Review
Culture
9 min read

Beyond Bollywood: how Indian cinema depicts Christians

India’s film industry tackles the complexities of life, morality, harmony and violence, as experienced by its Christian community. Indo-Christian Culture’s Sha reviews.
A man sits on the top of a building and looks out over the view of an Indian city as the sun sets.
Ashand Raju, the taxi driver in Ave Maria, contemplates.
Eka Cinemas.

Introduction

For many people, Christianity and India appear as two distinct identities with Christianity being as foreign to India as India is to Christianity. They are surprised to learn that Indigenous Christians have maintained a continual existence in India since the time of the Apostles. And that, for centuries, Christianity has played a tremendous, yet underrecognized role, in shaping India’s artistic and intellectual history.  

Examples of this include the vast collection of Christian artworks, produced by Hindu and Muslim court artists, of the Mughal Empire.  And the synthesis of Christian social teaching and Gandhi’s political and philosophical views into a field now known as Gandhian economics, initially developed by the Indian-Christian, J.C. Kumarappa, who was an economist an activist for Indian independence.  

This centuries old interaction between Christianity and broader Indian society continues into the present day with Indian cinema being a major arena for this. Despite its enormity and tremendous success across the Global South the attitude of many Westerners towards Indian movies lies somewhere between apathy and condescension. With the industry often erroneously perceived as a homogenous genre defined by three-hour run-times, over-the-top dance routines, syrupy dialogue, melodramatic acting, and campy fight scenes.  

These stereotypes mask the sheer diversity of Indian cinema which since its inception, more than a century ago, has sought to depict the diversity of India and explore a vast array of ideas, including Christian themes and ideals, through creative storytelling. In many cases these films defy clear cut genres. We typically imagine a Christian film as possessing an explicitly religious message which it aims to impart on an exclusively Christian audience. These films exist in India but coexist with a parallel stream of movies featuring authentically Christian characters and themes targeting a primarily non-Christian audience where the aim is to illustrate Christian ideals to an unfamiliar audience. This creates a sense of subtlety in the film’s messaging that can be hard to find in many Western Christian films.  

The goal of this article is to introduce readers to the relatively unknown world of contemporary Indian Christian cinema by highlight five films which depict the lives of Indian Christians and explore the challenge of living by Christian ideals in a chaotic world where right and wrong are not so clear cut. For context, the term Indian cinema refers to all cinema produced in India and encompasses films made in over two dozen languages. Bollywood is a nickname given to India’s Hindi language film industry which coexists alongside several other competing linguistic industries. For example, the 2022 film RRR, which one Best Song for the musical number Naatu Naatu at the 2023 Oscars, is a Telugu language film. This makes it an Indian movie, but not a Bollywood movie. 

Kuttram Kadithal  

A woman in a classroom stares intensely at a person in front of us.
Radhika Prasidhha plays a teacher, who is haunted by her mistake.

Kuttram Kadithal is an independent Tamil language film which serves as a thought-provoking meditation on the complexities of morality, guilt and blame in an era where the public discourse is dominated by social media and 24/7 news cycles. Directed by Bramma, a newcomer director, and starring newcomer Radhika Prasidhha the film received significant film festival attention going on to receive several awards including the 2014 National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil. 

Merlin, a schoolteacher, administers corporal punishment, a practice that remains relatively common and accepted in India, on a student with an undiagnosed health condition. Though the actual punishment itself, a single slap on the cheek, was relatively harmless it causes the child to fall into a coma. The incident quickly erupts into a full-on media circus with Merlin, being advised by her school’s administration, to go into hiding until the situation calms down.  

All the while, Merlin must come to terms with the range of emotions. Overcome by tremendous guilt and desperate for redemption she is also keen to avoid falling into the cross hairs of the media who have whipped up the incident with outrageously false allegations. It’s an interesting exploration of how people’s personal notions of right and wrong must be reconciled with society’s own judgement, regardless of how accurate or fair that assessment is. Merlin does feel remorse for her actions, but her assessment of the situation differs drastically from the sensationalist condemnations she was dealt from the media. Ultimately Merlin realizes that the path to forgiveness lies not with the media driven public perception of her by her own relationship with her victim and his grieving mother. 

Ave Maria

Looking through the windscreen of a taxi to see a man and a woman talking.
Road trip to Velankanni.

Ave Maria is a 2018 Malayalam language film, not to be confused with a 2015 Palestinian short film with the same name. Set in Velankanni, a famous Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in South India, which attracts millions of pilgrims annually the film, follows the unlikely friendship of two very different people.  

Maria Gomez, a young woman and devout Catholic from a well-off background, is now contemplating an abortion due to exceptional, and highly unique, circumstances. Believing it to be a sin, she decides to pre-emptively seek forgiveness and atone for the planned abortion by making a pilgrimage trip to the Catholic Shrines of Velankanni where she also plans to use her money to help transform the lives of a select few individuals in poverty or crisis. To do this, she enlists the help of Rex, a taxi driver and lapsed Christian, and the two set off to achieve Maria’s plan for atonement which goes disastrously and forces Maria to reevaluate her faith more closely.  

At its core the film is an exploration on whether you can offset the harm of one sin, as Maria believes abortion is a sin even though she intends to have one, by committing good deeds elsewhere? Theologians will likely have a lot to say on this topic but the movie is more interested in the perspective devout but theologically uninformed believer. Her objective is further complicated by the messy reality of life. In one instance, Maria makes a sizable donation to a charitable old age home in exchange for housing an elderly beggar who has spent years on the streets of Velankanni. She is dumbfounded when she discovers the elderly woman back on the streets a little while later. When questioned, the old lady apologetically confesses that after years on the streets she simply cannot adjust to the regimented life of the old age home. Maria is now unsure as to whether this development undoes her previous good deed. 

 Kunju Daivam  

A child astride a stopped bicycle stares to the side.
Adish Praveen plays Ouseppachan.

Kunju Daivam is a 2018 Malayalam language children’s film. The film begins with a young boy, named Ouseppachan, who believes his prayers to postpone a math exam by any means necessary led to the death of his beloved grandfather, whose demise gets him pulled out of class right before the math exam begins. Upset by this, the boy takes to reading Bible scripture which leads him down the path of trying to find a kidney donor for a terminally ill neighbor, something most would agree is beyond the capacity of a young child. Along the way he eventually learns to make peace with his previous conviction that he was responsible for his grandfather’s sudden demise.  

The film is an interesting exploration of the parable of the Good Samaritan, as understood by an innocent child. We all agree it’s good to help others, but society has also conditioned us to believe there are unspoken practical limits to helping others.  Ouseppachan encounters this time and again in his quest, which the adults in his life look upon with admiration that turns to irritation when he refuses to give up. In one scene a priest, losing patience with his antics, admonishes the boy’s fixation on finding a kidney donor and directs him to more age-appropriate concerns like doing well in school. Ultimately Ouseppachan’s childlike dedication, forces us to reconsider our own attitude towards charity and helping others. 

The Sky is Pink

Parents and teenagers with their arms around each other stand on a beach and stare out to sea.
The Chaudhary family at the heart of the film.

This 2019 Hindi language film retells the love story between a married couple from the perspective of their daughter who is living with terminal pulmonary fibrosis and a severe immunodeficiency. The film is based on the true story of Aisha Chaudhary (1996 – 2015), whose memoir My Little Epiphanies was released just one day before her death.  

The film is a depiction the struggles that families and children living with severe chronic illnesses and also a meditation on the inherent value of human life, even in the face of severe illness and hardship. These beliefs are most strongly held by Aisha’s mother, Aditi, whose conversion to Christianity allowed her to embrace the perspective that all human life is inherently valuable. This allows Aditi to come to terms with Aisha’s health issues and the death of a previous child who died shortly after birth. Aisha herself credits this belief as being the reason for her own existence. 

I was also personally impressed by the decision of director Shonali Bose to depict Aisha’s mother’s conversion to Christianity and how these Christian beliefs impacted her parenting and perspective on life. Religious conversions, particularly to Christianity, had always been a contentious topic in India and at the time of this movie’s release the issue had transformed into an all-out moral panic with conspiracy theories claiming foreign funded churches had converted hundreds of millions with the intent of fueling social discord and separatist violence. Bose isn’t Christian and The Sky is Pink was never intended to be a Christian film. Bose was likely aware that by including the Christian aspect of this true story in her film she was opening herself up to the possibility of public outrage, boycotts and even political censorship, which have all grown increasingly common since India’s post-2010 majoritarian turn. Despite these risks, she opted to incorporate Aditi’s Christian beliefs into the film which aside from ensuring the film’s authenticity introduced many non-Christian viewers to an alternative perspective on Christian conversion. 

Kaya Taran 

A standing nun points towards a seated mother and child.
Neelamari and Neeta Mahendra play the mother and son.

Explorations of religious violence and interreligious harmony are nothing new to Indian cinema. Even Western films set in India, like the 2008 British blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire, feature depictions of the brutal violence that interreligious riots periodically unleash 1992. But the majority of these films tend to focus solely on the experiences of Hindus and Muslims during these riots.  

The 2004 Hindi language film Kaya Taran takes an alternative approach. Set in a Catholic convent during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots which led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent Sikhs at the hands of rioters seeking revenge over the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. It follows the lives of a group of nuns who offer shelter to a Sikh woman and her eight year old son seeking refuge from the riots and killings outside.  

The film explores the growing relationship between the Sikh mother, her son Jaggi, and the nuns who especially grow to adore Jaggi and the shared sense of vulnerability they all face as religious minorities in a country where discriminatory violence is a very real threat. This is especially true for those who wear outward identifiers of their faith. For the nuns, it’s their religious habits, and for Jaggi it’s his long uncut hair and turban which the nuns initially cut to conceal his Sikh identity. The film concludes with a nun helping the young boy retie his turban, the boy no longer willing to hide his religious identity in the face of majoritarian intimidation and discrimination. His convictions serve as an inspiration for the viewers, many of whom have never experienced a situation where we were made to choose between our religious beliefs and our personal safety. 

Conclusion

In this article we explored five Indian movies and their engagement with Christian themes. However, I should also mention that not all Indian cinema’s depictions of Indian Christians have been positive ones. For example, the long-standing trend of depicting Indian Christian women as hypersexual hedonists, whose behaviour is usually contrasted negatively against a more virtuous Hindu woman.  

There is also the tendency to reverse exoticize Indian Christian society as White people in brown bodies for an audience that has had little personal contact with Indian Christians and tends to view the religion as a foreign import. One trope is to have Indian Christian characters speaking Indian languages in an inexplicably foreign sounding accents despite having grown up entirely within India. 

The Indian audience is unique for its willingness to watch movies that present deeply spiritual messages from faith traditions which they themselves do not adhere to. 

But, in an era where the Indian Christian community finds itself increasingly maligned in the public discourse, movies like the ones discussed above can play an important role in helping to present an alternative narrative. One rooted in the authentic, diverse experiences of Indian Christians themselves. The Indian audience is unique for its willingness to watch movies that present deeply spiritual messages from faith traditions which they themselves do not adhere too. A quirk which speaks to the inherently multicultural nature of Indian society where which has always consisted of diverse communities living side-by-side one another. 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen