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The Bootleg Files: Jesus and Daya Sagar

BOOTLEG FILES 732: “Jesus” and “Daya Sagar” (1973 and 1978 films from India about the life of Jesus).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial value for the U.S. market.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely in the U.S.

India’s film industry never placed great emphasis on Christian-themed films, which is understandable since less than 2.5% of the country’s population identify as Christian and the perceived commercial value of such productions are considered minimal. During the 1970s, a pair of feature films were produced that offered retellings of Jesus’ life through the distinctive spectrum of India’s cinematic styles.

The 1973 “Jesus” was produced in the Malayalam language and later dubbed into the Tamil and Telugu languages. The 1978 “Karunamayudu” was shot in Telugu and dubbed into four other Indian languages, most notably a Hindi version that received the widest release under the title “Daya Sagar.” Neither film was theatrically released in the West and both are still mostly unknown to non-Indian audiences. This is something of a shame, as they represent very different filmgoing experiences: “Jesus” offers a wealth of unintentional humor due to its spectacularly poor production, while “Daya Sagar” provides an intelligent and creative consideration of the subject despite occasional hiccups in the presentation.

“Jesus” starts off on the proverbial wrong foot with a seemingly indifferent Mary receiving news via an animated light shaft and a puff of yellow smoke about the baby she will soon carry. Joseph is also alerted in the same manner. While the couple travels to Bethlehem, a trio of comic relief shepherds – one plays the lyre and hums aloud while the other snore in cartoonish noises – are visited by angels that look like young girls wearing cumbersome wigs and overly upholstered gowns. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Three Kings and the angels gather in an open air manger that seems to be made of cardboard while the soundtrack swells to a wobbly “O Come All Ye Faithful” that turns into a Malayalam music sequence with almost everyone singing (including a cartoon Star of Bethlehem).

Old King Herod orders the Slaughter of the Innocents, but then amuses himself with some shapely belly dancers – obviously, the Gospels needed a bit of Minsky to oomph things up. The 12-year-old Jesus abruptly appears in the temple – the kid is wearing a red wig which rivals the fake beard and grey wig that Joseph is wearing. The adult Jesus (played by the actor Murali Das) has a more robust red wig and an equally bogus red beard and walks through the film with a slight air of detachment from his surroundings, pausing only to allow animated bolts to flow from his hand for the miracles at Cana and Lazarus’ tomb.

The main problem with “Jesus” is that director P.A. Thomas brings more sincerity than artistry to the screen. Much of the acting is children’s theater-level broad, with extravagant gestures and oversized emoting that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Satan shows up to tempt Jesus wearing a Halloween devil costume, complete with cape, and Salome gets John the Baptist’s wooly head on silver platter thanks to a great deal of sensual wiggling that probably would have gotten her stoned back in ancient Judea. Not to be outdone, Mary Magdalene has her own song-and-dance number before seeing the value in Jesus’ teaching.

In fairness, “Jesus” depicts two stories that are often absent from films in this genre: the casting of Legion from the afflicted man and the Transfiguration. Alas, the former is quickly done without Legion being exiled into the swine herd while the Transfiguration is crudely staged on a cheapjack set with Moses and Elijah looking like a pair of skinny Santa Clauses.

But “Jesus” saves the best for last with the Resurrection. Rather than simply roll back the stone used as the tomb’s door, Jesus bursts through the roof of the tomb in a cloud of yellow smoke and fast-forwards directly into the Ascension, with nary a TTFN to the Disciples.

“Daya Sagar” has some of the problems that burden “Jesus,” including lamentable animation and actors in patently false beards. But director A. Bhimsingh steers the film in unexpected ways, creating a unique interpretation of the oft-told story.

“Daya Sagar” starts with the Nativity as an extended music sequence, with Mary hearing a lyrical Annunciation while reading a scroll in a garden. She is visited by a blonde white-robed male angel, who then appears to the dreaming Joseph. The number is extended to the journey to Bethlehem, where a montage of doors closed to Mary and Joseph reinforces the severity of their outcast status. Oddly, Mary appears to have given birth on a grassy field, although they are quickly shown after in the manger.

After very quick glimpses of the 12-year-old Jesus at the temple and in Joseph’s carpentry shop, the adult story of Jesus begins with a focus two figures that will play key roles later in His ministry – Barabbas is shown leading rebels against Rome while the blind Bartimaeus provides a musical commentary on the society that Jesus will change. Jesus and Barabbas meet in a brief sequence later in the film, which is a curious touch – this is the only film where the two met at the point of conversation.

Perhaps the most remarkable sequence in “Daya Sagar” is the procession into Jerusalem, with masses of extras waving palms in a dance ahead of a magnificent parade to the holy city. The smile on the face of Vijayachander’s Jesus is a heartwarming expression of love – prior to this, the actor played the role in a controlled and paternal manner that essayed Jesus’ moral authority but missed His emotional personality. Later in the film with the torturous road to Golgotha, Vijayachander’s astonishing physical performance brilliantly captured the life-draining agony of Jesus dragging the unwieldy cross to a long and painful execution – and the pause of silent relief when Veronica wipes the bloody and sweat from His face is a masterful moment that captures Jesus’ human existence.

Within the realm of Christ-centric cinema, “Daya Sagar” is one of the most influential, albeit not in the West – the film has played to more than 19 million people in thousands of villages in across, often in makeshift outdoor theaters set up with sheets connected between poles as the big screen. A missionary organization called Dayspring International has been responsible for these exhibitions, and it has claimed to have converted seven million Indians to Christianity.

Both “Jesus” and “Daya Sagar” can be seen in less-than-pristine unauthorized postings on YouTube, neither with English subtitles (although it is easy to figure out what is happening in both films). Unless restored and subtitled versions should somehow find their way into the West, this is the only way to experience India’s spin on the Man from Galilee.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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