Mahabharata

Hits and Myths-es

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

About a year ago, I had ranted in this very space about the lack of creativity when it came to mythology and epic based serials on mainstream regional television. It was around that time that Star’s production of Mahabharata, with its opulent sets and six pack flaunting Pandavas had had audiences glued to the television sets again, after all, the lure of a good story, no matter how many it has been retold, is undeniable. The show finally came to an end last year (after a Kurukshetra battle sequence that probably lasted longer than the original battle as described in the epic), but I suppose the over-the-roof ratings and popularity of the show made it clear to the producers that the mythology genre is one that would never get old in our country, thus giving birth to Seedhayin Raman (Siya Ke Raam in Hindi, Janaki Ramudu in Telugu and Seethayanam in Malayalam).

seethayin

Seedhayin Raman seeks to narrate the story of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. I know of many books that have given a new lease of life to epics by narrating the story from the view point of a character who is usually sidelined in conventional retellings. Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s excellent novel, The Palace of Illusions, for example, is the story of The Mahabharata as narrated by Draupadi. Randamoozham (Bhima is the title of its English translation) by MT Vasudevan Nair is another classic novel that brings to life The Mahabharata through the eyes of Bhima. Naturally, the idea that a television show, and a prime time television show at that, would be attempting to a showcase a different idea of a beloved epic was something that I found intriguing, and that was enough for me to sit with the show and see what the fuss was about.

Visually, the show is stunning. The sets are lavish, the makeup and costumes are beautiful, and the actors are very good-looking. The writers, though, have taken creative liberties with the story. Ram and Sita, according to Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana, are said to have met for the first time at her Swayamvaram (the ancient Indian practice where the princess chooses her husband among an assembly of potential suitors), but in the serial, they have a run-in much before. There are other changes in the story as well, but they’re minor, and it’s obvious that they’ve been made for the sole purpose of creating more dramatic television.

The Ramayana is very different from the Mahabharata – the former doesn’t possess the multitudes of characters or complexities that the latter does, but it does have its own intricacies. Seedhayin Raman’s treatment of those intricacies, however, are not well done. The story of the Vaanara brothers, Sugriva and Vaali, for instance, is one of the few grey areas in an epic that is mostly black and white. Although Rama sides with Sugriva, both the monkey kings had virtues as well as flaws, but Seedhayin Raman insists on showing Sugriva to be an incorruptible, virtuous king, and Vaali as a power-hungry villain who deserves to die. Seedhayin Raman might be creative in its setting and clever in its style, but without the nuance – without the grey, there’s no colour in its story.

My wait for an original, bold, televised take on Indian mythology continues.

{Seedhayin Raman is currently telecast on Star Vijay, and is also available on HotStar}

Epic Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I’m not one to call anything a phenomenon very lightly, least of all, something on airs on screen, but the Mahabharata, is a legitimate television phenomenon. I have been watching the story unfold on television for as long as I can remember watching television. The version which I can remember most clearly, and the one that has left maximum impact on me is BR Chopra’s version of the epic. Yes, the sets were gaudy, the effects, comical, and the acting got a little too dramatic at times, but the writing and the way the episodes were paced ensured that the series was ahead of its time. There was no compromise with regard to story in the Mahabharata of the nineties, for no relationship or character from the original epic was left behind. One would think that taking on all the subplots would make the series translate unfavourably for television, but the writers managed to juggle them all on screen with consummate ease. BR Chopra’s Mahabharata, revolutionised Indian television of the nineties. I have heard many stories of empty streets during the telecast, and about folks with television sets “hosting” people and children from their neighbourhood to watch the show together.

mahabharata, mahabharat, mahabharat star plus

The second version I remember, was animated – it was called “Pandavas”, and it aired on a channel called Splash, one of the few exclusive to children channels back in the nineties, and by god it was awful. It was 3D animation, and the technology was new at that time, but the execution was just terrible (even by the standards that were prevalent at that time). I must confess though – I didn’t miss a single episode. Two new versions of the Mahabharata has been airing over the last couple of years – one produced by Sun Networks, and the other by Star. I prefer Star’s version – it has with better special effects and modern casting (the hairy paunched Pandavas have been traded in for ones that have flat, muscular abs). Both productions, however, have got people hooked on to their television sets again, and that just proves that the draw of a good story, no matter how many times it has been retold, is undeniable.

Given the wealth of stories we are blessed with in our country, though, I’m disappointed that Indian television isn’t experimenting enough with the “epic” genre of television. When you think about it, the Mahabharata has enough cloak-and-dagger activities, evil lords, kingdoms, creatures and dysfunctional relationships to make Game of Thrones look like an amateur western spin off, and remember that this is a story that has been handed down from a thousand years ago! I would love to see a bold, raw version of it, a version which doesn’t pander to family audiences (and a version, I’m sure, which will never see the light of day).

Apart from experimenting, there is also a great lack of variety in this genre. I’ve seen bits and pieces of series that have covered Hanuman, Shiva, the Ramayana, and I can also vaguely remember one that focused on Krishna. This is again, disappointing, because we are country of stories! There is plenty of material, hundreds and thousands of myths and legends, warriors and princesses, that are waiting to be showcased. Why, for example, isn’t anyone doing a Karna series? Or an “Adventures of Lava and Kusha”? Why isn’t anyone exploring a Vaanara based story line from the Ramayana? And why, oh why isn’t anyone coming up with an original mythological hero or heroine? Because that, would be epic.