The devotional film, a well-established genre with its own codes, iconography, and narrative strategies, has long been associated with the single-screen theatre, the travelling tent cinema, and the low-cost VCD with the garish cover art. But of late, movies dedicated to deities, saints and miracles have been materialising regularly in the multiplex. This week, for instance, The Path of Zarathustra, directed by Oorvazi Irani and outling the core beliefs of Zoroastrianism, is being released under PVR Cinemas’ Director Rare label, which usually showcases independent productions with offbeat themes.

Over the past few years, movies on Sikhism (Chaar Sahibzaade) and Christianity (Son of God) have received mainstream distribution. Irani’s reformist drama has been written by Farrukh Dhondy and produced by her company, SBI Impresario, with assistance from Parsi philanthropists such as Cyrus Guzder and Pheroza Godrej. The English-language film features Irani in the central role as a woman seeking to understand the relevance of her faith in the modern world.

“This is not a commercial venture but is a part of my personal quest,” Irani said. “I wanted to make a film not about Parsi characters but the essence of the religion. I have tried to be faithful to what I want to express in the neutral space of art.”

Zoroastrianism was last explored on screen in 1986. Cyrus H Bharucha’s On Wings of Fire featured classical music conductor Zubin Mehta as “himself… a Westernised Parsi in search of his roots”, according to an India Today article from that year. But On Wings of Fire ruffled Parsi feathers and was decried “as a deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious beliefs”.

Irani too runs the risk of upsetting the conservatives as she dives into theological debates, tackles the reasons for the community’s population decline, and advocates that the children of Parsi women who have married outside the faith to be accepted into the fold rather than be rejected as unpure.

“I wanted to tackle contemporary problems but not make a documentary,” Irani said. “Religion is a powerful force, and it is very important subject for filmmakers. I am not trying to hurt any religion, but if an artist does not do it, who else will? Everybody has the right to differing viewpoints, and we need the freedom to express them.”

Faith-based projects invariably irritate either the orthodoxy or the reformers, but that hasn’t prevented filmmakers from trying to match prophets with profit. One of last year’s surprise successes was the 3D animated Punjabi movie Chaar Sahibzaade, which is rumoured to have earned 20 crores. Harry Baweja’s movie celebrates the sacrifices of the four sons of the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh. The tale of how Ajit Singh, Jujhar Singh, Zorawar Singh, and Fateh Singh laid down their lives to protect their religion had the blessings of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee. This was in contrast to another recent devotional, Nanak Shah Fakir, which ran violated of the convention that Sikh gurus, like the Prophet Muhammad, may not be depicted on the screen in any form.

Sunny Khanna, whose company White Lion Entertainment has distributed several devotionals in recent years, handled Chaar Sahibzaade for the Mumbai circuit. “We started with 70 screens in the Bombay circuit and it went to 140 screens in the second week,” Khanna said. Because it was an animated film, parents took their kids along, he said.

Khanna also released the Hollywood biblical movie Son of God, about the life of Jesus Christ, in selected areas in 2014. Son of God played on 350 screens and ran for three weeks on some of them, he said. In both cases, religious institutions played a vital role in filling the theatres. Gurudwaras and churches bought tickets in bulk and distributed them for free among their congregations, Khanna said.

The devotional film, which sometimes overlaps with the mythological, explores a faith’s founding principles and fundamental values, either through a tale about of a god, goddess, saint or god-man (Jai Santoshi Maa, Shirdi Ke Sai Baba) or a tribute to a religious site (Jai Baba Amarnath, Khawja Garib Nawaz). Like stunt movies and comedies, films about religion have comprised a distinct category from the early years of cinema. Mythological and devotional films were the “founding genres of Indian cinema”, says Rachel Dwyer, film scholar and professor at the School of Oriental And Asian Studies in London, in her 2006 study Filming the Gods. Movies about gods, goddesses and heroic figures from the Hindu epics were popular even before sound made its way into Indian films. In the early years, there were films about saints (Sant Tukaram, Sant Dyaneshwar, Meera, Chandidas) and adaptations of episodes from the epics (Bharat Milap, Ram Rajya).

The ability of cinema to depict miracles greatly enhanced the genre’s appeal, but they might have inadvertently arrested the devotional in gimmick mode. Such films as Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950) and Hanumaan Pataal Vijay (1951) were more about “trick camerawork (flying, changing shape and size, burning buildings and so on), stunts and wrestling, than about devotion”, Dwyer writes.

No other genre can justifiably deploy one of the oldest narrative devices known to drama – deus ex machina, or literally god out of a machine. Borrowed from Greek theatre, this device, in which heavenly powers suddenly arrive on the stage at the opportune moment to unravel a knotty situation, has proved most to be a most useful in nudging plots towards their inevitable conclusion. A strategically placed thunderstorm here and a conveniently timed fallen tree there have defeated evil more efficiently than human effort.

In Jai Santoshi Maa, which was one of 1975’s biggest hits, Anita Guha plays the goddess who helps a devout wife endure harassment by her husband’s family. The greatest miracle depicted in Vijay Sharma’s movie is in the climactic sequence. Santoshi Maa arrives on the scene and reverses a poisoning plotted by evil sisters-in-law and restores to life the children who have died from this poisoning.

Devotional films that celebrate the fate-transforming aspects of religious sites also provide the opportunity for vicarious pilgrimages. In Mere Gharib Nawaz, a Muslim devotional that pays tribute to the shrine of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, a pious wife’s constant prayers reunite her with her husband, who has lost his memory and has gone missing. Jai Baba Amarnath follows the Jai Santoshi Maa example by depicting a dedicated wife whose conviction in the powers of the Amarnath shrine in Kashmir reunite with her husband. Both films contain extended views of the revered shrines, allowing viewers to undertake a pilgrimage from the comfort of their seats.

One of the biggest hits in Punjabi cinema, Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai, also features a pilgrimage to important Sikh shrines, including the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where blindness is miraculously restored and evil is finally vanquished. The 1969 movie’s cast includes Prithviraj Kapoor and IS Johar. “People would keep their shoes outside the cinemas before going in to watch Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai,” recalled veteran trade analyst Vinod Mirani.

The most vociferous objections to the devotional often emerge from within the ranks of the faithful. But when Shirdi Ke Sai Baba, starring Marathi stage actor Sudhir Dalvi, was released in 1977, there was no question of a controversy because of the saint’s tremendous following, said director Ashok Bhushan. “The film was produced by the Sarla Charities Trust, which is run by people associated with Sathya Sai Baba,” Bhushan said. Actor and filmmaker Manoj Kumar, who is also a Sai Baba devotee, was among the several marquee names who worked in the movie for free. “Two or three films on Sai Baba had already been released, but their concepts were different,” Bhushan said. His version bestowed Sai Baba with a Jesus Christ-like glow. “We gave him a walking style, we made sure he was lit in a particular way and we gave him an aura,” Bhushan recalled.

Like many of his actors, Bhushan didn’t charge any money for his contribution. “The movie ran everywhere, it was a silver jubilee, and it also led to many Sai Baba temples being built,” he said. “What makes the devotional special is that you identify with the characters who suffer and who are rewarded for their suffering – you can join fiction with the facts.”

The heavenly circuit

Before these miracle moments moved to television in the nineties, they had their own distribution circuit that extended beyond the cities, trade analyst Vinod Mirani said. “There were Hindu mythological and Muslim mythologicals, and they would release all over India,” he said. “For instance Krishna-themed films would be released at the time of Janmasthami.”

Because of their specialised subject matter, devotionals tend to be limited in terms of their opening potential, noted Sunny Khanna, who has also distributed Hanuman, its more earthly 2007 sequel Return of Hanuman, a 2006 remake of Jai Santoshi Maa, and the 2007 animated film My Friend Ganesha. Religion-themed television channels and popular shows such as Devon Ka Dev Mahadev (about the god Shiva) have taken over the task of preaching and proselytising, but the success of such films as Hanuman, an animated Disneyesque exploration of the antics of the monkey god as a child, and Chaar Sahibzaade, prove that the devotional film hasn’t run out of boons.

Devotional films now need a hook to reel in audiences who are getting their daily dose of religion from the small screen, Khanna said. My Friend Ganesha, in which a lonely eight-year-old boy befriends the elephant-headed god, was marketed as the first Indian film to use a particular technique called composite animation. The movie netted close to Rs 2.5 crores. The 2005 release of Hanuman, directed by animation veteran VG Samant, was accompanied by merchandise.

“The Jai Santoshi Maa remake didn’t work because it didn’t connect with audiences, and if you need to make a movie like that today, you need a unique concept, such as 3D or a larger-than-life treatment like in the movie Baahubali, and you have to create a buzz,” Khanna pointed out.

These lessons seem to have been taken to heart by the most unlikely genre entry in recent times. All things considered, MSG: The Messenger of God can be slotted as a devotional: it features the core beliefs and feats of a god-man, it contains miracles, and is spilling over with sermons.

But there is a key difference: MSG is a singular act of self-devotion in which Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, pays tribute to his own fabulousness rather than allowing his followers to do the honours. Undeterred by the indifferent reception to MSG, the flamboyant godman is going to release a sequel on September 18 across hundreds of screens including multiplexes, the latest home of one of Indian cinema’s most enduring genres.