I WAS SIX YEARS OLD WHEN I FIRST SAW Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. An aunt, knowing of my fascination for the epic, had brought back a copy of the film from England. I was hooked from the very first minute. Initially, my parents were gratified, even proud. Like all ambitious parents, they were constantly on the watch for some sign that I was prodigy material, and my delight in Brook’s film seemed a promising indication of good taste to them. But soon they were worried. Day after day, in the stubborn way of small children, I would bully them into letting me watch the film. If they said no, I would turn to blackmail—I would refuse to eat unless the film was on and I could perch,
eyes a few dangerous inches away from the screen of our 15-inch TV.
Attempts were made to wean me away, but to no avail. As a last resort, my parents tried to interest me in a substitute—another Mahabharata, BR Chopra’s.
It didn’t work. After weeks of watching Brook’s subtle, restrained, minimalist Mahabharata, Chopra’s dazzling costumes and grandiose special effects failed to hold my attention. A part of me was even repulsed by the opulence. Chopra’s characters dripped with gold and were weighed down with heavy silks and gems. They were clothed like the gods, and the world they lived in looked like a noveau riche heaven. This worked only to obscure the characters, and presented a glittering surface, a story of magic, demons, of surreal characters. How could one relate to them? They were fantastical.
Last month, 20 years later, when Sony Pictures released the DVD of Brook’s Mahabharata in India, I was reminded of what had made it unique.
In Brook’s interpretation, the clothes are utilitarian and simple—yet still gorgeous. The restrained, pared down aesthetic allowed the nuances of the epic to truly emerge. The sets and props are artfully minimalist—the battered rope ladder that leads to heaven, the white Ganesha mask, the shard of crystal that speaks eloquently, without words, of the shimmering, magical beauty of Indraprastha—all these are imbued with poetry.
Without the gold and gloss, we can identity with the characters of the Mahabharata, characters who are faced with difficult, complex choices. They are not so alien to our world. The performances are moving, and bring out the characters’ human dimensions—particularly those of Polish actor Andrzej Swereyn (Yudishthira), Greek Actor Georges Corraface (Duryodhana) and Bruce Myers (Krishna/Ganesha). Myers, initially, seems an unlikely choice to play Krishna. With a hooded nose and sunken eyes, he doesn’t look like a master seducer. But it’s soon apparent that Brook’s Krishna is infinitely (even infuriatingly) more subtle, a god and a man at once, and embodies the principle of choice. In the film, he constantly presents choices to various characters, much as he outlines those of Arjuna’s in the Bhagavad Gita. When accused of being a master manipulator or the architect of war, he tells us that the war has been the product of choices, knowingly made.
Brook’s version is not without flaws. Pivotal characters, like Vidura and Sanjaya, are missing. A few moments, such as the Bhima-Hidimbi encounter, are garishly comic. Some have found much more to damn in the film, however. Critic Pradeep Bhattacharya takes issue with Brook’s interpretation. For Bhattacharya, the epic is about the “titanic clash of good and evil.”
But his description seems truer of the Ramayana than the Mahabharata. Brook’s version, instead of focusing on ‘good and evil,’ as Bhattacharya would like, chooses to emphasise the subtlety and the confusing complexity of dharma. The simplicity of the aesthetic also rouses Bhattacharya’s ire—he wants the ‘grandeur of Indraprastha’ to be depicted and finds the rope ladder ridiculous.
Such rigid ideas of the Mahabharata fail to realise the magic of the epic—that it exists in many and various forms, some grand, some simple; a mask, a shadow on a screen, a dance. This becomes apparent, reading the diary of French writer Jean-Claude Carrière that accompanies the DVD box set. Carrière, Brook’s collaborator on the script, is famous in his own right, having worked with filmmaking legends like Luis Bunuel. Carrière’s diary (In Search of the Mahabharata: Notes of Travels in India with Peter Brook, 1982-1985) is a quick and worthwhile read, testifying to the extent of research that went into Brook’s film. Carrière describes travels across India to watch a diverse range of performances of the Mahabharata—he and Brook watch the death of Abhimanyu 17 times. They travel to remote villages where Chau chieftains ply Brook with impossible questions: How many cows does he own in London? Brahmins, at the Kanchi Matha, test Carrière’s knowledge of the epic. Along the way they meet Mallika Sarabhai (who plays Draupadi in the film), Girish Karnad, the Shankaracharya saints in Kanchipuram, Satyajit Ray and Professor P Lal (famous for his transcreations of the epics).
Carrière also discusses the difficulty of choosing the right words for his script. The words of the film are powerful, and beautiful—he translates ‘atman’ as the ‘depth of one’s being’—an exquisite rendering. The characters speak in simple, intelligible language that carries the poetry of the Mahabharata, without sounding archaic. The language reminds us constantly that what we are watching is, in its most ancient form, a work of breathtaking poetry, created with great skill and artistry. Many other retellings gloss over (or neglect) the fact that the Mahabharata is a frame narrative. The epics—be it the Mahabharata, the Ramayana or even the more whimsical Vikram and the Baital—all use a frame narrative, featuring a storyteller and an identifiable listener. The storyteller is always more than just a storyteller; he is also a character. The frame in the opening sequence of Brook’s film has a boy (Parikshit) entering through a door. It’s subtly done, and easy to miss, but, if one watches closely, one will notice a fire hydrant in a corner, a board of switches above it. Parikshit is in the backstage area of a theatre. He continues to walk in, hesitantly searching, and enters a set, a palace. He continues onwards until he finds what he is looking for—Vyasa, the storyteller, the author of the epic, who will tell him a story that is more than just a story.
The backstage setting reminds us that we are watching a play, a story. Yet, from the onset the invisible boundary between stage and audience, listener and storyteller, character and author, is punctured. The act of listening changes the audience, and shapes their identity, telling them who they are—Parikshit discovers who he is and the ‘history of his race.’ He realises that he is part of a story that he never knew, until now. All of us, who listen, watch or read the Mahabharata, are led to a similar process of self-realisation. We emerge, changed—and the story continues to change for us as we age.
Brook’s choice of cast and aesthetic may not be to everyone’s taste. But I think Brook was trying to speak, through them, about the world we live in and how the Mahabharata is still relevant. Brook was attracted to the epic in the wake of the Vietnam War. Although ostensibly about a war centuries ago, the Mahabharata unfolds as a story about us, our time. The international cast reminds us that the world we live in is still shaped by the consequences of conflicts.
As Brook brought his interpretation to the screen in 1989, the Cold War was ending. A parallel is subtly drawn in this film, as the Pandavas and the Kauravas engage in an arms race; competing to make alliances, gain weapons and armies. The sense of destiny that directs the Pandavas, in war and in empire, seems eerily reminiscent of the concept of ‘manifest destiny.’
Brook’s version evokes the realisation that we can find the Mahabharata everywhere, on battlefields and between nations, in the drawings rooms of the wealthy (think the Ambani brothers) and in tiny hamlets.
The Mahabharata: A film by Peter Brook (includes the book “In search of the Mahabharata” By Jean-Claude Carriere), SONY Pictures India, Feature Run Time: 318 min, Language-English, Subtitles-English, Rs 1,199.