D.W. Griffith and his American silent film “The Hindoo Dagger”: The significance of the term “Hindoo” in it!

The name Hindoo is sure to conjure up in our minds thoughts of mysticism, fetishism, thaumaturgy, and occult art

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Image Source : Saada.org
  • “The Hindoo Dagger” was Indian in name only and there was nothing Indian about it except for the association of the dagger with India
  • The name Hindoo was used to conjure up thoughts of mysticism, fetishism, thaumaturgy, and occult art
  • In time, many Indian terms were associated with the occult and the people were viewed upon as con-men

When the “Inventor of Hollywood” released his groundbreaking film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, significant controversy sparked focusing on its negative depiction of African Americans and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. D. W. Griffith, film director, writer and producer who pioneered modern filmmaking techniques, earned millions of dollars in profit for his film, The Birth of a Nation. Out of his 500 films, there is one with an Indian reference which can be considered offensive. “The Hindoo Dagger” was Indian in name only. There was nothing Indian about it except for the association of the dagger with India.

India was then believed to be the land of the occult and supernatural and the word Hindoo” as a way to signal “alterity” and “ethnological interest.” According to Saada, a description for The Hindoo Dagger during its release describes it as such:

David Wark Griffith Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

The name Hindoo is sure to conjure up in our minds thoughts of mysticism, fetishism, thaumaturgy, and occult art, and with reason, for Hindustan is, without a doubt, the birthplace of all such weird practice. Hence it is that anything coming from the Hindoos is regarded as possessed of certain phylacteric and talismanic powers, and it was not strange that Jack Windom should experience a sensation of awe at the reception of the Hindoo dagger from his old chum, Tom, who was traveling in India.

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The Hindoo Dagger is a murder-suicide movie. When the protagonist Jack Windom sees his wife embracing another man, he stabs her with a dagger he received from his friend, who had been to India. Overcome by fear, he flees the crime scene. The wife’s lover comes out from hiding and saves his wounded lover.

After a year, the lover discovers that she has been cheating on him with a third man. Overcome by rage he stabs her to death and flees. Then, in a twist, Jack Windom returns to the home, entering the crime scene he had left. When he enters the bathroom, he finds his wife exactly as he had left her. Horrified by the scene, Jack plunges the dagger into his heart falling to death over his wife’s corpse. The desire to enact murders was placed squarely on the instrument brought over from India.

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In 1902, Thomas Edison’s Hindoo Fakir featured an Indian magician, performing a series of tricks with the aid of trick photography. In time, many Indian terms were associated with the occult and the people were viewed upon as con-men. The term “fakir” described a host of figures, from Hindu yogis to Sufi dervishes, as well as street performers, magicians, and, con-artists. Sheet music for songs like “Hindu Man” and “My Hindoo Man” described the fakir, in his “turban crown,” who came from the “home of ‘ologists’ … palmologists, and flim-flam.” Also many films like The Love Girl (1916), Upside Down (1919), and Sucker Money (1933), featured the figure of the Hindu prince and swami, who would later be revealed as a fraud or con-man. Even associations with yoga conjured fantastical notions about the “unnatural hypnotic sway” that yogis could have on their followers states the Saada article.

-prepared by Ajay Krishna, an intern at NewsGram.

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  • AJ Krish

    So Indians were viewed upon as con-men and often associated with the occult. So how do western movies depict Indians now? I guess a lot has changed!

  • Aparna Gupta

    The movie was great but didn’t knew about the term Hindoo on it. It’s ridiculous to call Hindoo’s a con-men.

  • Vrushali Mahajan

    D.W Griffith is known as the father of silent cinema, his Psycho is one of the best thriller. But the depiction of Indians in the movies is not what we could appreciate