New Delhi: It’s official — Ramanand Sagar’s epic series Ramayan will return to TV screens 28 March. After days of speculation and ‘public demand’, Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar announced on Twitter that the hugely successful mythological show from the 1980s would be aired from Saturday.
— Prakash Javadekar (@PrakashJavdekar) March 27, 2020
The move comes days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week national lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus, which is on the rise in India. In his address, Modi had repeatedly invoked the idea of ‘Lakshman Rekha’ — a concept that has its origins in the Ramayan — to drive home the need to stay home, self-isolate and practice social distancing to limit the number of infections in India. According to the myth, Lakshman had drawn a line at the threshold of Ram and Sita’s home, forbidding Sita from crossing it to ensure her safety.
The Ramayan ritual
Ramanand Sagar will forever be remembered as the man who united tens of millions over a TV show, although he had written, directed and produced a number of movies before that. Many of these were big hits, such as Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949), Zindagi (1964) and Ankhen (1968), but Ramayan remains his most-loved work.
Starring Arun Govil as Ram, Deepika Chikhalia as Sita, Sunil Lahri as Lakshman, Dara Singh as Hanuman and Arvind Trivedi as Ravan, the 78-episode weekly series first aired on 25 January 1987 and continued until 31 July 1988. For roughly 35 minutes every Sunday beginning at 9:30 am, almost everyone was doing the same thing — watching Ramayan.
Ask anyone from a certain generation about the series and, whether they loved it or laughed at its bad production values, they will all tell you one thing: it kept the streets empty on Sunday mornings. Back in the day, India had only one television channel, but even then, this show broke every viewership record in India, with some episodes reaching 100 million viewers.
Since owning a TV was itself a rarity (a colour one even more so because of the prohibitive cost), people used to huddle together at the house of that one neighbour who owned a set, setting aside every household chore. Sunday mornings almost became a sacred ritual. So much so, there were people who would take off their shoes as a mark of devotion, fold their hands in prayer and even cover their heads while settling in to watch.
A deified show
By current special effects standards, Ramayan will look like it belonged to another century. And it did: the attempts to represent the supernatural abilities of the mythological characters were laughably amateur. But nobody cared about the production values. Viewers just wanted to watch the epic most of them knew by heart.
“Trains would stop at stations, buses would stop, and passengers would disembark to find a roadside place with a TV — the crowds were so big, people would be unable to see or hear the TV but the point was about being present, being there,” said Arvind Rajagopal in his book Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and The Reshaping of The Public in India.
The adoration got so intense that actor Govil, a heavy smoker, had to give up smoking in public. The public simply couldn’t handle the fact that their ‘God’ smoked cigarettes. Govil, Chikhalia and Trivedi all went on to join the BJP, with Chikhalia and Trivedi even becoming MPs.
Mumbai-based filmmaker Abhijeet Deshpande, who vividly remembers the phenomenon of the show, tells ThePrint that while Mahabharat (B.R. Chropra’s magnum opus that was aired just a year later and was also a massive success) was “consumed as a fascination, Ramayan was consumed as prayer, ibadat”.
“Sunday was our one day of the week to eat non-vegetarian food, and it was a big production… getting the meat, cleaning it, marinating it. But you know how, usually, it was during the commercial breaks of a show that household tasks like cleaning vegetables for lunch were done? My parents refused to clean the meat during the commercial breaks of Ramayan. That was its power, that people used to really believe in the divinity of what they were seeing on TV,” he says.
He echoes a popular sentiment that Chopra’s Mahabharat was far better in terms of performance, script, dialogue and visual effects, but somehow, it didn’t seem to matter to the people then.
Still, he’s not convinced that Ramayan is the weapon of social distancing the government might be hoping for in today’s times. Back then, there was only one channel and the times were different. But today, there are hundreds of TV channels in multiple languages, there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, Zee5 and a host of other streaming platforms with content from around the globe, so a show like Ramayan could well come across as dated.
It might keep some senior citizens, who are the most vulnerable to coronavirus, indoors, though Deshpande believes even they will have outgrown it.
‘Ilm ki kahani’
Sagar’s Ramayan, and later, Chopra’s Mahabharat also coincided with the rise of the Hindutva politics.
Deshpande, while agreeing that the show may have unwittingly impacted national politics, doesn’t believe it was by design. He recalls that his neighbourhood had “50 per cent Muslims … we all used to hang out and we all used to watch the show as kids. There was no chest-thumping in the show, there was no overtly Hindu messaging. It was an ‘ilm ki kahani’.”