Epic Fail

The latest adaptation of the Mahabharata is unsettlingly eager to be contemporary

Shakuni and Duryodhan play a game of dice in the Star Plus adaptation of the Mahabharata. courtesy star india
01 June, 2014

ON 16 SEPTEMBER 2013, after an expensive promotional campaign that included everything from a hail of Facebook ads to LED-equipped vans posted at strategic locations around the country, Star Plus launched its new television show based on the Mahabharata. With a budget of Rs 120 crore, the show is pitched as the most expensive ever produced in India. Several big names—including the mythology expert, writer and corporate guru Devdutt Pattanaik, the legendary screenwriter Salim Khan, and the Oscar-winning fashion designer Bhanu Athaiya—are associated with the project.

Before the show went on air, the channel’s marketing team stressed that this Mahabharat, the latest television adaptation of the epic, would tell the Mahabharata from Krishna’s point of view, and specifically target the country’s youth, who are presumably in need of divine direction. Accordingly, even though Krishna is absent from the early stages of the plot, which pre-date his birth, he appears on screen to recite a concluding monologue. This Krishna, played by Saurabh Raj Jain, is not quite buff like the other male characters on the show, although calling him feminised would be an overstatement. He gives life lessons—not quite along the lines of the Gita’s teachings—on the banks of a river whose water looks suspiciously like plastic sheeting. On occasion, he caresses frolicking bunny rabbits and geese while speaking to the camera.

After each episode airs, these three-minute video lectures are uploaded as “bonus material” on the show’s website and Android app. The titles of the videos include “Lord Krishna introspects about human expectations” and “Lord Krishna introspets [sic] if Dharma can be found in traditions.” In short, Krishna, in this iteration, is a gasbag whose speciality is dealing in platitudes. He smiles a lot, perhaps to hoodwink us into forgiving his babble. Like many professionals from the self-help industry, he seems unconvinced by his own words. But the strategy has succeeded with its intended audience. The press has declared the show, which airs every weeknight on Star Plus, an emphatic success. Television ratings are a murky business at the best of times, but reports indicate that this show has bettered even the incandescently popular reality show Bigg Boss.

Ratings aside, this Mahabharat doesn’t make for easy watching. It is bloated, testosterone-heavy, and starved of moral complexity. Most of all, its eagerness to be contemporary is unsettling. From September 2013, it took seven months and innumerable episodes to work up to what was advertised as the show’s pivotal moment—the dice game between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, in which the former gamble away their wealth, their kingdom and eventually their wife, Draupadi. In the run-up to the show’s launch, Star Plus ran a hugely popular advertisement centered around Draupadi. She screams into the camera, vengeful and aggrieved, as the dice game proceeds in the background. A gravelly-voiced narrator signs off with, “Iske maryaada se mat khelo” (Don’t mess with her dignity). The Mahabharata, we are told in an annotation attached to the Youtube advertisement—in case it needed amplification—is a “saga of what happens when society treats its women with disrespect.” Welcome, in short, to the post-16 December Mahabharat.

This isn’t the first television show to try to engage the audience of its time. It isn’t even the first Mahabharat to do so. The state-backed Mahabharat that premiered on Doordarshan in 1988 was also a product of its time. It entered a television market with no real competition; it played just after the resounding success of Ramanand Sagar’s adaptation of the Ramayana for the same channel; and aired just when Indian television found its first set of non-elite watchers. It was a powerhouse production. The screenplay and dialogue was written by the renowned Urdu poet Rahi Masoom Raza. Its concept was developed by Pandit Narendra Sharma, the man behind All India Radio’s entertainment programme Vividh Bharati.

In keeping with its predecessor, Sagar’s Ramayana, it was an all-too-fertile incubator for a revised and sanitised Hinduism. Aesthetically, it borrowed from the mythological productions of early Indian theatre and cinema, and the actors, many trained in theatrical practice, knew how to speechify. (In comparison, as the new show demonstrates every day, it’s really hard to take actors who can’t deliver audible dialogue seriously.) The current show might give us the post-“Nirbhaya” Mahabharat, with vaguely feminist characters whose dignity is not to be trifled with. The 1988 version, on the other hand, in its presentation of the dynastic troubles of the emperor Bharat, delivered serious commentary on the ills of nepotism at a time when Rajiv Gandhi, who had just succeeded his slain mother as prime minister, was being criticised for incompetence and corruption.

However, the first Mahabharat was also the last one that did not have to deal with a crucial factor in television popularity today: viewer choice. Unlike the classic show, the renowned soap-opera director Ekta Kapoor’s 2008 version of the epic, Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki, debuted, and flopped, in a post-liberalisation market of stiff competition. By the mid 2000s, reality television had an iron grip over Indian viewers. In the same year as Kapoor’s magnum opus aired on the television channel 9X, the immensely successful Balika Vadhu (Child Bride), launched on the rival channel Colors, sending existing wisdom about viewer taste into a tailspin, and putting Kapoor’s brand of soaps on the backfoot.

In an attempt to keep up, Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki, cutting literally to the chase, opened directly with Draupadi’s vastraharan, or disrobing, following the dice game. This was less television show than clamouring circus, complete with jesters, and totally without gravitas. To audiences today, the opening montage of the 1988 Mahabharat, with floating images of the cosmos and an omniscient narrator informing us “Main samay hoon” (I am time), might seem like an outdated screensaver. But it was an attempt to imbue the whole exercise with significance, and the show successfully drew you into a world of enchanted cosmic verities. So powerful was the memory of the 1988 Mahabharat that viewers rejected this version as profane.

The terminal obsession with Draupadi’s honour in the newer shows is a telling departure from the old one. In the 1988 version, a dying Bhishma tells the Pandavas that any society can only develop when its women are treated well. But Draupadi is also relatively marginalised and frequently told, most notably by Arjuna, to forget the insult of her disrobing and move on with her life. “Tum Draupadi ho, Hastinapur nahin,” he says memorably: You are Draupadi—and important in that right—but you are not my kingdom.

In contrast, the 2008 and 2013 shows, with their elongated vastraharan sequences, choose to depict Draupadi’s disrobing as an unassailable psychic wound. The original epic is already about lots of men and their cartoonishly brittle egos. These two twenty-first-century television adaptations don’t let us forget this for a second.

In 2013, the dice game preceding the vastraharan stretches over three hours of excruciating television, spread out over eight episodes. There is victorious grandstanding from the Kauravas, generous self-blame on the Pandava side, and wall-to-wall, slow-motion double takes. The spectacle unfolds like a Gurgaon pub brawl, with lots of glaring, caste-based insults, gleeful name-calling, family feuding and chest-thumping. Draupadi is even called a disgraceful “vaishya stree,” or prostitute.

When Dushasan is sent to bring Draupadi to court after she has been gambled away, she is ready for him. She grabs his sword, pushes him into a handy chunk of interior decoration, and strides out. For two golden minutes it seems she has escaped. But Dushasan catches up with her, drags her back—close to half an hour of dragging and whimpering!—and proceeds to humiliate her for another two recriminatory, joyless hours of television. His elder brother, Duryodhan, hisses at Draupadi, “Ae! Mujhse sambandh banao,” commanding her to have sex with him. His Pandava cousins, needless to say, are not the sharing kind. The template is hard to miss: save women by ennobling men as their protectors. Then, when said men fail, and get publicly called out for it, have them whine endlessly about their own humiliation. The male actors of the 2013 Mahabharat generally appear frozen, chests filling the frame and pecs continually flexed. Their brand of patriarchy might be free of body hair and in perpetual slow motion (or indecision), but its core is still honour-loving, land-owning and war-prone.

On its shiny surface, Mahabharat, with feisty characters like Draupadi, may seem aligned with a half-hearted feminist agenda. At the beginning of the saga, for instance, Satyavati, an ancestor of the Pandava and Kaurava clans, is shown catching a fish the size of a dolphin by executing a number of energetic backflips while wielding cool, Hindu-punk weaponry. But on deeper reflection, the plotlines rankle. This Satyavati, for example, also convinces Bhishma to forcibly abduct brides for her son. (In the 1988 adaptation, Bhishma comes up with this plan himself.)

It’s not enough that Krishna saves Draupadi during the vastraharan. He also has the last word. Before Draupadi’s ordeal ends, we are treated to a bonus scene: Krishna recites an anguished monologue on women’s safety. “Yudh purush karta hai” (It is man who makes war), he says, perched on a chariot on a battlefield full of computer-generated corpses. His verbose combination of self-blame and scolding leaves us with no illusions: the episode was never meant to be about Draupadi.

The best way to tame an epic is to make it socially useful. Devdutt Pattanaik, who records videos for the show’s website offering his own readings of the episodes, is also the Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group corporation. On his website, Pattanaik wrote that his role was “to draw attention to this invisible cultural lever [belief] that shapes our decisions.” Presumably, if you uncover how belief works, you will have a window into the minds of consumers. Pattanaik’s job title, like the new Mahabharat, espouses a post-liberalisation faith in the direct monetisation of belief. Belief, they indicate, makes your desires readable to the market. And Krishna has the solutions to better manage your business.

The acceptance for this television adaptation of the Mahabharata is further proof of a booming mythology industry. The search for the next Amish, whose Meluha trilogy of novels opened the floodgates for Hindu-tinted fantasy in Indian publishing, has spread far and wide. The bombastic Devon Ke Dev Mahadev, a soap about Shiva, is among the most popular television shows on air today. It’s increasingly hard to recall what children under the age of five watched or even thought about before the highly popular animation series Chota Bheem. Toy shops are full of card and board games based on the epics, or their pop spin-offs. The convergence of mythology, self-help and business management, which has been long in the making, is now set in stone.

To watch the advice-dispensing, bunny-caressing Krishna is to witness the continued “cute-ification”—the transformation of self-doubt into self-satisfaction—of our epics. It is a reminder that within the bounds of the cute often lies the scary. Here is one more difference between the 2013 Mahabharat and the previous versions. The new show creaks under the weight of its Sanskritised Hindi, and the Pandavas and Kauravas are depicted openly wearing their sacred threads, lest we forget their caste-Hindu status. Given all this, it is hardly surprising that the Mahabharat of our time is one that offers us a generous side of life advice. We get the Mahabharat we deserve.