It was a big year, 1975. The year in which Sanjay Gandhi and the protagonists of two huge Bollywood hits were saying the same thing: “Mere paas ma hai.”

Jai Santoshi Ma was a top grosser in 1975, briefly overtaking Sholay and Deewar. Seemingly just another god-movie, it was really a new mythology for the times – a film that spoke to Angry Young Women, who didn’t know they were, though it exemplified forbearance. It catapulted Santoshi Ma – a goddess said to have emerged post Independence, into a famous and established deity. Women had ecstatic visitations in cinemas and Solah Shukrawar became a raging religious fashion – 16 Friday fasts for the Mother to guarantee that most unfettered thing: your heart’s desire. The song from the movie, Main to Arti Utaaroon Re, Santoshi Mata Ki, became a hit, its transporting, dulcet tones arousing instant piety. And if you weren’t among the faithful, but felt it get you still, you didn’t talk about it because you knew it was all things infra-dig for English speaking, modern Indians – religious, vernacular, mofussil.

Vijay Sharma’s film chronicles the travails of Santoshi Ma’s champion devotee, Satyavati. Angered by Santoshi’s growing popularity among the masses, the established goddesses Parvati, Saraswati and Laskhmi decide to give Satyavati a faith exam she will fail. Satyavati’s husband Birju, feels a special destiny awaits him. Given that he alone of seven brothers is not named Aayaram, Gayaram and Kabbadiram, perhaps this is understandable. But it means he doesn’t work, earning taunts and ill-treatment from his bhabis. Due to his “nice nature” he keeps interpreting this as love. How like a guy, the film seems to be saying, rolling its eyes.

A real man

Belatedly realising his manhood is being slighted, Birju decides to seek adventures and fortunes and prove he’s a real man. He leaves his wife saying “Kintu Swami…” at the mercy of the Bhabi Sena.

A soul-satisfying revelry of suffering and cruelty follows. In Angry Goddeses vs. Santoshi Ma, Birju loses his memory, gains a moustache, becomes rich; Satyavati wears the same sari for years, gets beaten up and hollow eyed but remains devoted to Ma and Birju. In the end her faith is rewarded and bad people are properly punished. Serves them right was not so heartfelt till Madhuri gave Aruna Irani good in Beta.

Few films understood their audience as JSM did – people adjusting to the mixed formats of freedom and feminism, spirituality and materialism. Its landscape of updated tradition – a new arranged marriage where love has parental approval, a nuclear family that understands how to mix individuality and tradition, the attitude that suffering is ok for babu moshais, but the rest of us want a nice house, a shiny sari, good sex (clutching embraces, no kissing flowers) and happiness, all resonated with the intertwined dreams of heritage and mobility supposedly available to everyone in a free India.

Straight to the heart

This came in a tremendously energetic package, peopled by deliciously malicious humans and gods, enacted with gusto (Bela Bose for Best Mean Bhabi!), and powered by The Bombay Cut – the sharp, no timewaste editing style which typifies low budget films shooting the minimum possible footage per shot. The animated title sequence, inventively dropping the music director’s name from a ringing bell while lamps illuminated the cinematographer’s credit, was clearly thrilled with itself. The colours were a barfi feast of peach and turquoise, pink and green, mulberry and ultramarine, shot through with tinsel, a strange knowledgeable kitsch beauty. Clouds were never so splendiferous. Vishnulok, ankle deep in voluptuous cumulus while Narada says ‘Narayan’ amid rows of delicately painted cardboard clouds.

In short, JSM aimed to please, above all. How it would have thrilled us when we were kids. Well, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood in the reign of Santoshi whose first temple was mass media. She ensures reruns for the faithful.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Time Out Mumbai.