Savitri Medhatul is a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker whose latest film, “And All God’s People Said…”, follows the small, but rapidly growing population of Pentecostal-Charismatic converts in India. Medhatul, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the complexities these self-described “believers” face in a majority Hindu society, their innovative use of technology to spread the gospel, and the advantages and limitations of the medium of film for capturing their stories.
Jennifer Lois Hahn: One of the things I really liked about your proposal is how you talk about prayer as a desire for change, both personal and societal. Could tell me about how you came to conceive of it that way?
Savitri Medhatul: I started going to these churches because of my husband. He and his family belong to a believer church. My in-laws wanted me to get exposure to the church. In this church, giving testimony is a very big activity. I would listen to people’s testimonies and what they were sharing in the church meetings. In India, a huge percentage of people are first generation converts. They’re not from Christian families, they’re not from believer families, but at some point in their lives they have made a choice to become a believer. Going from a majority religion to a minority religion is always a very interesting choice. They would say in their testimonies, “Since I have started going to church, this has happened and that has happened and in this way my life has changed.” So those testimonies actually got me interested in knowing a little more behind the story and how people perceive change in their lives. Would it have just happened anyways? Was it really because they started coming to church? It does happen, because you start believing in a certain values system, your perspective changes.
JLH: What are some of the problems that people bring to the church? What is motivating them to want to change?
SM: Church almost works like an alternative to going to a psychiatrist many times. People who are depressed, people who are suicidal, people who have issues with their business, in their marriage, people who are just looking for certain spiritual answers which they are not able to get in other ways of praying or other beliefs. Illness is a big reason, because healing is very important in Pentecostal and believer churches. Many times, people who come to church have been brought by their neighbor, friend, or relative who is already a member. That person will tell them, “You have tried everything. Why don’t you come to my church? I promise you that in Jesus’s name you will be healed.”
JLH: Why do you think converts feel they cannot find this kind of support and healing in the Hindu tradition?
SM: Most of the people that I spoke to had at some time in their life reached a stage where they were depressed, where they were not getting the outputs they expected from life. They were searching for an answer to “Why is everything going wrong?” And they were not able to find it in a temple and whatever pujas (Hindu prayer rituals) they were doing were not effective. The Pentecostal practices are completely different from Hindu religious practice. There is no idol worship. There are no elaborate rituals. It feels a lot more spiritual. They needed an extremely drastic change. If you go from one temple to another things don’t change as much. Sometimes you need that jolt of extreme contrast in your life.
Also these believer churches are actively involved in helping the poor denomination of the society with infrastructure such as education, work, and food, for which the state is not able to match the need. These churches are able to fill smaller gaps, maybe not at the very wide scale, but in their own small ways. When basic needs are fulfilled people see it as a kind of blessing from a god and that also motivates them into believing in this god. The fact is that the god that gives me answers and the god that provides for me is the god that I choose.
Another difference is that there is a lot of physical contact and direct person-to-person connection in Pentecostal prayers that is not present in Hindu prayers where the connection is with the idol or the middleman who is the priest. Whereas in a believer church I am actually feeling you. I’m either holding your hands or putting my hands on your head or your shoulder. I’m holding you and I’m actually looking at you. There is no middleman. There are no other kinds of representation or symbols. It is directly between two people or you and god the almighty, which is an abstract space. You’re not praying in front of a cross, statue, or photograph of Jesus. So I think that this extremely personalized experience might be attracting people. There’s also definitely a certain kind of break in the whole formality of prayer. In believer church when there is praise and worship people are singing and jumping and dancing. I think it’s a very liberating experience for people to express their bodies like that.
JLH: Can you tell me a little bit more about the relationship between Pentecostal-Charismatics and other religions in Mumbai?
India is a secular country, but some of the states in India have issued anti-conversion acts. Some say no one should be given any incentive for conversion, that there should not be any force, that you can only convert if you feel the need from internally. Many church activities can be interpreted as forceful conversions. So those acts are used in many states to prosecute church members and there are certain incidences of violence against believer churches in these states. But the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is, does not have an anti-conversion act. The church population there is in such minority.
Another interesting thing is that in India many people live in joint families and many times only one or two members of the family have joined the church and other members of the family are still following their old religion, still doing the pujas and everything regularly. You can’t just pick up Hindu idols and throw them out because for all you know your mother and father are still praying. So in that given space what does one do? That I found very interesting, how people find solutions to these kinds of problems. Some say, “Ok fine, if you want to do your puja then you do it in your room and don’t ask me to participate in it. And you will do your thing and I will do my thing. And if you want to do any big ritualistic puja in the house, please excuse me, I will be out of the house that day.” These kinds of territories and borders are negotiated within a family because not everybody is a believer and there are two different kinds of beliefs and rather drastically contrasted ways of praying among the family members.
JLH: I want to switch gears a little bit and have you tell me more about your choice to work in the medium of film. In the U.S., at least, we have a tendency to think of prayer as a private, internal thing that would be difficult to capture on camera.
SM: It was a little difficult because even in India when people are praying many times it is done in their room alone. But thankfully in believer church the prayers are very vocal. Even if they are praying alone in their rooms, they are speaking out the words of the prayer. So the way these people pray helped me to do my filming. There is a lot of speaking in tongues. There are a lot of gestures. There is a lot of energy. You can feel that energy in the room. So these are the aspects which I think can be captured with an audiovisual medium, because then you actually get to see what is happening rather than just somebody narrating a scene.
At the same time film as a format has its own limitations. It has its own structure. You have to develop characters in a certain pattern. I can’t make a four hour film—it would just be too much to watch. There is only so much information you can give. Also, information given in film is more experiential than analytic, especially the kind of films that I make. There is a lot of sharing of experience rather than some expert discussing how these things are. The way I see it is that my film could be a starting point for a discussion where you watch things, you experience them along with the characters and then maybe go read more analytical and detailed stuff on it. Also, in a film there is a lot of information which is given just in the visual sense. Either you get it or you don’t get it. Right now in this film, I have a lot of footage of Mumbai and there is a lot of visual imagery and icons that just pass by you while you’re watching the film. Now if you’ve not been to Mumbai you might miss these cues. So the experience and the understanding that each member of the audience would get from a film differs depending on their previous exposure. I can’t sit and explain every shot in the film because that’s just the limitation of the format. Ideally I see my film as a collaborative work with those doing academic research, such as my friend Nate Roberts who works with Max Planck Institute right now doing research on a Tamil speaking believer community in Mumbai.
JLH: Can you talk about how your subjects interact with media and technology and other aspects of modern life?
JLH: Can you tell me more about your personal experience with religion?
Honestly, I grew up in a very non-religious family. My parents are atheists. So whatever Hindu religious practices I followed were at my grandparents’ house because they used to have all these pujas (Hindu prayer rituals). At that time it was more about having fun and eating good food rather than the rituals because we were never really expected to do those things. And in my own house, we didn’t have a single idol because my parents didn’t really believe in any kind of god or any kind of ritualistic practices. I did have exposure to church because I went to a Christian college, so I was quite open towards this idea of going to church. I really enjoy the music, and I like that atmosphere. I would not say that I’m an atheist, but I still don’t follow a particular religious belief either. I like to pray. We all say, “Oh my god, please no traffic today.” [Laughs] That’s the space that I personally operate in.