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TOPIC: EPIC OBSESSION
Dramatic emotions: Abhishek Bachchan in Raavan
What is it about the Ramayan and the Mahabharat that draws our filmmakers?
By Rekha Dixit
July 25, 2010 issue
2010. It is an interesting number. It could have been the date of a
futuristic sci-fi film. Instead, it is the year in which unfolded two
tales on silver screen, originally scripted millennia ago by Valmiki
and Ved Vyas.
Mani Ratnam's Raavan had a back-to-back release with Prakash Jha's
Rajneeti this summer. It would be an insult to our readers'
intelligence to elaborate which epics these films were inspired by.
Suffice to say that they are not the first cinematic adaptations of
these ancient tales. Neither are they the last.
In the months ahead, at least three animation films based on
characters from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat will hit the screens.
India's first 70mm animated movie, Lava Kusa -- The Warrior Twins,
has been made on a budget of Rs 2.5 crore and will be simultaneously
released in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and English. Then we have
Mahayoddha Rama -- Warrior Prince, scripted by Ashok Banker and UTV's
Arjun -- The Warrior Prince, directed by Arnab Chaudhuri, all in
their post production stages. Rakeysh Mehra is busy with his
Abhishek-Amitabh Bachchan starrer, a very intriguingly named film,
Paanch Kaurav. While he is tight-lipped about the plot, the
inspiration behind the title, at least, is hard to miss. Nana Patekar
is contemplating his second directorial venture with Paanch Pandav.
Prakash Jha has the ambitious dream of making an English film on
Draupadi. Angelina Jolie, it is said, is the lady he has in mind for
the role. "Not yet, much later," he says.
Rituparno Ghosh is planning his own interpretation of this epic
heroine. Bipasha Basu, it is said, is Rituparno's choice for the
dark-skinned polyandrous princess. Sanjay Khan has since long been
wishing a comeback with an opulent Legend of Rama. "Dad is very keen
on this project," says son Zayed, who was identified for the role of
Lakshman, with brother-in-law Hrithik Roshan as Rama. "Unfortunately,
it has been stalled for a while. But when he makes a comeback, it
would be with this film," he says.
Look back, and you know that the epic inspirations are not a passing
fad. They have been intrinsic to Indian cinema scripts, just as they
form the backbone of every artistic interpretation in the
subcontinent, be it literature, art, theatre, dance or music. The
closest parallel one can draw in the western world is with
Shakespeare. The earliest Indian films were largely period
mythologicals, starting from Raja Harischandra. Period cinema
continues to hold sway with Indians, the success of the animated film
Hanuman, 2005, being a case in point. B. R. Chopra remains in the
public memory for his tele-epic Mahabharat, as does Ramanand Sagar
for his Ramayan.
However, it is in the contemporary twists the ancient tales are given
that Indian filmmakers show their creative talent. Shyam Benegal's
Kalyug first interpreted the Mahabharat in the 20th century. Among
Boney Kapoor's early films was Hum Paanch, a loose adaptation of the
Pandav-Kaurav rivalry in a rustic setting. Sooraj Barjatya did a
mushy take on the Ramayan through his Hum Saath Saath Hain. Even the
SRK-Irrfan Khan starrer, Billoo, was a take on the Krishna-Sudama
What is it about these epics that draws creative minds to them again
and again? Why does every artist want to interpret the stories and
characters in his own way? "I guess it is the Indian tradition. The
Ramayan and the Mahabharat have been handed down the generations, not
through the written word, but through story-telling. Filmmaking is
story-telling, isn't it?" says veteran film journalist Raju Bharatan.
Epic retakes also ensure a good audience. Sholay may have been a cult
film of its time, but mythological flick Jai Santoshi Maa, which
released the same year, is said to have grossed almost as much as
But it is not just the surety of box office success that urges
creative minds to keep revisiting the epics. There is an intrinsic
challenge in putting forward your own insight to stories that have
been alive for thousands of years. "I remember how keen Bimal Roy was
to make the Mahabharat. It was only because he didn't have the funds
that the dream wasn't fulfilled," says Bharatan, adding that Satyajit
Ray, too, had wanted to "do the Mahabharat".
Says Manoj Bajpai, the Veeru Bhaiyya of Rajneeti, the character with
whom he finally shed the baggage of Bhiku Mhatre in Satya: "The
greatness of the Mahabharat is that it doesn't judge. The entire
gamut of human emotions and values is encompassed in the epic. Pick
any chapter and you can make a film on it, based in just about any
time period." It also provides for great artistic interpretations,
for there is no right and wrong. "Truth changes shape, depending on
the viewpoint of the character. Take my role, inspired by Duryodhana.
Now, here is a character who is unbearable, still very vulnerable.
Our society has a tendency to paint people black and white, the
Mahabharat doesn't. My challenge was to put forward Duryodhana's
perspective." A viewer's response that the Rajneeti crew treasures
is: "I didn't know whom to clap for. Every character was equally
right and evil!"
The Ramayan, too, lends itself to newer interpretations with every
person and every age. Did maryadapurshottam Ram embody every human
virtue? Was Raavan evil or merely settling scores -- the your-wife-
for-my-sister kind of revenge? "Since none of us is intrinsically
black or white, the epics provide us characters through whom we can
analyse ourselves and contemporaries. That is why they are as
relevant today," Bajpai adds.
Indians are used to getting their daily dose of the epics in
different ways -- through their names (most of which are from the
epics), a lesson in school, an everyday-use proverb, a ritual, books,
paintings and, of course, cinema. They interpret these offerings in
their own way, and just because the epic plots are timeless hits it
doesn't mean they are sure shot commercial successes. Ekta Kapoor
realised this with her soporific Mahabharat, which didn't notch up
TRPs despite beginning with the most saleable scene, the cheerharan.
More recently, Abhishek Bachchan realised that bagging the role of a
complex character is not enough, you have to do justice to it to be
deemed a hit.
Yet, given that the Mahabharat alone goes into 75,000 verses, and
includes thousands of well-fleshed out characters, there perhaps is
no situation that isn't covered within the two epics. Be it sibling
rivalry, ambition, infidelity, promiscuity, betrayal or loyalty. It
is this heady cocktail of interesting protagonists and the variety of
situations before them that has inspired not just Indians, but
Peter Brook's Mahabharat remains the most memorable of these
ventures, but Japanese filmmaker Yugo Sako's 1992 Ramayan was a
commendable and perhaps one of the most loyal to the original epic.
He reportedly made it in animation form because he believed no human
was fit enough to depict Lord Ram! Hollywood, too, is looking at the
epics from many angles.
There's Ramayan 3392 CE, a graphic movie that is being made. There
was another project, Hanuman, with Keanu Reeves as Ram, about which
much buzz had been created. The fate of the project isn't known yet.
Novelist Ashok Banker's three-part series Ramayan, too, was being
contemplated by Hollywood bigwigs.
The settings may have changed from 300 BC to circa 2010. But human
emotions remain the same. And so the shelf lives of these epics
continues. Not just in the India that remains Bharat at heart, but
across the globe.
Jai Maharaj, Jyotishi
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