The mythological Naag/Naagin were once Bombay entertainment industry’s embodiments of separated lovers. Ashish Dwivedi encapsulates the Naagin’s journeys from graceful risings to a sudden fall from grace.
Infamously – though partly true – India is called the land of snakes and snake-charmers. Despite the developments the country has garnered in its struggles to become an internationally-reputed leader, this opinion still lingers in popular imaginations of the West and far East. Even though this opinion, indeed, manifests peoples’ superficial understandings of India, I consider this undermining stance to be perhaps half-true, if not the absolute truth. Thanks to India’s humongous mythology – and its implacable reliance over animalistic iconography – Indians are flanked by tales of creatures, monsters, animals, and anything nonhuman and paranormal. It’s not gothic, but flavoured by orientalist darkness and anonymity. This well-applies to the other-worldly Nagas, ruled by Väsuki (Lord Shiva’s snake), and their many doctored, but popular, media reproductions that have been igniting the curiosity of India in bizarre ways.[i]
Like any other culture, India’s mainstream knowledge about its own mythology, its own peoples, traditions, etc. grew out of cinema, or rather by Dadasaheb Phalke’s nationalist, anticolonial, determination to depict his country in(via) Indian ways, backdrops, and cinematography – beginning with Raja Harishchandra (1913). Cinema was born, but with Phalke, a chaotic and curious interest in India’s sociocultural mixtapes (including folklores, literatures, religions, symbolisms, iconography, societies, and other traditional yack-yack) was triggered. The unknown seemed like a prosperous market for film-consumption, and since the mythology of the Nagas was at-once limited and unpopular, it became a subject of filmic representation. Simple tales of shape-shifting Nagas were translated into revenge stories and the Naag/Naagin soon became Bombay entertainment industry’s newest embodiments of separated lovers. This was not the end: the industry continued exploiting their narratives, reducing the Naagin to another random object of insatiable gratification, before damaging the aesthetics of the Nagas’ mature mythology by re-casting the Naagin in comical roles. I am, thus, inclined to encapsulate the Naagin’s journeys from graceful risings to a sudden fall from grace, which becomes the subject of my critical inquiry here.
India’s debutante Naagin was Vyjayanthimala who helped introduce the blueprint of the Nagas’ iconography onto mainstream cinema through Nandlal Jaswantlal’s Nagin (1954). Typically a love-story, Nagin was dressed as a revenge saga – following the formulaic backdrop of classic romantic precursors like Romeo & Juliet or Rowland Torre & Emmott Sydall – based upon the age-old rivalry between two tribal clans, the Ragis and the Nagis, but without any identifiable characteristics that would later define the contemporary Naagin genres. Some instances of paranormality do occur, however, within the film – like the Ragis’ ancestral abilities to control snakes (they are renowned snake-charmers) or the scene where a worshipped snake sucks out poison from Mala’s feet – but most of Nagin’s leitmotifs are not overtly-represented, but perhaps stored for future use in the late 70s and 80s (when the Naagin-fever abruptly developed and reached the pinnacles of popularity). There is no reptilian transfiguration, no hedonistic/egoistic Aghori[ii], no revenge-seeking Naagin, no Naag (surprisingly!), and no external interference from subliminal humans. Indeed, the Nagi/Ragi rivalry paves the way for the construction of the popular onscreen enmity between Naagins and Saperas, but Nagin convolutes it by making the Naagin fall in love with the Sapera. As a member of the Nagis (the snake-worshipping tribe), Mala’s romance with Sanatan (a chief member of the Ragis’ clan) was forbidden, actually condemned, yet Nagin concludes happily… following the quintessential formula of Bollywood’s “happy endings”. Despite not directly featuring any key aspects of the Naagin genre, Jaswantlal’s Nagin laid the foundation for Naagin stories. Without any essential tropes, it managed to ignite popular imaginations for the concoction of the new Naagin, which was nothing like the innocent, vibrant Mala… what was to come was quite ominous, feminist, monstrous, and enigmatic.
Nonetheless, before the outbreak of the Naagin-fever could occur, it was felt that Vyjayanthimala (in her pre-Naagin avatar) couldn’t excite the curiosity of other contemporary filmmakers, who might have, otherwise, wanted to reprise the genre. What did reprise, however, was the role of the tribal woman (against another tribal background), again donned by Vyjayanthimala, in the 1958 paranormal melodrama, Bimal Roy’s Madhumati; along with the idiosyncratic pungi-music – originally performed by Kalyanji Virji Shah and Ravi Shankar Sharma for Nagin – that defined the Naagin genre in unprecedented ways at a later time-scape. Bibhuti Mitra’s Phagun (1958), for instance, could be deemed one of the earliest examples of films that deployed the pungi-music for a hit score, Ek pardesi mera dil le gaya. I believe that this fanciful incorporation of the pungi-music by filmic narratives (beyond the Naagin genre) helped (if not paved the way) sustain the soul of the genre, and encouraged the later generation of directors to redefine the genre and immortalise the Naagin with an unabashed character and distinct vividness and authenticity. It’s delightful to watch the smooth jugalbandi between the music and the filmic language, as Mitra ensures that the pungi’s tunes are not sequestered amidst the voices of Bhosle and Rafi. The presence of the snake-charmer with the pungi, manoeuvring Madhubala’s scintillating, snake-like moves, attract attention and potentially remind audiences of Sanatan’s calming tunes (also produced through the pungi) that seduced Mala in Mann dole mera tann dole. In early Hindustani Cinema, it’s said, music was the determining factor – if a film’s music was appreciated, box-office success and intertextuality was positively predicted (if not guaranteed). We see that happening in Phagun via the roadmaps constructed by Nagin, and expect some more.
…and so it happened, albeit unexpectedly. Three movies, produced within fifteen years, proved quite monumental for the reformation and evolution of the Naagin genre, the effects of which persist even today, both within the mediascape and the registered vocabulary of peoples. These movies – Rajkumar Kohli’s Nagin (1976), Harmesh Malhotra’s Nagina (1986), and K. R. Reddy’s Sheshnaag (1990) – introduced the formula for the archetypal Naagin story. Reintroducing the popular pungi-music, these movies could be deemed clever conglomerations of the idiosyncrasies of a Naagin/mythological narrative. Perhaps deriving inspiration from Jaswantlal’s invention, this triumvirate introduced (1) the Aghori-as-antagonist, (2) visibly apparent reptilian transfigurations, (3) a more solidified myth of the Naag/Naagin affection, (4) the symbolism of the Naag-Mani[iii], (5) and the Naagin, more important, as a graphic reflection of the monstrous feminine.
Moreover, this triumvirate intensifies the element of revenge, which, conversely, bestows the Naagin with a fierce personality that passes a verisimilitude to Barbara Creed’s (1993) idea of the castrating woman/mother… an image that India hadn’t witnessed before, and which – elsewhere – is deemed an epitome of antipatriarchal eruption of volcanic magnitude. Unconventional, unafraid tropes like the vagina dentata (toothed vagina), Draupadi’s laughter[iv], or the new phenomenon of ‘woman-as-insect’[v], are defined as ravaging threats to patriarchal social orders. Monstrous women, embodying these ideas and tropes, are perceived as lethal to the societies of men. It’s patent because the antagonists in such narratives (that are generally seen as woman-centric) are (evil) men. We see that happening in Naagin stories, where the Aghori is often positioned under the antagonistic light; moreover, in othered imaginations, the image of the Vish-Kanya (the poison damsel) could be seen as another Indian construction of the monstrous feminine, making its onscreen debut via Kidar Sharma’s Vish-Kanya (1943).
With Jaani Dushman (2002), however, the feminist overtones of the Naagin began eroding away. We witnessed the emergence of the hyper-masculine Naag (played by Armaan Kohli) against the melancholic and submissive Naagin (Manisha Koirala), who was later converted into a model of hyper-sexuality… the weird exhibit for the absconding male gaze. The sociocultural situation of the Naagin drifted away from its mythology, as the former lost its spiritual/aesthetic significance. Jennifer Lynch’s Hisss (2010) – the Mallika Sherawat-starrer – introduces this downfall. Drawing immense influences from countless traditions of Bollywood’s Naagin genre, Hisss, nevertheless, mis-manages the narrative and limits the Naagin figure to obscurity, obscenity, and obtrusions. Indeed, Hisss is realistic to project the Naagin in naked (or semi-naked) situations (after all, Naagins are actually snakes), but that reason is overshadowed by the needless nakedness of the Naagin. Primarily an Indian film, set in India, and produced for the peoples of India, Lynch’s Hisss concentrates over its bold graphics and irrigates the Naagin with brawn and unwanted sex appeal, which becomes the only highlights in the film. Additionally, the cultural vocabulary of Indians about Mallika Sherawat – known as a sex symbol – isn’t the most esteemed; not only were Indian audiences unsurprised on watching Sherawat in the role of an avenging Naagin, but also could not look beyond the skin of Sherawat.
I’m not trying to speak as a chauvinist, but as a cultural critic. Lynch’s ‘bolder’ Naagin could be structured, indeed, as a potent symbol of the Self, and her nakedness is never the problem. It’s the problematic society of the movie’s consumer. Hisss obliviates India’s conservatism, and holding the director’s baton from an ivory tower, Lynch designs Sherawat in overtly-sexualised fashions. The film overlooks two central aspects: (1) India’s general biases about feminism, womanism, and liberation; and (2) the cloaked mythologies of Naagins, which hardly requires the presence of sexism. These aspects are, yet again, overlooked by Ekta Kapoor in her seasonal Naagin shows. Although extremely popular amongst the masses, Ekta Kapoor’s Naagin series follows the same guidelines as Lynch’s Hisss, with the only exception of nudity. Of course, the medium of Indian television would not appreciate that! There are sexualised Naagins, unnecessary histrionics (the staple of Indian TV), and the solidification of a newfound development in Naagin stories (which, apparently, originates via Sridevi’s Nagina) – the marriage between Naagins and humans. Mythologically complexed, the entertainment industry in Bombay (films and television) breeds over reductions and concoctions that might retain their palpability for further consumption, and increase their chances for attracting more capital, TRP, and some television academy awards. Kapoor’s Naagin, nevertheless, attempts to sustain its roots with topical influences of spirituality and mythology, albeit briefly. Its most-recent idea of relocating the Naagin as-superhero (Naagin 6, 2022) bears fantastic perspectives and inspiring messages; however, it’s still absurd that despite reflecting brave feminist connotations, the Naagin series feels the need for sexism, scant clothing, and the Naagin’s frequent returns to femininities.
The televised representation of the Naagin encouraged the polysemic interpretation of both the genre and character, catapulting the Naagin to imply different things/ideas to different peoples. Not only these mainstream narratives strengthened the development of the genre – in the likes of Harmesh Malhotra’s Nigahen: Nagina Part II (1989), Mohanji Prasad’s Nache Nagin Gali Gali (1989), Ramkumar Bohra’s Naag Nagin (1990), Jag Mundhra’s Vishkanya (1991), Mohan T. Gehani’s Nagin aur Lootere (1992), and Kodi Ramakrishna’s Devi (1999) – but also allowed the Naagin an entry within mainstream, and local, terminology. The Naagin has finally transformed into a property of the public and popular imaginations. These developments, however, have not been in the Naagin’s favour, altogether. I’m not sure if it’s unfortunate or metaphorical or socialist, but the reduction of the Naagin to the dimensions of the comic seems bizarre and unwell… insulting. It seems that the Naagin-figure (that was once monstrous and feminist) cannot serve well the inputs of comedy, and it’s detrimental to the audience’s understanding of this woman/monster. Where does the Naagin really belong? in the safeguarded land of Nagalok, in contemporary songs/slangs, in the womb of the othered woman, in the male gaze… where exactly? Contemporary comedy shows like Ichha‘pyaari’ Naagin (2016-2017) or peppy songs like Anmol Malik’s ‘Nagin Dance’ (2013) or Astha Gill and Akasa’s ‘Naagin Gin Gin’ (2019) have unbuttoned the seriousness/austerity that traditionally belonged to the Naagin genre. People nowadays use ‘Naagin’ as a cuss word, or a modern idiom to imply deceit or manipulation. India dances to the pungi-music, restoring the hook steps of Malik’s ‘Nagin Dance’ in weddings, birthdays, clubs, gyms, tea-stalls, schools, you name it: India would have definitely danced there, but without realising what Naagin has long symbolised.
The Nagas have immortalised purity, innocence, sacrifice, friendship, loyalty – an amalgam of the most-winsome of human qualities. They are a treasured entity in Indian mythology, and are still worshipped in several parts of India. Naag-Panchami is celebrated as a dedication to the Nagas, and so India remembers these beloved beings and admires them from a religious distance. Inside the attic, it dances aimlessly to the Naagin music popularised by contemporary singers; however, the mythological history of the Nagas remains far above this popular balderdash. The populist death of the Nagas embodies its renaissance, as that triggers hidden information about the Nagas’ genesis: we often produce pictures based on the Naag/Naagin angles, and talk about them in the language of humanity, without understanding the background of these legends. Certainly, several writers, directors/producers, academics, and the religious pundits might bear cognisance to these backdrops, but not the most of India. The funny thing about mythology is its arbitrariness. It can be twisted, remodelled, deleted, and broken… and this instigates the rise of multiple versions of the same legend. The same happens with the story of the Nagas; but the most-popular remains fixated.
I heard this story from my mother. She spoke of Prajapati Daksha (one of the 16 manasputra of Lord Brahma), and two of his daughters, Vinata and Kadru, who were both married off to the Vedic sage, Kashyapa. Where the former gave birth to Aruna and Garuda (a popular enemy of the Nagas), Kadru became the mother of a thousand naga-sons – the most prominent being Sheshnaag, Väsuki, and Takshaka (another King of Nagas, like Väsuki) – who occupied the famous Patala/Nagalok in fear of Garuda. Since the oldest Naags (in the likes of Sheshnaag or Väsuki) were extremely powerful and blessed by the trimurti (the triple deity of supreme divinity in Hinduism comprising Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma), the Nagas were upheld as protectors of the Earth. Moreover, Nagalok is associated with material wealth, jewellery, and magic, thus corresponding with the cultural symbolism of Nagas as forces of rejuvenation and fertility. Therefore, today in modern India, Nagas are worshipped not only as protectors of the home, but also as catalysts of fortune and fertility. Indeed, they are revered for material prosperity, but also analysed as compassionate and humane. The character of Rekha as a sacrificing Naagin (in Sheshnaag, 1990) could be exemplified as an archetype of the changing paradigms about popular definitions of Naag/Naagin(s).
I think another reason why the concept of the Naag/Naagin became popular is their fear-inducing attraction. Mother echoes a thinker (whose name I can’t recall) when she mentions: “People are generally attracted to the ominously unknown, the fantastically scary.” Yes, it happens with us: we don’t want to watch The Shining or The Exorcist, but we still watch it. It is this general fascination with horror that enabled the introduction of the Naagin genre onto the Indian big-screen, ultimately turning out as one of the highest grossers of any year. But where earlier productions represented the Naagin’s inherent fires, recent productions have compromised the Naagin’s shakti with dry histrionics, banality, and unnecessary sexism. Having said that, the historical evolution of the Naagin is laudable and worthy of appreciation. From Vyjayanthimala to Vrajesh Hirjee, India has tasted various flavours of the Naagin. I’m not sure what’s going to be the future of the Naagin, but whatever comes next, the Naagin would find a way towards liberation and self-consciousness. As a symbol and cultural icon, the Naagin knows.
Man dole mera tan dole (Nagin, 1954) Hemant Kumar / Rajinder Krishan / Lata Mangeshkar
[i] Naagin takes its root from the Sanskrit word ‘naga’ (meaning a cobra – or generally, a snake), which is usually deployed to connote two aspects of Indian culture and imagination: the ethnic tribal communities from northeastern India, or the mythological shape-shifting dwellers (half-human/half-snake) of the underworld (in Hinduism, and parts of Jainism and Buddhism, this subterranean realm of the underworld/netherworld is called the patalalok).
[ii] Aghoris (the word comes from the Sanksrit word ‘aghora’ meaning ‘fearless’) are sub-groups of ascetic sadhus/priests who follow Shaivism (worships Lord Shiva) and engage in ghastly activities, including magic of the sinister, cannibalism, druggism… which has doubly-affected their sociocultural status in India: they are feared by the commoners, and are treated as miscreants or outcastes.
[iii] Tales about the Naag-Mani are humongous and incredible, but most hardly hold any credibility. According to esoteric Hinduism (and Tantric Theology), the Naag-Mani is a hard jewel that rests upon the head of an older cobra (thereby, a.k.a. the cobra/snake stone), imparting them with higher Shakti (Power) and the ability to cast into human forms. In Naagin/Naag narratives, the Naag-Mani is often chased by an evil Aghori, who believes the stone could bestow the owner with unparalleled boons like immortality and relentless knowledge/wisdom. In reality, however, Naag-Manis have attracted three widespread opinions: 1. confused as the snake-stone, the Naag-Mani are animal bones, used in folk medicines, to cure snakebites; 2. it is the extra venom of a snake deposited on its head that hardens to give an impression of a stone, and glistens due to the venom’s presence; and 3. the Naag-Manis are calcified poison glands that are retrieved when a snake dies – they are later sold out as expensive items/stones, thanks to the myths and legends attached to the mani.
[iv] The trope of Draupadi’s laughter emerges from Mahasweta Devi’s 1978 novella, Draupadi, which stands as a rewriting of the character of Draupadi in Vedavyasa’s The Mahābhārata, along with one iconic scene from the Sanskrit epic: Draupadi’s cheerharan by Duryodhan and Dushashan, the two Kaurava brothers. Devi has deployed the trope of laughter along the veins of its popular use in feminist (Hélène Cixous) and postcolonial narratives (Gabriel Okara) – as a symbol of defiance, resistance, rough courage.
[v] Lauren Wilcox’s contemporary trope of ‘woman-as-insect’ is an extension of Barbara Creed’s pioneering concept of the monstrous feminine, and reports the representation of woman dressed via insects’ mythologies and iconography. Wilcox, further, draws from Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection, and looks at such images of women as exemplary sites of existential threat to manhood and hollow masculinity. L. Wilcox develops this trope in ‘Drones, Swarms and Becoming-Insect: Feminist Utopias and Posthuman Politics’ (2017).
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