That Time Bollywood Created A New Hindu God
Nowhere is a movie star more potent than in Bollywood, that all singing all dancing titan of the film industry, where whole dynasties of thespians are regarded by their audiences as living gods. But these puny mortals don't compare to the actual deity borne out of the Indian movie system, a god named Santoshi Maa.
The story of Santoshi Maa (or Mata), the "Mother of Satisfaction," is like the story of so many movie starlets. Hailing from SmallTown, Northern India, Santoshi Maa was just a blue-collar goddess worshipped by poor women who could only offer ritual fasts and humble gifts like flowers and raw sugar for a celestial reprieve from their hardships. And with no mention in any of the canonical Hindu sacred texts, or any mention whatsoever before the 1960s for that matter, this young folklore entity had little to no chance of hitting the Hindu big time, doomed to forever live off of the meager offerings of her worshipping regulars like a divine diner waitress.
But being one of those modern kinds of gal-god (she is from the swinging '60s after all), Santoshi Maa wasn't going to remain stuck in her one-cow temple forever. In 1975, the goddess arrived in Bollywood with nothing but a pocket full of ceremonial sugar and a dream. It was there that she was discovered by a movie director, Vijay Sharma, after his wife became a convert. This led to her big break into the mainstream: the release of the movie Jai Santoshi Maa or "Hail, Mother of Satisfaction."
The movie's two protagonists are Santoshi Maa, a fledgling goddess, and her loyal worshipper Satyavati Sharma, an 18th-century young woman who marries a boy from a rich family. Their stories intertwine as both are plagued by the jealousy of the established women in their new households. Satyavati falls victim to some serious Cinderella shit when her Prince Charming disappears, and she becomes the browbeaten servant of her evil mother- and sisters-in-law, while Santoshi Maa has to deal with some Real Housewives of Mount Meru drama from Lakshmi, Parvati, and Brahmani, the spouses of the Hindu trinity. Eventually, both manage to prove themselves by humbly enduring their hardships and spreading joy, which rewards them with peace and contentment. Then everyone does a song and dance because this is still a Bollywood movie.
To everyone's surprise, the low-budget film smashed the Bollywood box office and became India's most successful cult movie -- in that the movie successfully created a cult. So captivated were Indian women of all walks of life by this uniquely female-friendly religious film that it created converts wherever it was shown. And with no official means of worship (yet), audiences often treated the movie theaters themselves as temples, taking off their shoes and leaving behind offerings. And the movie didn't just spread the gospel of Santoshi Maa; it added to it. How? By doing what movies about superbeings do best: cram in an origin story. Jai Santoshi Maa was the earliest source to claim that the goddess was, in fact, the little-known daughter of none other than the grand god Ganesha -- which is a bit like the Hindu theological equivalent of introducing Hela in the third Thor movie.
After the runaway success of Jai Santoshi Maa, the goddess became a household name all over India. Today, the Mother of Satisfaction is worshipped by millions of followers (you can call them fans, really) and is considered an official deity in the Hindu pantheon, godhood that she owes largely to her brief film career. There's a reason Santoshi Maa is still referred to as the "celluloid goddess," the only divine entity to ever emerge out of the film industry -- no matter how hard Tom Cruise keeps trying.
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Top Image: Bhagyalakshmi Chitra Mandir