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In Session: Deus et Machina: Religion and Technology in Asian Cultures
1: Special Effects and the Techno-Religious Realism of Hindi Commercial Cinema
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Georgia Institute of Technology, United States
In 1957, film theorist André Bazin posited that the aesthetic of Indian cinema is rooted in a sort of “religious, social, and melodramatic music hall.” More recently in 2015, sociologist Arjun Appadurai claimed that “Bollywood films are a technology of religion.” One could take umbrage at Bazin’s derision or find Appadurai’s juxtaposition of religion and technology provocative, the fact remains that the aesthetic of Hindi commercial cinema is a category in itself. Replete with divine interventions and miraculous occurrences that are rendered through overt technical manipulations, this cinema aesthetics boasts a triangulation of the anthropological, the theological, and the technological.
This paper argues that Hindi commercial cinema has historically deployed an aesthetic of techno-religious realism—a visualization of a lived reality where ordinary and extraordinary aspects of religious and technological belief mingle promiscuously. Techno-religious realism is a kind of hypermediacy wherein the distinctions between representational techniques, technology, and what is being represented breaks down. Taking special effects as the locus of the intersection between religion and technology, I trace a trajectory of this realism through the early mythological films (1920s), the stunt films (1950s), the low-brow horror films (1980s), and to contemporary sci-fi/fantasy films. In the process, this paper challenges the secular bent of film theory. In this contemporary moment, as the limits of realism and secularism are being pushed, this paper offers techno-religious realism as a response to the question: what can the technological cultures of the global south add to the emergent discourse of digital modernity?