Naag Panchami (Babubhai Mistry, 1972)
Naag Panchami is the first Indian film I have seen that can unmistakeably be classified as “mythological” – the main characters in the movie are major gods and goddesses residing in their various godly realms, omnisciently observing the human realm, and occasionally intervening in earthly affairs. As all-seeing, all- powerful beings, this automatically ups the film’s awesome quotient: GODS CAN LITERALLY DO ANYTHING, YOU GUYS, leaving the narrative possibilities WIDE OPEN.
Even more awesome: Naag Panchami, as the title suggests, combines the mythological realm with that innately Indian genre, the nagin (snake) film. The blending of the two can best be described as a WILDLY MELODRAMATIC LAVISH SPECIAL EFFECTS EXTRAVAGANZA. Seriously, this movie is SO FREAKING AWESOME that within a mere two minutes of watching I was convinced my heart was going to explode with an overwhelming abundance of joy.
The story goes like this. Mansa (played by a fabulous, divalicious Shashikala), goddess of Naglok, the snake realm, discovers on her birthday her true parentage: she is the daughter of Lord Shiva.
In Naglok, though, they TOTALLY have the BEST parties.
Shiva appears to her and offers to take her to his realm, Kailash, to meet her mother, the goddess Parvati; and her siblings, the gods Ganesha and Kartikeya (spoiler alert: we never get to see them, and it’s kind of gutting, because YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH I was looking forward to seeing Ganesha). On the way to Kailash, Shiva stops in the clouds (IN THE CLOUDS!) and bows in deference – Mansa wants to know who Shiva the Destroyer, the guy that the whole world bows down in deference to could possibly deign to acknowledge?
IN THE CLOUDS! I'm never gonna get over this film!
Shiva explains that the only person Shiva bows to is his supreme devotee Chandradhar (Prithviraj Kapoor), a king who worships him with endless devotion and who has space in his prayer room for Shiva’s children, Mansa’s siblings: Ganesh and Kartikeya , and her mother Parvati.
Mansa is dismayed to see that she is not worshipped on the earth and refuses to go to Kailash until she is worshipped in every household on earth. Shiva tells her if that’s the way she feels, she should go see Chandradhar, the supreme devotee – if she can persuade him to worship her, then everyone will.
Turns out Mansa hears “persuade” as “be a total psychotic bully and use your godly snake powers in a dubious, pretty evil manner”- and needless to say, it doesn't work on the pious, devoted Chandrahar.
Chandradhar refuses to be bullied into devotion and soon makes an enemy of the snake goddess. When he smashes her divine goblet she vows revenge on him and becomes – NO EXAGGERATION – a crazy bitch from hell, setting out to ruin his life, and his family’s life, until he bows to her.
Step one. Kill Chandradhar’s six sons. THAT’S JUST STEP ONE.
All that is the first 40 minutes or so – Naag Panchami packs A LOT of plot into its running time. YOU HAVE NO IDEA just how awesome it gets from here on in, because once Mansa gets hell-bent on vengeance and basically ruining poor Chandradhar’s life like a venomous harpy, the ridiculous awesometude of this mythological soap-opera is set in motion.
Shashikala as the vengeful Mansa make frequent crazy eyes.
But here are some teasers for you: while I am by no means clued up on Hindi religious mythology (and in fact, the handy dandy book I have to enlighten me usually just results in me getting more than a little confused; not only are there thousands of gods and several realms, all the gods seemingly have multiple names and incarnations that…stem back to one ultimate God? I don’t know, like I said, there’s A LOT to cover) much of the mythological story in this film at least seems comfortingly…familiar. From Homeric echoes: a shipwrecked sailor returns after decades at sea to a family that doesn’t recognize him; whirlpools in the Ganges separate a husband and wife (but a snake reunites them); to the stuff of Greek and Roman legends: a woman travels to the Underworld in an attempt to bring her husband back to life; the gods and goddesses fight among themselves over their intervention in the human realm.
And quite honestly: it's just spectacular. This is Lord Brahma in his realm.
And a giant Hanuman protects Chandrahar's daughter in law from a monstrous crocodile sent by Mansa. THIS MOVIE IS SO EPIC. I REALLY REALLY LOVE IT.
Plus of course there are Biblical echoes: Prithviraj Kapoor as Chandradhar, tormented ceaselessly by Mansa while the object of Chandradhar’s devotion, Shiva remains passive and silent – Chandradhar suffering endlessly and yet like Job never losing his faith. His character is interesting, actually – though he has the power of free will, to start worshipping Mansa at any time and end her vengeance upon his family, he won’t because of his integrity – he is more willing to suffer and cause suffering to those around him in the name of what is religiously /morally right than be forced into false worship. Prithviraj Kapoor imbues this character with just the right amount of grit without making him rigid and unsympathetic; he balances his strict integrity with massive heart and pathos. There’s a lot to be said for the Kapoor charisma, it’s true, but there’s no denying the sheer talent so many of the family also possess.