesh is receiving a bracelet from his sister Manasa, but his two little sons are distressed because they have no sister to likewise honour them. The divine sage Narada appears, immediately recognisable by his costume and stringed instrument as well as by his cry, "Narayan, Narayan!" (one of the names of Vishnu, of whom he is a devotee). In Hindu mythology, Narada is a mischievous busybody, a cosmic tourist who flits about the worlds eavesdropping and stirring up trouble. He takes up the children's nagging of Ganesh ("Daddy, bring us a sister!"), piously announcing that the god "who fulfills everyone's wishes" must not disappoint his own sons. Ganesh is visibly annoyed by this demand that he sire another child, and his two wives appear embarrassed and downcast. But after additional pleading, in which the god's sister and wives likewise join, Ganesh becomes thoughtful and raises his right hand in the "boon-granting" gesture. Tiny flames emerge from his wives' breasts and move through space to a lotus-shaped dais, where they form into a little girl, upon whom flower petals rain down. Riddhi and Siddhi are overjoyed. Crying, "Our daughter!" and "Oh, my little queen!" they embrace her affectionately and lead her to her brothers for the tying of the rakhi bracelet. The little girl then faces the camera and bows slightly with palms joined while Narada extols her:

"This mind-born daughter of  Lord Ganesh will always fulfill everyone's desires, will cause the Ganges of gratification to flow, and known by the name of 'Mother of Satisfaction,' will promote the wellbeing of the whole world. Hail Santoshi Ma!"
Human Divinities

Through this charming scene--which assumes that the gods celebrate holidays just as human beings do, and that they may similarly be pestered by their children--the responsibility for Santoshi Ma's birth is diffused over numerous agents: the nagging boys and busy-body sage, the humbly-entreating wives and more forthright Manasa, and, of course, Ganesh himself. This collective agency of divine figures, acting out of apparently human motives albeit with super-human powers, and displaying no evidence of omniscience or even of much forethought, will characterise the portrayal of all but one of them throughout the film. It is a style of representation that is entirely "traditional"--attested to by centuries of oral and written narrative, visual and performance art, and now in several decades of mythological films. Whereas the praising of deities in worship or in philosophical discourse may emphasize their "otherness" to the human--their being eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.--the praising of deities through stories about their "acts" (charitra) or "play" (lila) stresses their human-like qualities, which are vividly evoked. For the majority of Hindus, such divergent discourses coexist unproblematically in their respective contexts./11/

It is clear that Ganesh is reluctant to create a daughter; he yields only to placate his sister, sons and wives. As Kurtz notes (drawing on Lynn Bennett's research), Santoshi Ma is thus established as a "sister-daughter" goddess, filling a role that, in the context of north Indian patriarchy, connotes both auspiciousness and liability (Kurtz 1992:21-25; cf. Bennett 1983). A daughter gives joy to her brothers and female relatives--and the maternal affection of Riddhi and Siddhi is especially evident--but is a worry to her father, who must ultimately provide her dowry, guarantee her chastity, and oversee her transfer to another family. As we witness the "birth" of the little girl-child whom Narada paradoxically hails as a "Mother" of fulfilled wishes, we may recognise the ambivalent welcome she receives--a cooing embrace from her mothers, a somber stare from her father--as representative of the emotions that often attend the birth of a daughter in India.

By including this birth story, the film, like the vrat pamphlets, implicitly addresses the "newness" of Santoshi Ma, a goddess of whom viewers may not have been previously aware. Of course, once accepted as a goddess, she cannot be thought of as "new," since the deeds of gods by definition occur in atemporal puranic time. Nevertheless, Santoshi Ma is "born," and thus belongs to the category of gods with birth narratives--such as Ganesh himself, and also Skanda and Hanuman--whose genealogies in each case are revealing of their character and function (cf. on Hanuman, Lutgendorf 1997:318-319).

The scene shifts abruptly to earth, where we witness the fulfillment of Narada's benediction through the joyous worship of Santoshi Ma by a group of singing and dancing women, led by the maiden Satyavati (Kanan Kaushal). The setting is another mythological film staple: a pastel-colored, neo-classical temple enshrining in its sanctum a brightly-painted image, here equipped with a glittering motorised halo. Everyone looks well-fed and prosperous, bedecked in bright costumes that suggest a non-specific north Indian rural setting; the Brahman priest, waving his arti lamp before the goddess, looks serene and ecstatic.

'In Mother's Eyes'

The women's choreographed ensemble dancing is unlike anything one would see in a real temple (where worship is normally individual and idiosyncratic)--again, this is standard cinematic convention. Satyavati stands in the center of the whirling dancers and leads them in the first of the film's three catchy bhajans or devotional hymns, Main to arti utaru, "I perform Mother Santoshi's arti"--referring to ceremonial worship with a tray bearing lamps, flowers, and incense. The emphasis throughout this scene is on the experience of darshan: of "seeing" and being seen by the goddess--the reciprocal act of "visual communion" that is central to Hindu worship (Eck 1981). The camera repeatedly zooms in on Satyavati's face and eyes, then offers a comparable point-of-view zoom shot of the goddess as Satyavati sees her. Finally, it offers a shot-reverse shot from a position just over the goddess's shoulder, thus approximating (though not directly assuming) Santoshi Ma's perspective, and closing the darshanic loop by showing us Satyavati and the other worshipers more or less as She sees them. Each shot in this repeated sequence (which is intercut with other shots of the dancing women, musicians, etc.) is held for several seconds, establishing an ocular dialogue that is further emphasised by the lyrics of the hymn.

Satyavati: There is great affection, great love in Mother's eyes.

Chorus: ...In Mother's eyes!

Satyavati: There is great mercy, power, and love in Mother's eyes.

Chorus: ...In Mother's eyes!

Satyavati: Why shouldn't I gaze, again and again, into Mother's eyes? Behold, at every moment, a whole new world in Mother's eyes!

Chorus: ...In Mother's eyes!

Such darshan sequences have been standard in mythologicals since at least 1918, when Phalke's Shri Krishna Janma ("The Birth of Lord Krishna," one of the handful of Indian silent films of which footage survives) offered a poster-like frontal tableau of the child Krishna (played by Phalke's daughter Mandakini) dancing on a subdued serpent. This yielded to a Krishna-eye-view of the assembled crowd of worshipers, gazing at "him" in reverent awe. Such camerawork contributes to the aesthetic of "frontality" often noted in popular cinema, especially in mythologicals, which often consciously recapitulate the conventions of poster art (Kapur 1987:80; Kapur 1993:92). But its ubiquity should not obscure its significance: the camera's movements invite the viewer to assume, as it were, both positions in the act of darshanic intercourse, thus closing an experiential loop that ultimately moves (as most Hindu loops do) toward an underlying unity. Indeed, the face of Santoshi Ma seen in the sanctum is of a young woman who closely resembles Satyavati.

When the song ends we see Satyavati and her girlfriends leaving the temple, chatting about their requests to the goddess. When the girls ask Satyavati what she asked for, she becomes embarrassed, lowers her eyes, and quietly says, "Mother's pearl." Initially puzzled, the girls quickly divine that by this allusion (the masculine noun moti or "pearl" connoting something of great value) Satyavati is expressing her concern over her impending marriage prospects. A friend reassures her that "Just as Sita found Rama, so you too will get a bridegroom who pleases your heart." As the now-blushing Satyavati runs away from her friends, she collides with a handsome young man, Birju (Ashish Kumar) and their eyes meet. A quick sequence of shot-reverse and point-of-view shots recapitulates, in the context of worldly love, the darshanic dialouge in the temple, and Satyavati's girlfriends giggle that the Mother seems to have responded quickly to her request.

This scene, with its epic reference (to Sita and Rama's romantic first encounter in a flower garden, one of the most beloved episodes in the Hindi Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas), is also the first of several instances in which the heroine invokes Santoshi Ma while obliquely asserting her own desire. The next follows immediately, when she returns home to find her father, a pious brahman widower, reciting a Ramcharitmanas verse in which the goddess Parvati assures Sita that she will obtain her heart's wish (Ramcharitmanas 1.236.7). He too is preoccupied with his daughter's marriage, but when he speaks to her and finds her lost in thought, he remarks in mock exasperation, "You are really amazing!" Satyavati, still in her reverie, replies "Oh no, he is amazing!" When her father, taken aback, asks "He? Who is 'he'?," she is pulled out of her daydream to confront the embarrassment of having made a confession of love in front of her father--another traditionally unacceptable expression of agency. Yet Satyavati, glancing at the prasad still in her hands, rescues herself by changing the meaning of "he" to "it" (since Hindi pronouns are gender-free): "I mean...I mean, it is amazing! Santoshi Ma's prasad!" Again, the goddess here serves to deflect attention from Satyavati's budding desire, which is nevertheless clear to viewers.

Family Conflicts and Intrigues

The next scene rapidly introduces Birju's prosperous family through allusions to the mythology of Krishna, for Birju (whose name is an epithet of the flute-playing god) is, like Krishna, the youngest of many sons and an artistic and restless soul, plays a bamboo flute, and is doted on by his eldest brother Daya Ram ("compassionate Ram"), a hefty farmer whom Birju himself likens to Krishna's elder brother Balaram. We also meet Birju's six sisters-in-law, of whom two are singled out: Durga and Maya, both named after powerful goddesses, and clearly shrewish and annoyed with their still-unmarried and unemployed junior brother-in-law, whom they regard as lazy. The anonymous family of the vrat katha is thus rapidly transformed into a set of named individuals with distinct personalities and relationships to the hero. Further, it becomes plain to viewers familiar with the printed story that the mistreatment of the junior son (and later of his wife) will here be perpetrated not by his sweet-looking widowed mother (played by Leela Mishra, who made a career of such benign, white-saried roles) but by his scowling sisters-in-law. This obeys (and instructs new viewers in) what Rosie Thomas identifies as "one of the most tenacious rules of Hindi cinema," namely, "that it is 'impossible' to make a film in which a protagonist's real mother is villainous or even semivillainous...." (Thomas 1995:164).

Another rule of Hindi cinema is that there must be a fight, usually over a woman's honour, and this is provided by introducing another character unknown to the katha: a villain (signaled by his moustache and swarthy looks) named Banke ("twisted") who tries to rape Satyavati when she is coming home late at night from another festival at Santoshi Ma's temple (at which Birju has performed the film's second bhajan, "Apni Santoshi Maa"-"Our Santoshi Ma"). Birju hears her cries and, with the aid of his comical sidekick Tota Ram ("Ram the parrot"), beats off Banke and his henchmen, even forcing the villain to grovel at Satyavati's feet. In the process, Birju sustains a headwound, which permits Satyavati to bring him home and introduce him to her father, signaling demurely that this heroic figure is the man she loves. Later, at their lamp-lit gate, Birju too declares his love for her. The delighted pandit gives his blessing to his daughter's choice and soon proceeds to arrange the marriage, though only after Satyavati has returned alone to Santoshi Ma's temple and asked for this boon, promising a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to all the Mother's shrines. Once again, Satyavati's assumption of agency is couched within the language of self-effacing devotion.

The Hapless Bahu

The marriage ceremony is presented through a sequence of vignettes that recapitulate its key moments--and also its prototypical representation in such famous films as Mother India (1957): the circumambulation of the sacred fire, the daughter's tearful leave-taking of her childhood home, and her first steps into the household in which she will spend the rest of her life. These scenes effectively evoke the protocols of a rural Indian wedding, with special sensitivity to the viewpoint of the bahu or new bride: as the men and women in Birju's family repair to separate sections of the compound, Satyavati is left with her new sisters-in-law.

Durga and Maya simmer with jealousy at seeing their "worthless" brother-in-law achieve a love-match with a young woman whose beauty is praised by all. They contrive a frighteningly inauspicious welcome at the gate of the house, and then complain within earshot of Satyavati that she has "stolen" their own wedding ornaments. Satyavati's vulnerability and fear is painfully apparent throughout this sequence. Though the women's malice is exaggerated, the types of teasing depicted (including booby-trapping the decorated nuptial bed) are common enough. This may not be every woman's experience, but it is shared by enough women--friends, daughters, neighbours--to resonate with female viewers.

In the next scene, Birju's brothers force him to join them in the fields while Satyavati grinds wheat at home. Overcome by desire for his bride, Birju runs home and, despite the women's taunts at his "shameless" behavior, pulls Satyavati into their bedroom. His wife's response suggests both her pleasure at his attention and her worry over her in-laws' disapproval, the brunt of which she will have to bear. As Birju romances her, she surprises him by invoking their patron deity.

Birju: It's only you whom my eyes behold, here, there, everywhere!

Satyavati: Me?

Birju: Yes.

Satyavati: (coyly shaking her head) No, there's but one form everywhere.

Birju: What form?

Satyavati: Like you sang that day: "Here, there, everywhere, why ask where She is...our Santoshi Ma!"

Birju: (taken aback) Santoshi Ma?

Satyavati: Yes, before our marriage I made a vow at Mother's feet.

Birju: Vow? What vow?

Satyavati: That after obtaining you, I would take Mother's darshan in her temples.

Birju: (smiling) Oh, is this your vow?

Despite its pious language, the scene maintains a coyly amorous tone: Satyavati is revealing an intimate secret to her beloved, and it pleases them both. This is underscored by what immediately follows: a reprise of Birju's earlier bhajan, now accompanying footage of the couple on pilgrimage, taking darshan at each of five temples. This type of musical sequence, showing an exotic geography and suggesting, through changes of costume, both lapse of time and material abundance, is common in Hindi films. Its associations are with romance, not devotion, but it is here skillfully used to convey both. The refrain of Birju's song, heard while the couple walk along the riverbank in a pilgrimage city ("She's here, there, everywhere - don't ask where she is! - our Santoshi Ma!) now seems less a theological assertion than an invocation of the joy and freedom of travel--which for many Indians, combines equal measures of pilgrimage and tourism.

Romance and Pilrimage

Whereas big budget "social" films may whisk their lovers off to Kashmir or Switzerland for a romantic song sequence, Sharma sticks closer to home but achieves the same purpose. Satyavati appears in different saris at successive temples, and she and Birju gaze reverently at each image of the Mother, then turn to look adoringly at one another. They are plainly on an extended, private vacation. Once again, by blamelessly invoking the goddess, Satyavati has achieved what many a young Indian wife would most like (and many middle-class women increasingly enjoy, as "honeymoons" have come into fashion): time alone with her new husband, free from the censuring looks and ceaseless demands of his family members.

This rapturous interlude is followed by a return to the world of the gods, and the introduction of a dramatic plot twist unknown to the katha pamphlets: Narada inciting the jealously of Lakshmi, Parvati, and Brahmani--the wives of the so-called "Hindu trinity" of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma--toward Santoshi Ma, and anger at her devotee./12/ The setting is Vaikunth Lok, the heaven of Vishnu, here imagined as an opulent celestial home strewn with couches and pillows. The goddesses are heavily-adorned housewives, and their dialogue is deliciously witty.

Lakshmi: (to maidservant, after noticing empty throne-couch) Where has the Master of Vaikunth gone?

Maidservant: Don't know.

Parvati: (entering through doorway and looking around tentatively) Sister Lakshmi....?

Lakshmi: (visibly pleased) Parvati! Come in, Sister. (Parvati approaches) Today you've come from Kailash (Shiva's abode) after a long time.

Parvati: What can I do, Lakshmi? I'm kept so busy serving Bholenath [the innocent one, another name for Shiva], I don't get any leisure. Today he went out somewhere, so I came right over! But I don't see your Narayan around either.

Lakshmi: (petulantly) Yes, he also took off early this morning, without saying anything.

Brahmani: (entering through doorway) Men are all the same! Brahma-ji also took off without so much as a word to me.

Parvati: Never mind, Brahmani. (smiling) This gives us all an excuse to get together.

At this point Narada enters. While praising the three goddesses, he notes with mock dismay that people on earth no longer seem interested in worshiping them--they have found "some other" goddess. Here again, the film plays on viewers' awareness of the relative novelty of Santoshi Ma's cult, for the goddesses have clearly never heard of her. Their angry response indicates that they consider her to be an upstart and usurper. When Narada adds that Satyavati, a faithful wife, is the "exemplary devotee" of the goddess and tirelessly serves holy men, the three are further enraged.

The camera cuts to the door of Birju's house, where three sadhus are calling for alms. They are angrily sent away by Durga and Maya, but Satyavati calls them back and humbly offers them the prasad of Santoshi Ma. Though initially surprised by the poor offering, they note Satyavati's devotion and accept it, loudly acclaiming her patron goddess. Back in heaven, the same mendicants appear before the goddesses, who are still fuming at Narada's tidings. When the sadhus too acclaim Santoshi Ma, the goddesses' rage erupts afresh and they begin to push them out the door. The three then transform into Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, much to the embarrassment of their wives. But they continue to praise Santoshi Ma, and offer the goddesses the prasad they have received. "Gur-chana--you call that prasad?" asks Parvati disdainfully, and Lakshmi adds, "We don't eat that!" After the men have left, their wives continue to fume: "Who is goddess Santoshi compared to us?" Soon they hatch a plot: by ruining Satyavati's happiness, they will reveal to mortals the futility of worshiping Santoshi Ma.

Domestication of Deities

These scenes evoke complex associations. Satyavati's recall of the sadhus underscores the folk belief that, although many in mendicant garb are merely lazy drifters, sadhus should never be turned away empty handed, for they may be enlightened souls or (as here) gods in disguise. Class distinctions are also suggested in the goddesses's disdainful refusal of the humble prasad brought from earth by their husbands. Their initial response to the three sadhus--calling them "beggars" and pushing them away--mirrors that of Satyavati's sisters-in-law and underscores the goddesses affinity with them as "established" figures in their respective families, human and divine. Similarly, Satyavati's own affinity with Santoshi Ma--both are young newcomers in their respective realms--is likewise affirmed. The stage is now set for the goddesses' subsequent persecution of Satyavati/Santoshi Ma, which will unfold through the young bride's female in-laws.

This scene and ensuing ones in which the goddesses gleefully watch the havoc they wreak are discussed by Kurtz, who notes the apparent discrepancy between theater audiences' enthusiastic reception of such scenes--which were "particularly relished" during screenings--and the disapproval expressed by some of his interviewees for what they claimed were innovations inspired by the "commercial motives" of the filmmaker (Kurtz 1992:14). Kurtz accounts for this paradoxical reaction through his reworked psychoanalytic theory: the goddesses' anger represents the child's subconscious memory of the unequal relationship between his natural mother and her female in-laws, which is enacted in a "more explicit and more exciting" manner in the film than in the written story (ibid. 116). Kurtz further argues that "the commercial nature of the mythological film," of which the audience is aware, permits it to take "unorthodox" liberties with the story (ibid. 269 n.2). Although I agree with Kurtz that the dynamics of joint family households are being invoked here, I am unconvinced by his reorientation of the plot around suppressed memories of (male) childhood. Its central character is patently Satyavati and its conflict centers on her mistreatment by her in-laws, reflecting domestic tension that is hardly an unconscious memory, but rather a daily experience for many women. Further, as I have already noted, the supposed problem of cinematic "unorthodoxy" ignores the ubiquity of this kind of "domestication" of deities and its ready acceptance by most Hindus in a narrative context. However, it is understandable that in a more analytical context--as under a foreign researcher's "close questioning" about the religious meaning of a film scene (ibid. 14)--some interviewees might indeed feel compelled to object to it.

In a dream, Satyavati is visited by the three goddesses, who order her to stop worshiping Santoshi Ma and to venerate them alone. She politely refuses, and they warn of dire consequences: "Your life will be hell." The story now unfolds as a series of worsening tribulations, beginning with Birju's abandoning the household after learning that he has been served the leavings of his brothers' meals. Although this incident parallels the printed vrat katha, it introduces psychological and emotional complexity. The happy-go-lucky Birju, who has till now been oblivious of his family's disapproval of his ways and hostility toward his wife, becomes incensed when he learns of the tainted food he has been eating. But whereas he can think only of the insult to his honor, we see, in Satyavati's terrified pleading to be taken with him, her awareness of the fate she will suffer in his absence. Birju, of course, ignores her pleas and makes a dramatic exit, leaving her at the mercy of his family. The goddesses, watching on high, are delighted, and promise Narada still worse to come.

Goddesses and Sisters-in-Law

As Birju takes a ferry across a lake, they generate a tempest and attempt to drown him, but Satyavati's prayers to Santoshi Ma are answered: the goddess (now in a youthful, adult form, portrayed by Anita Guha) appears on earth and rescues him, showing herself to Birju as a young ascetic woman in a saffron sari. Apparently unaware of this, the jealous goddesses also visit earth, appearing as village women who inform Birju's family of his death. Though Satyavati refuses to believe this (since the Mother cannot have ignored her prayers) and the compassionate Daya Ram rushes out to search for his brother, the sisters-in-law now treat Satyavati as an inauspicious widow and domestic menial. They forcibly rub the vermillion powder (connoting a woman's suhag or married state) from the part of her hair and tirelessly persecute her--"Her man kicked the bucket, and now she's eating us out of house and home!"--as they starve her on rotis made from chaff and water served in a coconut shell. Further trials ensue: finding Satyavati alone cutting wood in the forest, the rogue Banke attempts revenge for his earlier humiliation. Before fainting, Satyavati calls on Santoshi Ma, who again manifests, transforming her trident into a cobra that chases Banke to the edge of a cliff from which he falls to his death. As in the earlier scene with Birju, the goddess (glancing at her divine trappings as if musing that she is overdressed for earth) transforms herself into a young ascetic before tenderly awaking Satyavati, who thus fails to recognize her.

Birju, meanwhile, enjoys excellent fortune. Hired by a gem merchant, he learns to assay precious stones and receives the attentions of the old man's voluptuous only daughter, Geeta. Unlike the hero of the printed story, who simply forgets his wife when abroad, Birju suffers amnesia induced by the three jealous goddesses, allowing viewers to voyeuristically savour his budding love affair. This too offers education in Hindi Film 101, since the hero with two loves--one domestic and virtuous, the other exotic and risqué--is one of Bombay cinema's enduring tropes. Geeta wears skimpy, glittering saris and beehive hairdos, and Birju sports a rakish moustache and plays his flute during their frolics in her mansion and nearby flower garden. This is intercut with pathetic scenes of Satyavati's worsening condition, and a sung commentary on this by a male singer, "Mat ro" ("Don't cry") that introduces nationalist discourse about the moral fortitude of "the Indian woman." But the horrible taunts of her sisters-in-law, who eventually confine her to a small corner of the courtyard and beat and starve her, even as they force her to scour pots and chop firewood, drives Birju's wife to attempt suicide. She is stopped by Narada himself, in his sole appearance in the film's world of mortals, who comforts her and tells her to perform the sixteen-Fridays fast for Santoshi Ma. Narada's intervention here is notable, replacing the anonymous group of women in the written katha. The whimsical sage served as agent provocateur in Santoshi Ma's birth, and again intervened to stir up the senior goddesses' jealousy against her. Now he further incites Satyavati to defeat them. His presence in fact accentuates the linked parallelism of the two narratives--for just as Satyavati is being tested by her in-laws, so Santoshi Ma, through Narada's machinations, is being tested by the (diffused, collective) will of the gods.

Satyavati's devotion is now given a ritual framework and a specific goal. The enactment of the rite is dramatised by another bhajan, "Karti ham tumhara vrat" ("I perform your vrat"), which shows the passage of time through the increasing number of clay lamps on Satyavati's tray and the darkening circles under her eyes, dramatically intercut with scenes of Birju and Geeta in love. Unlike the earlier hymns with their celebratory tone, this one is a plaintive cry of distress, with the refrain: "You are my only mooring in midstream, O Mother, carry me safely across!"

As the climax of the fast approaches, the tricky Narada again warns the three goddesses that their plan may go awry, and they contrive to make it impossible for Satyavati to obtain even a scant cup of gur-chana for her sixteenth Friday (the fat merchant who spurns her request for the loan of these humble provisions drowses beneath an inspirational verse, attributed to Tulsidas, that begins, "Compassion is the root of dharma"). Santoshi Ma again intervenes, this time taking the form of a gap-toothed old woman, white-haired and bent over a cane. The goddess magically causes the needed supplies to fly out of the astonished merchant's shop and onto Satyavati's tray; she offers them, completes her vrat, and finally verbalises her request: that her husband not forgot her.

Santoshi Ma immediately restores Birju's memory and, for good measure, performs a miracle to smooth things out with his employer and Geeta, so that they send him off with good wishes and bulging coffers. She also causes Geeta to meet Daya Ram, wandering in search of his lost brother, and to direct him, too, homeward. As in the printed story, Birju is horrified to discover his wife's plight, and though his family members (eyeing his wealth) proffer their love, he rejects them, pelting them with the coins he says are more important to them than family relationships or even God. He proceeds to build a grand mansion for himself and his wife, complete with its own ornate temple to Santoshi Ma. Satyavati, now restored to health and richly dressed, plans a lavish udyapan ceremony and, harbouring no grudge, begs her husband to forgive his kin, whom she invites to the festivities. These are depicted through a reprise of the film's first bhajan, but with a striking visual difference. The dancing women waving arti trays are now no longer rustic belles in mirror work skirts, dancing in a village temple, but middle class matrons in fashionable silk and "georgette" saris, dancing in a "party" setting redolent of bourgeois comfort. The transformation encodes not merely Satyavati's own odyssey, but the desired journey of many an Indian family.

Durga and Maya (inspired, of course, by the three goddesses who have yet to admit defeat) squeeze lime juice into one of the milk dishes for the ceremonial meal. The results are literally volcanic (Santoshi Ma's angry face is intercut with stock footage of a lava-spewing eruption), but unlike the written story, the film does not direct the goddess's ire at Satyavati and Birju. Instead, the two sisters-in-law are stricken, their limbs twisted and faces blackened, and their sons who have eaten the tainted food fall dead. Moreover, the earthquake that rocks Birju's new house also shakes the worlds of the three goddesses, causing their divine husbands to faint. Although Birju's kin accuse Satyavati of poisoning the children and threaten to kill both him and her, the seniormost brother, Daya Ram, appears and defends Satyavati, declaring, "She is not a sinner; she is a paragon of truth and virtue. She is not a woman, she is a goddess." When the angry accusations continue, Satyavati runs to the temple and offers a final, anguished plea in the form of the song "Madad karo Santoshi Mata" ("Help me, Mother Santoshi"):

Today, don't let infamy stain, O Mother,
The fair name of our bond.
This invocation of their nata (intimate "bond," "connection," or "relationship") brings the goddess herself to the scene, to rectify all wrongs, reversing, at Satyavati's request, the deformity of Durga and Maya, and restoring all the children to life. As all errant parties confess the wrongs done to Satyavati, the Mother blesses the family and disappears amid loud acclamation.

A brief parallel coda ensues in heaven, where Narada leads the three repentant goddesses to "take shelter at the feet" of Santoshi Ma. Looking embarrassed, they state that they always knew who she was (Parvati remarks, "She is my granddaughter"), but were merely testing the depth of Satyavati's devotion./13/ The camera then cuts to Santoshi Ma's face; she does not speak, and her impassive features might be variously interpreted. To me, she appears coolly triumphant, neither needing nor caring for the defeated goddesses' endorsement. Their spouses now materialise, along with Ganesh, to form a tableau: Santoshi Ma in the centre, elevated on her lotus throne and with rays of light emanating from her, flanked by gods and goddesses--a family photo, but also a court scene, with its most important personage centrally placed--as Narada solicits a final benediction that explicitly confirms a "new" deity's incorporation into the pantheon: "Now all of you give a blessing to Goddess Santoshi so that her name too, like yours, will live eternally."

The Quest for "Satisfaction"

Several scholars of Hindi cinema have argued that significant thematic changes occurred in commercial films during the mid-1970s. Prasad has noted the decline, after several decades of dominance, of the type of "social" film that he calls the "feudal family romance," and its replacement by a "populist cinema of mobilization" that attempts to address (and, according to Prasad, to co-opt) the rising expectations of lower-class groups "agitating for the realisation of the new nation's professed democratic and socialist ideals...." (Prasad 1998:118, 138-159). Similarly Kajri Jain notes the shift in leading men from the "soft, romantic" heroes of earlier decades to the unquestioned megastar of the 70s and 80s, Amitabh Bachchan, whose lithe and sinewy physique contributed to his effective portrayal, in numerous films, of an "energized subaltern," a working class "angry young man" (Jain 2001: 11-15). Significantly, the major action hits of 1975, Deewar and Sholay, figure as key texts in both scholars' analyses. 1975 was also, of course, the year when nearly three decades of Congress Party rule suffered its most significant challenge. Amid exposes of widespread bureaucratic corruption and a court decision against the Prime Minister, activist Jayaprakash Narayan called for a "total revolution," and massive strikes threatened to cripple the country's nationalised infrastructure. Indira Gandhi responded in June by declaring a state of national emergency, suspending constitutional liberties and freedom of the press, and jailing thousands of her opponents. This desperate measure would eventually further weaken the Congress mandate, leading to Gandhi's massive defeat at the polls in 1977 and, in the longer term, to the rise of powerful opposition parties that often mobilised local, caste- and class-based identities. Though the changes that ensued certainly stopped short of "total revolution," they nevertheless eroded the authority of the elite that had been ruling the nation since Independence, and contributed to the political awakening and rising expectations of formerly disenfranchised groups: "scheduled" and "backward castes" and lower-middle-class labourers, artisans, and merchants.

Non-Elite Assertiveness

Rather than categorise Jai Santoshi Maa as an anomalously-successful mythological in a year of violent "mobilisation" films, I propose that it too represents part of a larger picture of non-elite assertiveness and agency, but with specific relevance to an audience unaddressed by films like Deewar and Sholay: an audience mainly consisting of lower-middle-class women. The adaptation of a popular vrat-katha to the screen--skillfully preserving key features of its written version while also invoking and in fact demonstrating the representational and narrative strategies of mainstream cinema--helped to incorporate this new audience into the "public culture" of the period. Evoking a rural and lower-class ethos through its setting and themes, and full of clever inter-textual references accessible (and hence satisfying) to its audience, this is a film that addresses viewers' aspirations in several ways.

Above all, it concerns the life experience that is typically the most traumatic for an Indian woman: that of being wrenched from her mayka or maternal home and forced to adjust to a new household in which she is often treated as an outsider who must be tested and disciplined, sometimes harshly, before she can be integrated into the family. Whereas many women are sustained in this ordeal by the love of their maternal kin, to whom they regularly return for sometimes lengthy visits, this option is unavailable to Satyavati--her aging, widower father is not in a position to offer her the full comfort of the mayka. Instead, its position is taken by the ultimate mayka: the divine Mother herself. Satyavati's relationship with Santoshi Ma enables her to endure the sufferings inflicted on her by her sisters-in-law and to triumph over them, but it also accomplishes more.

It insures that Satyavati's life consistently departs from the script that patriarchal society writes for a girl of her status: she marries a man of her own choosing, enjoys a companionate relationship (and independent travel) with her husband, and ultimately acquires a prosperous home of her own, out of reach of her in-laws. Moreover, viewers can enjoy her achievement of all this because it is presented as the "Mother's grace," bestowed on a humble, submissive woman who overtly asks little for herself. While appearing to adhere to the code of a conservative extended family (the systemic abuses of which are dramatically highlighted), Satyavati nevertheless quietly achieves goals, shared by many women, that subvert this code.

This oblique assertiveness has a class dimension as well. The three goddesses are seen to be "established" both religiously and materially: they preside over plush celestial homes and expect expensive offerings. Santoshi Ma, who is happy with gur-chana and is in fact associated with "little," less-educated, and less-advantaged people, is in their view a poor newcomer threatening to usurp their status. They intend to nip this attempted "upward mobility" in the bud, yet in the end must concede defeat and bestow their (reluctant?) blessing on the nouvelle arrivée. The socio-domestic aspect of the film (goddesses as senior in-laws, oppressing a young bahu) thus parallels its socio-economic aspect (goddesses as established bourgeois matrons, looking scornfully at the aspirations of poorer women).

Happy Reconciliation among Goddesses

Satyavati's relationship to Santoshi Ma, established through the parallel story of the goddesses, suggests that there is more agency involved here than at first appears to be the case--though it is the diffused, depersonalised agency favoured in Hindu narrative (as in Santoshi Ma's own birth story). Satyavati's successful integration into Birju's family, indeed her emergence as its most prosperous female member, parallels Santoshi Ma's acceptance in her divine clan and revelation as its most potent shakti. In both cases this happens without the intervention, so standard in Hindi cinema, of a male hero, for there are no exemplary male figures in the film. Birju is a pleasant but fairly clueless chap who escapes disaster only through the timely intervention of his wife. In heaven, the tridev (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) are likewise amiable gentlemen, yet evidently in control neither of their wives nor of the cosmos. If there is a presiding divine figure (apart from the quixotic prankster, Narada, who pushes the plot along through a series of seemingly whimsical and even malicious interventions) it is the serene and self-possessed "mother of satisfaction," Santoshi Ma.

Yet through its visual treatment of the reciprocal gaze of darshan and its use of parallel narratives, the film also suggests that Santoshi Ma and Satyavati--deity and devotee--are, in fact, one, a truth finally declared, at film's end, by the wise and compassionate Daya Ram. As in the ideology of tantric ritual (or the conventions of "superhero" narrative in the West), the "mild-mannered" and submissive Satyavati merges, through devotion and sheer endurance, with her ideal and alter-ego, the cosmic superpower Santoshi Ma. Similarly (and only apparently paradoxically), the latter's ultimate incorporation into the "established" pantheon comes about precisely through the persistent agency of her long-suffering earthly counterpart. This is in fact consistent with the relationship between divine and human realms found in much Hindu lore, which reverses the standard Christian formula to present an ultimately human-centered theology that unfolds, so to speak, "in heaven as it is on earth."

In a further theo-visual argument, the film proposes that not only is Santoshi Ma available to all women through her vrat ritual, she is, in fact, all women. Appearing as a little girl at the film's beginning, as a self-confident young woman in her manifestations throughout most of the story, and as a grandmotherly crone on the final Friday of Satyavati's fast, Santoshi Ma makes herself available to viewers as an embodiment of the female life cycle, and conveys the quietly mobilising message that it is reasonable for every woman to expect, within that cycle, her own measure of "satisfaction" in the form of love, comfort, and respect.


/1/ I use the Romanised spelling of the title given in the film credits. Elsewhere I spell the goddess' name as Santoshi Ma.

/2/ E.g., as late as 1926-27, the year's output of 108 Indian-made films competed for screens with 1,429 imported features, roughly eighty per cent of which were American (Shah 1950:34-35).

/3/ The authors note the importance of "familiarity" for Indian audiences: "For decades, an Indian producer, asked why a film was popular, was likely to say, 'Because the people know the story.' Familiarity, not novelty, was long considered the safest investment." (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 1980:90) Cf. Rosie Thomas's similar assessment of mainstream Hindi cinema in general: "What seems to emerge in Hindi cinema is an emphasis on emotion and spectacle rather than tight narrative, on how things will happen rather than what will happen next, on a succession of modes rather than linear denouement, on familiarity and repeated viewings rather than "originality" and novelty, on a moral disordering to be (temporarily) resolved rather than an enigma to be solved." (Thomas 1985:130)

/4/ In India, as elsewhere, the "scientific wonder" aspect of cinema was a much-touted part of its attraction from the beginning. If audiences did not fully understand how it was accomplished (how many did in the West?), they nevertheless knew that they were watching projected photographic images. Dharap in fact appears to be unreflectively invoking a broader iconoclastic discourse, while ignoring the fact that cinema-goers everywhere forget about technology (and indeed, forget themselves) to experience powerful emotions from film images.

/5/ I am grateful to John Stratton Hawley and Kathleen Erndl, who both participated in the panel, for sharing information concerning the papers.

/6/ I am considerably helped by having access, as previous scholars did not, to a good-quality copy of the film in DVD format (Mishra 1975, distributed by Worldwide Entertainment Group), which greatly facilitates analysis of its scenes. The DVD also offers optional English subtitles.

/7/ The film's earthly sets create a rustic milieu that (as in many Hindi films with rural settings) is intentionally vague as to locale or chronology; though there are no specific details to suggest the late twentieth century, neither are there any that would signal a particular period in the past, and the pilgrimage sites visited by the heroine and her husband are obviously contemporary, with asphalt streets and overhead electrical wires visible in some shots.

/8/ Kurtz's repeated references to "an everchanging array of goddesses" who "replicate, expand, merge, and contract in number and type" (Kurtz 1992:98), and to an "ongoing, kaleidoscopic process wherein new goddesses are generated and recombined" (ibid. 121) reflect the perceptions of an outside observer. To an individual Hindu worshiper, there is no "everchanging array of goddesses," but rather a limited number of divine Mothers who are approached for the specific needs at which they specialize. Though worshipers, if pressed, will often articulate the idea that all such goddesses are ultimately manifestations of a single divine feminine power or shakti, they nevertheless take the goddesses' individual personalities and functions for granted in their dealings with them.

/9/ My description of the ritual and story is based on Simha and Agnihotri 2000:338-339. This massive compendium of hundreds of vrats includes a version of the story that closely corresponds to the pamphlet versions cited by other scholars; indeed Das noted in 1980 that such standardization seemed to be the outcome of print-media transmission (Das 1980:55).

/10/ Texts generally specify a quantity having the auspicious value of "one-and-a-quarter," but the unit of measure may be tiny; thus Santoshi Ma will be content with as little as "one-and-a-quarter anna" worth of gur-chana (in pre-Independence currency, an anna comprised one-sixteenth of a rupee).

/11/ A. K. Ramanujan labels such representation of deities "domestication" and attributes it especially to "folk" retellings of their deeds (Ramanujan 1986:66-67). However, although one can cite (as he does) specific instances in which a distinction between relatively more dignified and more domesticized representations are found in respectively "elite" and "folk" versions of stories (e.g., the treatment of the Rama story in the classical Tamil epic Iramavataram of Kampan, versus its raucous and often ribald exposition and staging by shadow puppeteers; cf. Blackburn 1996:22-54), domesticized portrayals are not uncommon in elite texts (e.g., the Sanskrit puranas). Such representation is found even in the ultra-orthodox Srivaishnava tradition of South India: e.g., that sect's largest annual festival includes a publicly-staged episode in which Lakshmi quarrels with her husband Vishnu (the Supreme Being of the Srivaishnavas) and locks him out of the house (his principal temple at Srirangam) after he has been away all day, because she suspects him of having an affair (Narayanan 1994:129-130). The "elite" versus "folk" distinction is only of limited utility here, and the cultural sense of the appropriateness of such portrayals would seem to depend heavily on the context of performance (cf. Ramanujan's argument in another essay that Indian discourse is characteristically "context-sensitive," and tends to avoid the absolutes and universals favored in Western ideology; Ramanujan 1990:47-50).

/12/ Brahma's wife is also known as Sarasvati and is worshiped as the patron of art and learning. The name change here is indicative of the film's disinterest in the usual attributes of these goddesses, and its stress instead on their wifely roles as established matrons of divine households.

/13/ This kind of "excuse-ex-machina" is also found in brahmanical narrative, where it is inserted to preclude the (impossible) admission of injustice committed by male exemplars. Two famous examples are Rama's bland assertion, following Sita's successful completion of a fire ordeal, that he never actually doubted her virtue (Ramayana 6:121), and King Dushyanta's similar disclaimer to Shakuntala (in the Mahabharata version of the Shakuntala story, in which the king never loses his memory but lies about his liason with the girl; Mahabharata 1.7.69). In both cases, the preceding powerful speeches by the women, and the awareness of the injustice they have suffered, has tended to make a stronger impression on audiences than the face-saving coda.


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