Ghosts Go Hyperlocal: Indian Folklore Takes Over The Big Screen With Must-See Cinematic Adaptations

Ghosts Go Hyperlocal: Indian Folklore Takes Over The Big Screen With Must-See Cinematic Adaptations

It is believed that they are extremely mischievous and love playing pranks on people

Yogesh PawarUpdated: Saturday, June 01, 2024, 11:58 PM IST
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As Munjya a ‘horror-comedy’ which draws on folklore the hinterlands of Konkan – Maharashtra’s coastal belt – readies for release while there is a lot of excitement about India’s first CGI-generated film protagonist, people from outside the region and state will be introduced to the ghost of a young boy who dies soon after his upnayan (sacred-thread ceremony). It is believed that they are extremely mischievous and love playing pranks on people.

Munjya has brought into sharp focus a trend that’s becoming an audience-magnet. Kantara, Stree, Buaji ke Gehane and Tumbbad have all drawn on and mainstreamed hyperlocal beliefs to create engrossing narratives.

Film and cultural historian Ratna Dharwadkar feels this is driven more by commerce than creativity. “How long will the audience suffer this fictional homogenised Hindu Punjab-meets-cowbelt milieu with karva chauths, shawa shawa and some such? Their exposure shows them how countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran and others celebrate their hyperlocal traditions without forcibly tossing diversity into one melting pot. That gives their films so much more nuance and layers,” she points out and adds, “Postcolonial India’s myth of secularism assumed the planned evolution of good society would be accompanied by the gradual marginalisation of contradictions between religions, languages, and cultural specificities. Mumbai became symptomatic of this myth in film and folklore. Against this background, cultural homogenisation and identity-based politics occupy places of memory and heritage sites leading to the contestation of heterogeneous and homogeneous views of culture.”

She says horror as a genre has seen this happen in a more pronounced manner. “As Mahal, Madhumati Woh Kaun Thhi and Bees Saal Baad made way for the often unintentionally comical Ramsay horror films, the genre was getting trapped in its own homogenisation. It is great when anyone tries to break this with a film located in a region, religion and culture that we can identify and find resonances with.”

When asked if it the disruption that draws audiences Dharwadkar laughs uproariously. “You see we are Indians. We want change but it can’t get so radical that it shakes the very edifices on which our society stands. So even with the concept of the Munjya ghosts there is a reinforcement of caste. So we have different ghosts of different castes. No prizes for guessing that the Brahmin ghosts – Munjyas enjoy pride of place.”

It was in this milieu that the nail-bitingly scary and sinister Gehrayee arrived. Stalwart filmmaker Aruna Raje who directed it recalls the amount of research that went into it. “Vijay Tendulkar who worked closely on this project felt we must locate our story in our own sociocultural milieu. We agreed. I’d grown up to find my mother burning lemons, dough dolls and coconuts on our property and vaguely knew it was called karni. Brushing off the lived reality of so many people with broad brush strokes as blind belief and superstition smacks of arrogance. Nobody is asking u to believe it all but can’t we have dialogue with those who do?”

Echoing her, Rishabh Shetty who directed Kantara says: “Coastal Karnataka has always been animistic (the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence). From childhood as I observed our rituals and folklore, I realised our Gods, spirits, demigods were far removed from the mainstream Hindu pantheon. While homogenisation has tried to steer us away, we still follow our own traditions,” and recalls, “During the second lockdown, I heard about an incident between a forest officer and a civilian 30 years ago. That helped me create two solid characters around who I built the plot mixing what my native people were saying with a lot of cinematic liberty.”

He credits Kantara’s success to the right mix of the local with the global. “Making a large-scale film shouldn’t be the purpose of a pan-Indian film. The focus should be on telling stories unique to a given area but presented in a way that makes them appealing to a wide range of viewers.”

Dharwadkar also links it to the demand and supply equation. “As livelihoods take people away from their roots they yearn for narratives which are a throwback to them. Luckily for them, filmmakers too are not shy of locating their work in their own ecosystems. The way the box office reacted to Kantara or Stree has proven this beyond a shadow of doubt.”

Will Munjya possess audiences then? Wait and watch!

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