ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON in late September, gaggles of hijab-clad women, many with young children in tow, swarmed outside the closed gates of an auditorium in Taman Mini, a popular recreational park in east Jakarta. A brawny, black-maned figure wielding a bow and arrow pouted suggestively from a phalanx of promotional banners that lined the street, with the title Panah Asmara Arjuna—Arjuna’s Arrow of Love—printed above.
Inside, a stage featuring two giant gilt thrones was being readied. Strobe lights criss-crossed the auditorium, and an overwrought score thundered from the sound system. This was the set for the live broadcast of Panah Asmara Arjuna’s second weekly elimination round. Advertised as a “maha reality show,” the Indonesian series follows a familiar trope: 15 young women start out sharing a house, and compete in daily challenges as they vie for the attention of a desirable hero. But in this case the hero happens to be someone who speaks no Indonesian, and had only been in the country for about a month when the show started: the Indian actor Shaheer Sheikh, who played Arjuna in the 2013 television series Mahabharat, an extravagant adaptation of the mythological epic by Star Plus. Every Saturday, the women line up on a stage, dubbed the “bharata yudha” zone, and Sheikh sends one of them home. The winner, who will be announced at the end of December, will travel with Sheikh to India.
The Indonesian channel ANTV bought the rights to the Mahabharat from Star Plus, and started airing a dubbed version of the show this March. I first came across this Bahasa Indonesia Mahabharat in June, when I began to tune into ANTV every evening for its exclusive regional broadcasts of the FIFA World Cup. Mahabharat was aired just prior to each day’s opening matches. As I waited for well-built men to take to the football field, I ended up watching well-built men in faux-gold jewellery fighting with magical weapons instead. ANTV soon discovered that the ratings for the mythological series were higher than those for the football. At its peak, the show reached 7.6 percent of Indonesia’s television viewership; the World Cup final reached only 6.2 percent.