Dayasagar and the Life of Christ in India

Five thousand Hindu villagers sit on the ground watching a movie on the life of Christ. They see an Indian Barrabas, just released from prison, running toward Calvary with outstretched arms. Barrabas cries in Hindi, “Babu! Babu! You have died in my place!”

The concept of substitution plants itself indelibly in the audience’s mind. The powerful visual seed begins to germinate in answer to the question that so many scream out during the movie: “Why are they killing this innocent man?”

The movie is Dayasagar, which means Oceans of Mercy. The villagers watch over two hours of unforgettable scenes—the beheading of John the Baptist, the healing of the blind man, the forgiving of the adulterous woman, the healing of the lepers—with nearly fifteen minutes devoted to a brutal portrayal of the crucifixion followed by a glorious resurrection.

All the dramatic, action-packed, entertaining and emotional events of Jesus’ life, from birth to ascension, are portrayed by their own people, in their own spoken dialect, with the very music and sound effects that stir their Indian hearts. The film team showing this movie is also Indian—people who were formerly just like the villagers but now are dedicated to spreading the good news. Thousands of local pastors and film team members have said, “Dayasagar is the most powerful tool we have for sharing the love of Jesus with our people.”

History of Dayasagar and Evangelism
While in a movie theater in Haiti in 1970 I first got the idea for such a film. My wife and I had used money we had saved for a down payment on our first home for this mission to Haiti. To our horror we watched, along with a crowd of several thousand of the world’s poorest people, an American movie that was filled with gratuitous evil. My heart sank as I thought of how the so-called “greatest Christian nation on earth” could export something like this to such needy and hungry people. I vowed that that someday I would bring the gospel to movie screens in developing nations around the world. In 1978 we sold our home and I took our savings and went to India to produce a movie on the life of Jesus, to be acted with Indian actors. The movie I had in mind had a biblically accurate script, beautiful music and state-of-the-art camera work and special effects.

When I arrived in India, I was astounded to see that a new movie on the life of Christ was just released in theaters and was showing in the very town where I was! It was starring a popular Indian actor. That evening I went to the movie. The script was overly melodramatic for my American taste, and the Indian music sounded raucous to my American ears. However, the audience was enthralled. They cheered when Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple and wept softly as he healed the lepers, the lame and the blind. They cried “Why are they killing this innocent man?” as he was brutally nailed to the cross. At Jesus’ resurrection, a great cheer and applause went up.

It was then that I knew I was not called to make a movie with my talents and my taste; instead, I was called to take this culturally relevant movie into every village of India. My movie would have had Indian actors and language, but this movie had all the other nuances embedded in the Indian culture. We purchased the world rights and went to an Indian tailor who made a huge movie screen out of eight bed sheets. My Indian friends worked hard to sink bamboo poles into the ground and hoist the screen as curious crowds began to gather.

That first night, under threatening monsoon rain clouds, more than two thousand people watched the story of Jesus for the very first time, and several hundred gave their hearts to Christ. We baptized them the next day in a nearby canal. Isaiah’s prophecy was coming to pass: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).

Our ministry is named Dayspring International and is based on Luke 1:76-79 when John the Baptist’s father, filled with the Holy Spirit, says to his newborn son, “You shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways . . . whereby the dayspring from on high has visited us, to give light to them who sit in darkness.” We also work to bring the dawning of the light of the world to people who sit in darkness.

In the past twenty-eight years our film teams have made over 190,000 village presentations to more than 120 million villagers. More than five thousand churches have been birthed, some immediately after the showing, when excited new believers were eager for discipleship training and community.

The Faithfulness of New Believers
A large percentage of converts remain faithful and grow in their faith. Natraj is one example. Eighteen years ago he and his parents lived in a remote Indian village hardly touched even by India’s popular Hindu religion. These people were animists who worshipped the spirits in the forest. However, when Dayasagar shined the light of God’s love into their lives, Natraj and his parents committed their lives to Christ. Today Natraj is a vibrant believer who coordinates the ministry of sixteen Dayspring mobile film teams in two states in India. He has personally presented the film in more than four hundred villages and impacted thousands of lives.

There is also Ven Kutura, a leper who waited in the shadows until the end of a film showing to come forward and approach a team member. Ven asked, “Can this Jesus help me too?” Our team leader not only prayed with him right there, but got him medical attention as well. Today Ven has his job and family back and serves the Lord in a local church.

Recently we received testimonies from India of people coming to such a faith in Christ. Many were facing great persecution as a result of their decision. Some people said, “We were dragged out of our homes, and we were beaten several times.” Others said, “Our heads were shaved. They said, ‘We’re going to pour gasoline on you and burn you alive if you don’t renounce Jesus.’” Several women were dragged from their homes into the streets naked and chased out of the village. None of them renounced Jesus Christ. One of our pastors helped them escape from that village, began to teach and disciple them and encouraged them in their journey of faith. To this day these people are taking a stand for Jesus Christ.

Dayspring teams, too, face persecution for showing the film; however, because Dayasagar is not perceived as being a foreign film about a foreign god, our teams are less likely to be attacked, and in most cases they are even welcomed. Sometimes the local Hindu priest will even invite them to set up their screen in front of his temple and plug into his electricity.

My idea more than three decades ago to make a film on the life of Christ and present it to those who live in India was nothing compared to what God had planned. This was his film. These are his people. And our prayer is that he will continue to use Dayasagar to bring people to himself.

Why This Film Is More Effective than Other Jesus Films
This film is culturally relevant. It is totally produced, scripted and acted in India, with an all-Indian production team and cast of actors. Often the audience response is, “This must be true! It’s our own people telling the story!”

Every month, our film teams (all Indian national missionaries) hold more than 1,750 film showings. These are uniquely effective in several ways:

Showings are intimate and personal. Everyone has a close-up view, and film team members go face to face with individuals to pray, answer questions, teach and disciple—sometimes spending hours praying for every person in line.

They have lasting results. Our follow-up teams help create new home discipleship groups and plant churches.

They are highly cost effective. They only cost about ten cents per person.  

Showings are extremely mobile and convenient to villagers. They are shown right in the village marketplace or in the most remote and forgotten areas. For example, one of our teams went into the Himalayas to show Dayasagar to the Gaddis, a tribe of sheepherders who, in the summer, take their sheep higher and higher to graze. No mega-crusade could reach them, but our teams did! Several churches were established among the Gaddis where no evangelist had ever gone before.

Showings are unforgettable. Memories are indelibly engraved with the images of Jesus. The villagers may never know who the team members are or hear the name Dayspring, but they will know Jesus.

Both the film and the follow-up ministry are in step with the local culture.

What’s Culture Got to Do with It?
Jesus set the pattern for us when he laid aside his glory and came to speak to us in our language and culture. The Bible is clear: God does not destroy a culture, but he does want to redeem it.

A revolution has begun in the nation of India that will transform the society forever. For 3,500 years Hinduism’s caste system has oppressed a majority of its people, calling them “untouchables.” Today these nearly 250 million Dalits are being led by their leaders to publicly renounce Hinduism and look for hope and dignity elsewhere.

The worship of a hundred million gods will disappear. Idolatry will be cast down. But what will replace it? National Dalit leaders plead to the Church in India, saying, “Come and tell us about your Jesus. Teach us your scriptures.” They believe this is the only hope for India, a nation that could be on the brink of a bloody civil war—or on the brink of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit unlike any in history. There has never been a better soul-winning opportunity than right now in the nation of India.

This year, in alliance with Operation Mobilization India, our 225 full-time film teams will reach over 9.5 million villagers, many of whom have never heard the full story of Jesus and his love.

John Gilman is founder and president of Dayspring International. He has over thirty-five years experience in television and film production, programming and distribution. He is an author, speaker, board member and an ordained Baptist minister.