When Deepika Padukone, a veteran in playing historical characters from Padmavati (who may or may not have existed but whose midriff must be protected at all costs) to Mastani, announced she would be playing the role of Draupadi, she only underlined what many have known for long. Princess Panchali, daughter of Drupada of Panchal, is one of the most iconic women of India, and anyone who has ever played her or written about her, has acquired instant fame and glory.
It’s the role of a lifetime, as Padukone describes it. Yet, she is not the first to play it onscreen or on stage.
Mallika Sarabhai became the only Indian in a cast of 25 actors from 16 countries in Peter Brook’s nine-hour stage adaptation of the Mahabharata, which toured the world for four years beginning in 1985. Three years later, a 20-year-old Roopa Ganguly, now a BJP MP, acted as Draupadi in B.R. Chopra’s Sunday morning TV series, Mahabharata.
And yet, over and over, actors and authors keep re-discovering Draupadi. We can’t remember a woman just because men chose to disrobe her – Draupadi is much more. She handled the treasury, she was an empress, she was trained in economics, she was dark-skinned, she was and is still an enigma.
A woman of our times
What makes Draupadi such an enduring heroine, who has been reimagined by writers as diverse as Pratibha Ray (Yajnaseni), Mahasweta Devi (Draupadi) and Shashi Tharoor (as Di Mokrasi in The Great Indian Novel)? Draupadi’s depictions have always stirred heated debate—in Yajnaseni, for instance, Ray delineates a relationship between Krishna and Draupadi that precedes the latter’s marriage, and in Draupadi, Mahasweta Devi situates her resistance in the Naxalite uprising and the Bangladesh war.
Who can explain it better than Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni who wrote The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantments, women-centric retellings of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. She believes Draupadi/Panchali is an evergreen character because she is so complex. She told ThePrint: “Draupadi is possibly the most complex female character from our epics, and a character who is in the most unusual situation – with five husbands, a “gift” that (contrary to popular belief) she never wanted! She is also strong – stronger than is common for traditionally portrayed women, and she uses her power strategically. For instance, she influences her husbands deeply, each one in different ways.” Divakaruni went on to add: “Draupadi is the one who keeps their resolve for war strong, through the 12 years in the forest and the 13th year in incognito. She curses the entire family of the Kurus after they attempt to disrobe and humiliate her – and her curse comes true.” Divakaruni believes Draupadi is complicated and very human, which attracts readers/viewers to her.
Creating a Draupadi who would be a woman of our times was very much the point of B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata as well. The epic’s late screenwriter, Rahi Masoom Raza, believed her anger was well received by the audience because it was not only natural, but also righteous. As for Ganguly, who is still referred to as Mahabharata‘s Draupadi, she was a thoroughly “modern Indian woman”. ”Unlike Sita of Ramayana, Draupadi does not believe in suffering silently. She reacts vociferously, demands apologies and plans revenge. She is loyal to her husbands, but can and does rebel against them,” she was quoted saying.
A #MeToo warrior
It was the original Mahabharata that impacted writer Anuja Chandramouli. As she told ThePrint: “I love how Draupadi’s character was fleshed out in Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata. There are times when she has no choice but to accede to the demands of patriarchy. But, when the choice to be made is in her hands, Draupadi always makes it count. She is bold, gutsy, always speaks her mind and is a canny operator who makes sure that all those who have hurt her or her family feel the full weight of her wrath. A powerful female presence in the midst of all that testosterone, Draupadi is a stirring example of power and grace.”
The world’s first #MeToo warrior, who used anger as a weapon, calling out her husband for losing her in a gambling game, and his cousins for being party to her disrobing, Draupadi was contemporary even in 1985 when Mallika Sarabhai played her. “Draupadi is the quintessential 21st century woman, powerful but fine about being vulnerable, with a brain and a womb, both of which she is proud of, tough yet soft, wise, beautiful and sensitive. She does not need to de-womanise herself to prove she is everyone’s equal,” Sarabhai said in an interview.
There is also Draupadi’s ability to hold her own in what is essentially a man’s world, in an epic written by a man. Not only does she manage her time between five husbands, but there is also the amazing dimension of her special friendship with Krishna, which makes her a symbol of the soul’s connection with the divine. That was of particular interest to Divakaruni as she contemplated her character in The Palace of Illusions.
“There is a lot in Draupadi’s character that is left open to the imagination, because the Mahabharata doesn’t give us too many details. For instance, how does she feel as a young woman at her swayamvar when she is informed that the Pandavas are dead, and when Karna, who would in that case be the greatest warrior, tries for her hand? What is her relationship with the other strong woman in her family, her mother-in-law Kunti? How does she manage her household, with five husbands? How does she feel losing all five of her children in the great war of Kurukshetra? These were questions that fascinated me when I wrote The Palace of Illusions because they seemed so relevant to our times.”
“If a new film is about to be made, especially starring the hugely talented and versatile Deepika,” Divakaruni notes, ”I am sure that the creators will find enough material in Draupadi’s life to fashion a powerful and original portrait that will surprise, delight and amaze viewers.”
Could she be our first Indian superwoman, whose story travels across borders, as the film’s co-producer Madhu Mantena hopes? Could the two-part film be the female version of Baahubali given that Deepika already has international brand recognition, thanks to her character in xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)?
Film scholar Aseem Chhabra believes reinterpreting and revisiting the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective on the silver screen will “only make viewers think more and revisit the original text of the Mahabharata“. “I had participated in a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, Nina Paley’s animated version called Sita Sings the Blues. Conversations around the classics and religious texts are very important. They also mean the original texts are safe.”
When the movie releases in 2021, it would be wise for the blood-thirsty fringe – always on the lookout for a controversial cause and Deepika Padukone’s nose – to remember that wisdom.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.