All Indians know the essential plot of the Mahabharat. The righteous Pandava brothers spend years in exile to return and re-conquer their kingdom from their villainous cousins, the Kauravas. Most Indians are also familiar with the subplots: Krishna’s politics, Karna’s illegitimacy, Draupadi’s ill-fate in matrimony, and so on. But what is unclear is how such an elaborate epic gets passed down to us millennials, and why it’s so significant. If India demands a global position, it must be matched with its cultural power. Turkey’s 2014 drama about the founder of the Ottoman Empire ‘Ertugrul’ has spread like wildfire across the Islamic world, with none other than Pakistan PM Imran Khan recommending it to his citizens. It’s time for young Indians to be presented with an engaging and persuasive, modern cinematic version of humanity’s longest poem.
Mahabharat’s last respectable rendition was B.R. Chopra’s spirited 94-part television series that aired from 1988 to 1990. While the series swept television ratings in India, the fact is that it ran over 30 years ago. Almost half of India’s population is less than 25 years old now, which implies that they have had no access to a genuine audio-visual adaptation of this great epic (we will address Ekta Kapoor’s 2013 version in a bit).
That the epic continues to percolate into popular consciousness, despite having no formal representation in the Indian education system, is a testament to India’s strong oral tradition. But it’s 2021 and we’re long overdue for a refresher.
Young India awaits
First things first, the simplest argument against a Mahabharat re-hash is a middle-aged uncle’s rebuke of ‘today’s generation’. The premise is that we are far less interested in our mythology and have been captivated by Western ideas. Thus, any attempt at a Mahabharat series/trilogy/anthology, no matter how genuine, will fail to impress fickle-minded social media junkies. Nothing can be further from the truth.
A 7-month-old, fan-made trailer of a Mahabharat movie (with the audacity to cast a Muslim actor – Aamir Khan – as Krishna) has garnered 20 million views on YouTube. For comparison, this number exceeds the total views on all but three videos on AIB’s viral comedy channel. Recently released film dramatisations of Indian history –Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat and (even) Tanhaji – raked in over Rs 500 crore each (inflation adjusted) at the box office and were favourably received by audiences across ages. Chitra Banerjee’s international bestseller The Palace of Illusions — Draupadi’s retelling of the Mahabharat — is so popular as feminist literature that Deepika Padukone has put her nascent film producing career behind the idea.
Moving beyond the big screen, Netflix’s first (and only successful) original India production, ‘Sacred Games’, has a Vedic/Karmic hue to its plotline and names its first episode ‘Ashwathama’ after a legendary Mahabharat character. Disney Hotstar’s hugely successful crime series ‘Aarya’ not only rescued Sushmita Sen’s career, but thematically dedicated itself to ethical dilemmas observed in the Mahabharat — so much so that the flagship soundtrack is called ‘The Bhagavad Gita Song’
While YouTube views and box office numbers are rustic yardsticks to measure young India’s interest in the epic, the central argument is that the Mahabharat is deeply embedded within the Indian psyche; a psycho-social influence that is strong enough to keep its cinematic potential timeless.
A mine of intricate content
At its heart, the Mahabharat is a multi-generational dispute for sovereignty over a kingdom, with supernatural forces, questions of ethics, and fantastic war sequences peppered in. It’s what the hip millennial would call the OG ‘desi’ Game of Thrones, but only if they were truly exposed to the depth of the epic in the same grand fashion.
HBO’s Game of Thrones witnessed supreme popularity in its first seven seasons, riding on the high of its unpredictable plotlines, complexity of character arcs, and the recurring theme of ethical dilemmas of people in power. In India, for instance, Game of Thrones was a huge hit with millennials, garnering 10 million viewers through piracy alone, nearly twice the average viewership of an IPL match. The show’s last season, however, chose to substitute a well-written storyline with Hollywood-esque special effects, destroying the show’s decade-old legacy in a matter of a few weeks. Its ratings went from a steady 90 per cent+ for the first seven seasons to a paltry 55 per cent for the eighth, proving that today’s audience isn’t swayed much by VFX-heavy, sensationalised content.
Similarly, Mahabharat’s most iconic plot twists are full of timeless debates. Spirit vs Letter of Law (Draupadi’s disrobing), Pacifism vs ‘Holy’ war (Arjun’s meltdown in Kurukshetra) and Machiavellian politics (Krishna’s manoeuvres with the Kauravas) — all find prime real estate in the epic. The character arcs of Bhishma, Arjun, Yudhisthira, Draupadi, Karna, Drona can each be the subject of a feature-length trilogy. In addition to that, military strategies and battle tactics embedded in the Mahabharat are an oft-ignored facet of the great book; five of Mahabharat’s 18 volumes are dedicated to the actual war sequences and I am yet to see an intelligent portrayal of the famed ‘Chakravyuh’ tactic that defeated the able warrior Abhimanyu.
Effectively, there’s no doubt that the Mahabharat is an 18-volume minefield of dramatic context and content, exploring timeless themes and ethical dilemmas. With over 700 million Indians now armed with cheap internet and mobile phones, intelligent content based on the Mahabharat can prove to be commercially viable, as well as enable important ethical discourses to slide into the collective consciousness of millennials, assuaging the morally obsessed older generation.
Where are the filmmakers?
So deprived are we of our famous epic that a re-run of B.R. Chopra’s mid-80s series during the 2020 nationwide Covid lockdown easily climbed to the top of the charts in Indian television ratings.
But one mustn’t dismiss any recent attempts to introduce it to us. Ekta Kapoor, Indian television’s ‘cringe queen’, did attempt a high-budget, screechy-ly advertised series on the Mahabharat — but failed to capture any meaningful interest due to the super-imposition of her dumbed-down, sensationalised formula for Indian TV success. In 2003, well-known director and producer, Rajkumar Santoshi announced that he would make ‘Indian cinema’s most expensive film’ on the Mahabharat, but dropped the idea. For a man whose last film was ‘Phata Poster Nikhla Hero’, it’s a relief for audiences that the film got shelved.
In 2013, Pen Studios released an animated version of the Mahabharat, voiced by Amitabh Bachchan as Bhishma, Sunny Deol as Bheem, and Ajay Devgn as Arjun. The film consumed Rs 50 crore but made a measly Rs 1.5 crore at the box office. Deepanjana Pal’s review explains why:
“The artwork in [this version of] Mahabharat is appalling and the animation is worse… it looks like a pirated and outdated version of MS Paint was used to create the film…. This new Mahabharata isn’t so much a kid-friendly version as one made for dummies, by dummies.”
So while we shouldn’t dismiss these comically valiant attempts, it’s safe to say that they’re best avoided.
Two projects, however, deserve special credit for building on the themes of the Mahabharat to create something original. First, Prakash Jha’s 2010 movie ‘Raajneeti’ circumscribes a Nehru-Gandhi-esque political family’s story in a super script of Mahabharat symbolism. The movie was a hit, earning an inflation adjusted Rs 300 crore in the cinemas. Second, Epic Channel’s ‘Dharmakshetra’ (2014), a 26-episode drama with many of Mahabharat’s central characters testifying in the court of Chitragupta (the Hindu equivalent of Judgement Day). The series got positive audience reception, culminating in a respectable deal from Netflix. Both of these, however, are ‘derivative’ portrayals, not unlike the previously mentioned book ‘The Palace of Illusions’. Filmmakers have largely avoided touching the core events/narrative of the Mahabharat, perhaps with good reason.
Are the oldies ready yet?
In January this year, Amazon Prime Video released a political drama called ‘Tandav’. Within two days, a BJP MLA had registered an FIR against the show for ‘hurting religious sentiments’. The issue: a two-minute sequence of some college students acting as Hindu gods in a play. The series’ producers had to relent and cut the scene in question within a week of release.
Portraying the Mahabharat in film or cinema is not a ground-breaking idea. But it is also not far-fetched to think that filmmakers are constrained by India’s hyper-sensitive reactions to any artistic deviations on history and mythology. As recently as 2017, a Rajasthan-based Rajput group called ‘Karni Sena’ burnt buses, movie theatres and threatened to ‘chop’ lead actress Deepika Padukone’s nose in opposition to the portrayal of a medieval Rajput queen in the film Padmaavat. The year-long controversy ended when the group actually watched the film and came out gloating with Rajput pride. If we use our Game of Thrones analogy, it is pretty clear that the show’s liberal use of nudity, violence, and profanity lends a macabre silhouette to the series, which may have been an important hook for the 21st-century audience. But it is also unimaginable to have any such depiction of Mahabharat’s characters and stay untainted by controversy in today’s India.
The broader debate of freedom of speech and expression, India’s tolerance towards art, and the politics of portrayal of Hindu mythology is beyond the scope of this article. But turning the ‘today’s generation’ argument on its head, I wonder if artistic expression of our beloved Mahabharat is contained not by the youth’s disinterest but by the easily outraged middle-aged uncle himself.
Telling our own stories
M.K. Gandhi spent most of his life fighting the British. It’s a travesty that only 35 years after Gandhi’s death, an Englishman received the Oscar for portraying him in a mega film directed by another Englishman, encouraged and partly funded by the government of India (through Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi). India’s future deputy Prime Minister and Narendra Modi’s self-professed ‘guru’, Lal Krishna Advani, who was then a part-time film critic, noted:
“Distrust of local talent and a fawning, unreasonable reliance of ‘foreign’ experts has been the bane of all activities of our government.”
Similarly, the Mahabharat came agonisingly close to being appropriated by the Europeans. In 1985, Jean-Claude Carriere, a French playwright, wrote a nine-hour, three-part, French version of the Mahabharat. Such was the success of the four-year-long run of the play that it was converted into a six-part English mini-series by noted English playwright Peter Brook. The mini-series won the International Emmy for ‘Best Performing Arts Program’ but failed to impress Indian viewers. For instance, Gautam Dasgupta writes that:
“Brook’s Mahabharata falls short of the essential Indianness of the epic by staging predominantly its major incidents and failing to adequately emphasize its coterminous philosophical precepts.”
Any Western adaptation, however well-intentioned, is bound to have orientalist defects. Christopher Nolan’s otherwise brilliant film ‘Dunkirk’ (2017), fails to show even one brown soldier on the beaches of Dunkirk (when in fact there were several hundred), not because he is racist, but because he doesn’t associate the brown person with the European theatre of the Second World War. Thus, it is no surprise that Brook’s Mahabharat failed to have that ‘essential Indianness’ in the absence of any relevant cultural, psychological and, dare I say, spiritual inheritance for its creator. Why the mini-series did not spark a feature adaptation and make this essay irrelevant is best left to researchers, but it may as well have been a fortuitous boon for India’s soft power ambitions.
As India seeks a greater role, it is imperative that we regain control over our own stories and folklore. One must only look to the other edge of Asia for inspiration. Turkey’s dictatorial President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the popularity of Ertugrul for an emboldened posturing within pan-Islamic politics and has dramatically replaced Iran as the challenger to Saudi Arabia for pan-Islamic leadership.
While Turkey and Ertugrul are provocative examples, it is undeniable that export of culture is a strong tool for asserting influence in the world. For a generation growing up on a steady diet of ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’, it is easier to feel ‘closer’ to the United States than, say, China — often affecting long-term dispositions in interests, values and foreign policy. We must assert our right to tell the tale of the Mahabharat in its authentic spirit and rich detail before some starry-eyed filmmaker from the West converts Arjun to Aaron and Krishna to Christopher. For encouragement, we can go back to B.R. Chopra who had 10 per cent of the British population tuning in to watch a subtitled version of his Mahabharat in 1988.
For those cynical of upcoming Indian talent, we have a shining example in the Telugu ace S.S. Rajamouli. His Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017), with all its flaws, brought home $50 million from overseas business, about 1.5 times what Marvel’s Avengers Endgame made in India (Hollywood’s best performing film in our country). It is highly improbable that Baahubali’s success was driven just by diaspora, proving that well marketed, smartly distributed content will find its feet with international viewers.
Time is right
The stage is set. Audiences, both Indian and global, are waiting with bated breath. A template for the export of storytelling has been discovered. OTT platforms have democratised and liberated filmmakers. And we are sitting on a treasure trove, an epic that provides a body of work with gargantuan adaptation potential. It is incumbent upon Indian filmmakers to take note of this and stretch themselves. The battles they face today are the conflicts between freedom of expression, artistic creativity, commercial gain, and an arbitrary but ascribed duty to uphold the moral fabric of society. Perhaps this is their 21st-century ‘Karm Yudh’.
Prince Aditya is a cinema enthusiast and management consultant at Bain & Co. He tweets at @prin_aditya. Views are personal.