Mahabharata.. the times gone by
Ravi Chopra’s Mahabharata was an epic, a landmark in Indian telecasting history. There have been many great TV shows in India; but this serial was among the first to capture the imagination of the Indian viewers. Today as I look back with nostalgia, I am flown back to an era of black&white TV sets, with neighbors crowding in our living room already packed with the entire family to watch the show. Was it solely the religious value which attracted such staggering viewership? I guess not. The times were a lot different back them. Indian television industry was just picking up its momentum. Some religious dramas had already gained popularity. India was catching up with the globalization which searching for his own middle-class existence. In this background came a magnum opus, Ravi Chopra’s Mahabharata.
Legendary film producer and director BalRaj Chopra is widely known for presenting movies with social value and moral themes. This was the small-screen directorial debut of his competent son, Ravi Chopra, who had in the past directed some entertainment block-busters, typical B-Town flicks. This, however, was different. A period drama set in ancient antiquity, Mahabharata was a small-screen adaptation of the voluminous Indian Epic of the same name. This was o mythological family war drama, not a Bollywood rock&Roll Chick-Flick which was so much in trend in the late 80s. The story was sensitive to religious philosophy and open to interpretation.
As I perceive, two major challenges would have vexed the producers, one visual the other narration. Firstly, the super-natural and proto- folklore story had to be visually represented in a continuous flow without monotony, without bias, while maintaining the mythological value, despite multiple necessary interpretations, through dramatic visualization. It was particularly difficult to represent the otherwise poetic exaggerations and mythological visuals, technology was archaic, fund was limited, graphics were rudimentary and the proposed visual object was often offensive & censored. This had two basic solutions, either strip it down to bare minimum or spend a mindless sum to make it happen. Hollywood movie had already begun using graphics and visual effects, Bollywood cinema was not to join the bandwagon until a decade later. Ravi Chopra chose a middle path, he didn’t go overboard, but he did not simply make it a basic representation kill the mythical (and often much required dramatic) value of the scenes. The visual effects were eye catching, original and imaginative. I believe this unprecedented visual grandeur led to the staggering viewership, which stood as a benchmark in the forthcoming TRP era. The denominators of a successful TV series, back then, was not how much TV commercials it attracted (for TV was free of Commercial breaks at the time), it in turn was measured by how empty the streets remained during airtime of the show. Mahabharata was the first TV block-buster as the streets could go uncannily desolate during its run, that in a period of slim TV penetration in middle-class lifestyle.
The second assumed hiccup was the narration. The characters were complicated yet innumerous in number. The epic is vast, yet all the interlinked stories had to be represented in their entirety while maintaining the aforesaid restrictions: without monotony, without bias, while maintaining the mythological value, despite multiple necessary interpretations, through dramatic visualization. The complicated net of plots, sub-plots, references, backgrounds, recaps and parallel legends were intricately inter-woven in the tale, stretching out for six generations. These stories needed to be cleansed, analyzed, evaluated, drawn out on a sketch-board and retold through this serial. Some stories had to be redrawn, characters animated, evented shown in perfect chronology, sub-plots inserted, references drawn, motives justified, detailing done and some part re-discovered. In the religious context, the story had to remain true to its core, while fit to be dramatized. This aspect has often not highlighted while critically analyzing this great serial. The characters were very real, their identities never overlapped, their traits remained distinct, their motives were well-laid out, their gait adequately defined, with each having unique costumes. Bests of actors played the roles, some of them are still remembered or remain largely remembered solely for this show, yet, some of the main leads were rather inexperienced or even new comers. They were not model-turn actors, Luxury Soap brand promoters, body-building Achilles; they were simply good actors. That did the trick.
Today as the master-craftsman leaves behind his legacy, its time to pay tribute to his vision as a small screen dreamscape painter. My tribute is to his arguably best creation, Ravi Chopra’s Mahabharat.