Some days back I was discussing classic films with friends who work at the same cinema as me, when the subject of the Indiana Jones movies came up. I said that that as a Hindu and a devotee of Goddess Kali, I found the portrayal of Kali in Temple of Doom disturbing. The others seemed surprised to hear this. "Why would you be offended?? Kali is a demoness, isn't she?"
It hadn't occurred to me till then how films like these can have a lasting effect in molding the views of people that watched them. I tried to correct my friends, explaining the philosophy underlying the concept of Mother Kali. A girl replied: "If Kali is a great Mother Goddess and venerated by millions of Hindus all over the world, then why is she always shown as an evil blood thirsty demoness in all these films? Surely this image must have come from somewhere."
My mind goes back to the 1939 George Stevens escapist adventure movie "Gunga Din." The film is about a trio of Her Majesty's finest British soldiers in India, where they take on an uprising of Kali-worshipping Thugees. The Thugees are used as the all-purpose evil enemy dedicated to the slaughter of white men, while chanting, "Kill for the love of Kali, kill as you yourselves would be killed, kill for the love of killing... kill, kill, kill!"
"Gunga Din" influenced the way that many westerners of that era viewed India and Hinduism in general, giving the impression of a backward country full of brutal pagan savages (Hindus).
"It was the kind of Fascist film you could see before WWII." So said the film's producer, George Stevens, later in his career. However, in the case of Hindus and especially in case of the much-maligned Goddess Kali, you can still make this kind of "Fascist" film, as was to be proven by Steven Spielberg with his "Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom."
Here again we come across Kali as a bloodthirsty demoness lusting after human flesh and worshipped by adoring throngs of entranced, arm-waving, dehumanized followers, this time led by priest Mola Ram. In the narrative there are lines like, "Mola Ram. Prepare to meet Kali... in Hell!"
The only thing that had changed in the 50-odd years between the two films is that while a white actor--though brown-faced--was featured in "Gunga Din," a brown actor is used in "Temple of Doom" to retell the same old xenophobic rhubarb.
"The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974) features a six-armed Kali as a crony of the evil magician Koura, who commands her "to the death Kali, death to our enemies." Coming to Britain and closer to recent times, the TV series "Footballer Wives" in 2006 featured a storyline where one of the characters, Amber, starts to lose her mind and becomes filled with rage, anger, and desire for revenge as she meditates on--whom else?--Kali. She tries many ways to see one of the characters dead, but when all else fails, she reaches a boiling point, shows up at a pink-themed party as Kali, hell bent on revenge, armed with a shotgun. Eventually things happen, someone dies, and this latest and British psychotic Kali worshipper is carted off to the mental hospital and sectioned off.
Films and TV programs like these are fraught with xenophobic imagery and misrepresentations reinforcing colonial notions of Hindus as uncivilized savages with brutal gods. It could be argued that Thugees were indeed a real group, and thus, the dominant impression of Kali in Western media as portrayed in these films is somehow justified. However, history tells us that the Thugee were just a sort of back-country Mafia that slaughtered tradesmen and anyone traveling with valuables, and that their Kali worshipping religious element has just been romanticized to create fantasies about them. Research shows that they had both Hindus and Muslim as members and naturally tended to take up the general religious customs of the region they resided in.
It could also be argued that films are normally based on popular notions and not necessarily entirely on historical evidences, and therefore there is nothing wrong with films like these. But the fact is that films in today's world are not simply induced by popular culture and prevalent notions, but they themselves exert influence and alter popular notions. In fact, films are capable of forcing viewers into a position that defies serious analysis, and if well made, the viewer will surrender his or her self to ideas perpetuated at some point during the narrative. That is why Holocaust history has often focused on the propaganda films and productions of Leni Riefenstahl for Hitler's genocidal missions. I wonder whether films in which Kali is portrayed in this way will eventually become the subject of similar studies?
But more importantly, it is not stereotypes themselves that are problematic per se, but the way certain groups are treated. In "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg focused intently on the accuracy and legitimacy of the image of Jews and veterans and the ravages of war. If popular but false negative stereotypes were really so dominant, one could easily expect a film involving stingy Jewish alchemists and wizards conjuring up Golems and secretly controlling the world with the help of a vengeful god.
But while this type of callousness and disregard would not acceptable in the case of Jews, it is not only tolerated but also continuously exploited for entertainment value in case of Hindus.
When films and television programs full of stereotypic depictions of a community or culture are repeatedly churned out, historical facts and truths become obscure in the shadow of media perpetuated notions.
So back to my friend's original question: Why, in spite of being a deity venerated by millions of Hindus, is Kali portrayed as a bloodthirsty demoness in a range of Western movies? The answer is a combination of ignorance and xenophobic and cultural prejudices in regards to Hinduism, to which education is the only antidote.