Caravan Piece on B R Chopra’s Mahabharata
thanks to Bliss..
IN DECEMBER LAST YEAR, between takes for the Hindi romance serial Pyaar Ka Dard Hai Meetha Meetha Pyaara Pyaara, Mukesh Khanna, dressed in a brown three-piece suit and a polka-dot tie, walked to his dressing room on the set of Rajshree Productions in Mumbai’s Film City. On the way, Khanna, who plays the leading man’s grandfather, ran into Kanwarjit Paintal, who plays a friendly in-law. The two men, both slightly bulging at the waist, exchanged pleasantries and discussed the day’s shooting schedule.
It was, in many ways, a banal moment: two spent actors casually chatting before their next takes for a regular television show. But there was something striking about it, too. Twenty-five years ago, at the very same location, these two actors were locked in battle as two of the most crucial characters in the most significant programme ever shown on Indian television: BR Chopra’s Mahabharat. (Paintal’s androgynous Shikhandi was used by the Pandavas to take down Khanna’s indomitable Bhishma in the battle of Kurukshetra.)
Every Sunday, beginning in September 1988, streets in cities across the country would grow deserted at the approach of 9 am. In rural areas, people cycled tens of kilometres to the nearest house with a television set, neighbours crowding in together to watch the epic show, which depicted the mythological conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas for the throne of Hastinapur. Across the nation, Mahabharat held the collective attention of 200 million Indians for 45 minutes each week for nearly two years.
Part of the show’s appeal was due to its timing: Doordarshan began broadcasting it soon after it aired the final episode of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, a stupendously popular television adaptation of Valmiki’s epic, which had stoked public demand for mythological entertainment. But Mahabharat was something more.
For many Indians, this was their first sustained exposure to an epic whose tales they had grown up hearing. Compared to the Ramayana, which is celebrated annually in the form of Ramlilas, the Mahabharata had had less reach in the public imagination. A story of endless family feuds, many Indians were superstitiously averse to keeping the book in their houses—which meant that, for most of them, their only link to the epic was through the 700-verse published extract of the Bhagavad Gita, the theological and spiritual discourse that Krishna passes on to the Pandava warrior Arjuna before the battle of Kurukshetra.
A lot has changed in the world of Indian television entertainment since Mahabharat’s final episode was telecast on Doordarshan, India’s national—and, at the time, only—channel, on Sunday, 8 July 1990. Two years later, cable entered India; by 2012, there were 848 channels. The Rs. 370 billion Indian television market is now the third largest in the world. But, a quarter of a century after its first appearance on television, and despite all the advancements in craft and technology the industry has seen, what remains unparalleled is the scale at which Mahabharat was made, and the impact it had on its audience. Watched by almost a quarter of the Indian population, which was on the cusp of the wide-ranging political and economic changes that the early 1990s would bring, this monumental television adaptation of a relatively unpopular epic became one of the most important cultural signposts of independent India.
CONTRARY TO POPULAR PERCEPTION, Mahabharat wasn’t commissioned by Doordarshan to capitalise on Ramayan after the latter was rapturously received—according to Sevanti Ninan’s Through the Magic Window: Television and Change in India, Ramayan drew close to 100 percent viewership in parts of the country. The genesis of Mahabharat was less calculated. “Early in 1985 or thereabouts Rajiv Gandhi had written or spoken to the minister for information and broadcasting, VN Gadgil, about the kind of serials being shown on Doordarshan,” wrote Bhaskar Ghose, who was the Director General of Doordarshan from mid 1986 to the end of 1988, in his memoirs Doordarshan Days. “The minister said that the PM had given him and the secretary SS Gill to understand that Doordarshan should broadcast serials that depicted the values enshrined in our ancient texts and philosophy, the kind of values that were contained in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The secretary took this to mean that the prime minister wanted both the epics telecast on Doordarshan, and immediately shot off letters to two prominent film producers in Bombay, Ramanand Sagar and Baldev Raj Chopra.”
In their eagerness to carry out what they took to be Rajiv Gandhi’s command, the authorities at Doordarshan bypassed standard procedures such as shortlisting producers and scrutinising their work. “Both Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra saw the immense possibilities of making a fortune from these serials,” Ghose wrote in his memoir. “Both lost no time in getting hold of sponsors, who also recognised that these epics would draw large audiences. Within a short time, by early 1986, each had readied six or seven episodes of the respective epics.”
To prevent the mess that a simultaneous telecast might have created, especially the splitting of advertising revenues, Ghose asked BR Chopra, who was producing the series with his son Ravi, to defer the airing of Mahabharat. Thus the Chopras, who shot the first few episodes of Mahabharat for Doordarshan’s approval in early- to mid-1986, postponed the shooting of the remainder of the 94-episode drama to early 1988, the same year that the series finally went on air.
Chopra had just hit another high note in what had been a glittering cinematic career, with a series of successful movies that included Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980), Nikaah (1982) and Tawaif (1985). His entry into television, like many other film producers of his time, such as Ramesh Sippy (with the Partition-era drama Buniyaad) and Prem Kishen (with the short-story serial Katha Sagar), followed the implementation of a new policy at Doordarshan to allow private players to produce content for prime-time broadcasting, a move that ushered in the first rush of sponsored programming.
A film journalist before he made his first movie, Afsana, in 1951, BR’s interest in cinema sprung from a deep desire to bring about social change through art. As Rachel Dwyer wrote in her biography of his younger brother Yash Chopra, BR was critical of “film producers, who, in his opinion, were wasting their time with comedies and mythologicals, dancing and songs, thus avoiding dealing with any serious social issues.” When B.R. Films was launched in 1955, the filmmaker channelled his discontent into movies that addressed a range of diverse subjects: Nehruvian socialism, the emancipation of women on the margins of society, communal harmony, Partition and corruption. Aaj Ki Awaaz (1984), which was about a professor combating the world of crime, even began with the message, “THIS PICTURE IS ADDRESSED TO THE CONSCIENCE OF THE NATION…”
The Mahabharata, a story full of moral conflicts, was an epic that BR had long wanted to adapt for screen. “It is famously said of the Mahabharata that Vyasa imbued all concepts of feeling, emotion, sentiment, relationship[s]—whatever is there in the world—in it,” BR said in Mahabharat ki Mahabharat, a behind-the-scenes production commissioned by the Chopras. “Aur kaha jaata hai, jo is mein nahin hain, woh kahin nahin hain” (And it is said that what is not there in it, does not exist anywhere else). It was a story too big to be compressed into the three hours of a feature film. Television offered BR the freedom to explore its scale.
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