The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 17, 2002

Mythologicals in their modern avatar

Though India’s two famous epics — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — were written millenniums ago, their freshness, their strong narratives and their absolutely unforgettable characters have an incredible hold on the Indian psyche, says Vimla Patil

Indrani Haldar as Ma Shakti
Indrani Haldar as Ma Shakti

"NO other country in the world has a value system so deeply and permanently entrenched in its mythology as India has," says Ravi Chopra, producer-director of the new Ramayana on Zee TV, "The way the Ramayana and the Mahabharata developed their many-stranded narratives, created their strong and well-drawn characters and gave a sense of permanence to the values each character stood for is a unique miracle in the history of human civilisation. Nowhere else, in no other body of literature, do values play such a pivotal role as they do in the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. You have here, in these epics, heroes who give their word and lose everything while keeping it, in fulfilling a given promise. You have men who choose banishment and a youth of hardship and deprivation simply as an act of obedience and consent to a promise given by a father. You have valour, family unity, respect and honour for elders, romance, elegance, art — indeed every facet of life has an exquisite expression in these epics. Most important to every generation of Indians is the value systems reflected by the relationships of the various characters.


"While Ramayana is a treasury of narratives about an age when values were paramount, the Mahabharata is a portrayal of a society where the values collapsed and created the most violent confrontation between the forces of good and evil. The two epics are complementary.The characters and the narratives have a strong hold on the hearts and minds of every generation of Indians because they hold true in every age, irrespective of development, progress, religious diversity, difference of personal faith and the rapid march of technology. The values which epic characters project affect Indians irrespective of their caste, creed or religion. They are not Hindu values per se. They are the result of a unique civilisation, which reflects the ongoing search for an elegant, enlightened way of life, which leads to perfection. Which is why Christians, Muslims and other religious groups in India are different from their brothers anywhere else. They are also bound by the values, which are enshrined in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Nitish Bharadwaj as Lord Ram

"Naturally, these great stories have been made into films ever since this medium came to India. One of the earliest films made in India was Raja Harishchandra Ushaharan was made in the thirties. In the forties, the pioneer of mythological films, Vijay Bhatt, made his immortal classics, namely Ram Rajya and Bharat Milap. Shobhana Samarth is even today considered the personification of Sita. V. Shantaram’s Shakuntala was also a super-hit, which ran for more than 100 weeks and made Jayashree the top heroine of the era. Apart from mythology, the lives of Indian saints were also used to make immortal films. Archival Films such as Sant Tukaram, Sant Eknath, Sant Sakhu, and later Sant Tulsidas, Sant Dnyaneshwar, Narsinh Mehta and others were hailed as great films. Often, the actors who performed the roles of the protagonists were themselves venerated by people. The prime examples of filmi heroes becoming permanent divine icons are: Vishnupant Pagnis, a goldsmith, is venerated even today as Sant Tukaram, one of the greatest pioneers of the Varkari Bhakti cult of Pandharpur. Shahu Modak, who acted as Sant Dnyaneshwar, devoted the rest of his life to the study of the Dnyaneshwari and the Bhagavadgita though he was a Christian. He was venerated by millions of people and lectured on the values propagated by the great saint of Maharashtra. Before the fifties, the themes of Indian cinema were mythology, the lives of saints, historicals and social issues like child marriage or widow remarriage. Fewer films were made on the theme of romance or mysteries. After Independence, there were many films on patriotism, changing social patterns and later, romance and love stories became the major theme of films.

"When television came, mythologicals were again preferred themes because one doesn’t have to innovate stories or characters when one takes a narrative from the epics. Further, TV gave an opportunity to lay before the viewers each memorable characters from the epics in detail. A TV serial is not merely a matter of two-and-a-half hours like a film. In a film, there is no time to analyse a view or a value. There is no occasion to interpret the points made by various commentators and writers who have researched the epics. When we made Mahabharata, we divided the narrative into more than 90 episodes of an hour each. There was ample time to elaborately spell out the values of the narrative, to establish the strengths and weaknesses of each character and to find reasons and justifications for each of their actions and decisions. Interpretation is the essence of the presentation of an epic on television. We do not have to introduce the characters. We have to experience them. Mahabharata became a classic and was shown all over the world because of the dialogues, the perfect casting and the perfect coordination and interpretation of every scene. Some of famous dialogues affected the lives of all Indians and brought back to them the eternal values of India.

"Ramanand Sagar also conducted massive research on all versions of the Ramayana before launching his serial on the epic. He brought a tidal wave of popularity for mythologicals on Indian television. Our Mahabharata followed Ramayana and touched an all time high of popularity. It literally stopped all traffic in India on Sunday mornings and made families gather around the TV set with clockwork regularity for two years from 1988 to 1990. I was able to make a relatively less known character like Bhishma into a memorable Pitamaha whose words were epitomes of wisdom. He was as important to the story as was the Mahanayak Krishna. As is known, Mukesh Khanna and Nitish Bharadwaj were cast perfectly in these roles and are identified with the characters even ten years after Mahabharata was telecast."

After the Chopras’’ Mahabharata, there was a bhed chaal of mythologicals on Indian television. Some came and went without making any impact. Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Narayan, Jai Hanuman, Jai Ganesh, Ma Shakti, Draupadi and many more came on various channels. But none touched the popularity record of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Many of them suffered because the presentation left much to be desired. The characters were lacklustre and the dialogues, amateurish. Production values were faulty and the packaging poor. Some of the serials messed up the characters and stories were presented without attention to their sequence or time frame. Yet the average Indian’s thirst for mythology has not quenched yet. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata remain ever fresh and ever interesting for him. At present, Sanjay Khan, who earlier made Jai Hanuman, is presenting yet another version of the Mahabharata on Zee TV. The Chopras are in mytho production once more with their Ramayana on Zee TV.

"Because of the phenomenal success of Mahabharata," says Ravi Chopra, "The expectations from our Ramayana are very high. We have once again Nitish Bharadwaj playing the main role of Ram and Smriti Malhotra-Irani is Sita. We have better technology today and better facilities than when we made our first epic. I have depended mainly on the original Valmiki Ramayana and the Ramcharit-Manas of Tulsidas. At the very outset, I am planning to outline the value of Maryada, which is an entirely Indian concept and is epitomised by Ram, who is called Maryada Purushottam. Nitish Bharadwaj, who also contributes to the script with his inputs of research on the character of Ram, will define Maryada, a value which sets out the civilised limits and self-imposed controls of behaviour for people who want to live enlightened lives. Such explanations will enrich the narrative immeasurably.

"My sets are designed with great attention to detail. The costume team works closely with us. We have used references from sculptures, frescoes, temple carvings and manuscripts while designing of ambience, which is rich and ornate. Ram Govind is doing the script. We normally get the script of ten episodes ready and plan the look and feel of the serial. In mythologicals, casting and dialogues have to be perfect. The success of our Mahabharata was mainly due to excellence in these two areas. Rahi Masoom Raza wrote brilliant dialogues which linked eternal values from the epic to modern living and the result was almost electric. Even in Ramayana, the effort is to apply modern yardsticks to old values and to justify why characters took particular actions though they may seem incorrect in the present day context.

"Today, television is a game of numbers. Everything rests on how much money a serial makes and what TRPs it gets. The making of Ramayana is an opportunity to combine beauty, glamour, values, beautiful language, beautiful relationships, memorable visuals and of course stories which touch every heart. Mahabharata and Ramayana are fountains of eternal wisdom and immortal values. The narratives and the characters who play them out run in the blood of every Indian. Epics give a special fragrance to the Indian soil. They give all religions in India their soul and our culture is rich and scintillating because of them. Stories can be retold on television in every decade without losing any freshness. I’m fortunate to do this!"

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