How many movies have you been to where you were welcomed with a traditional arati and told to remove your footwear before entering the theater?
Released in 1975, a few months before Sholay, this movie became one of the biggest all-time hits in the history of Indian cinema. In terms of popularity and revenue, it even overtook Sholay.
Forty five years later, movie analysts are still baffled about the colossal success of Jai Santoshi Maa, and so am I.
Sholay’s success was understandable. That movie was a well-directed multi-starrer, with brilliant cinematography, powerful acting, dramatic dialogs, thrilling fights and made on a grand scale.
Jai Santoshi Maa was the exact opposite. A tacky, low-budget movie, with B-grade actors, a sanskari story-line, and it looked like it was shot in someone’s backyard. The Goddess, Santoshi Maa, was unknown to the general public in Bombay. She was worshipped in a few corners of North India but generally not heard of in the rest of India.
There were doubts about the deity herself. The movie portrayed her as a daughter of Ganesha, but she found no mention in our scriptures.
The movie was so bad that it should have sunk without a trace. Instead, Jai Santoshi Maa became a truly divine hit.
The religious fervor the movie generated was quite scary. I saw the movie for the first time out of curiosity. I saw it twice again, just to figure out why exactly it was such a hit.
This was the 1970’s. No on-line booking. One had to be at the theater at least an hour before, and stand in a long queue to buy tickets, even for advance booking. And only one ticket per person. People would sleep on the pavements outside, to book tickets for the next day. Of course, ticket scalpers made a killing.
Every time I went to see the movie, I was greeted by women chanting prayers, distributing prasad and pamphlets about Santoshi Maa. The theater would be decorated like a temple and we were warned to remove our footwear.
The religious cacophony that would erupt inside the theater when the title song came up, is something I have never seen before or since. We were used to front-benchers whistling and throwing coins at the screen, like they did (and I did) for Madhuri Dixit’s Ek do teen song in Tezaab.
But this was something else. People would just go berserk, like they were possessed by the goddess. Cymbals clashing, bells ringing, devotees dancing in a frenzy. You had to be there.
The movie made a star out of Usha Mangeshkar, whose title song, Main to aarti utaroon re Santoshi maata ki, became a chart-buster. Till then, she was merely the younger sister of Lata-Asha and was in their shadow. By the blessings of Santoshi Maa, Usha Mangeshkar became a mainstream playback singer in her own right.
And of course, the movie made a great deal of money for its producers.
Oddly enough, the cast of the movie went back to obscurity, after a brief period of fame. The actress who portrayed Santoshi Maa was Anita Guha. She was known as a mythological specialist, and was already typecast into sanskari roles. Her titular role in Jai Santoshi Maa made her even more typecast. The lead pair Kaanan Kaushal and Ashish Kumar were not big names in Bollywood, and went back to regional cinema. The movie also had Bharath Bhushan, a major star in the 1950’s and ’60’s, but well past his prime.
However, one superstar did emerge from the movie – Santoshi Maa herself.
Jai Santoshi Maa is perhaps the only Bolly movie that made a nation-wide superstar out of a Goddess. Her followers must have grown at least ten-fold in that single year. Temples came up everywhere, bhajan clubs blossomed, books and merchandise were sold in great numbers, TV serials in her name were born.
Santoshi Maa had become a powerful brand. And still is.
Till date, Santoshi Maa remains a popular deity all across India. She is considered an accessible deity and her rituals are easy to follow, adding to her popularity.
But I still haven’t figured out why Jai Santoshi Maa was the hit it was. So big a hit, that the remake of the movie in 2006, that was much better made, did sink without a trace.
The Divine works in strange and mysterious ways, eh?
You can watch the entire movie here, if you wish. But please, light an agarbatti and remove your footwear first!