In times when even teasers of films are reviewed and recommended by media organisations, a controversy erupted when the 1.46-minute promotional video of Om Raut’s Adipurush failed social media scrutiny. Touted as a grand retelling of the Ramayana for the young and digitally mobile, a section of the audience found the representation of Ravana and Hanuman so off the mark that petitions have been filed in Delhi and Jaunpur courts demanding a stay on the release of the film because the promo allegedly hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.
The plaintiffs claim the depiction of Ram, Hanuman and Ravana doesn’t go with their looks described in the epic texts. Apart from Ram’s moustache and aggressive demeanour and Hanuman’s leather jackets, what irked the trolls the most was the representation of Ravana as an “Islamic invader”. For them, the get-up of Saif Ali Khan, who plays the part, evokes memories of Allauddin Khilji, Babur, and Aurangzeb. Perhaps, the only possible connecting link is the beard and the haircut that the self-anointed critics found more Islamic than Hindu.
The makers of the film defended the representation by pointing out the Hindu symbols that Ravana is seen sporting and pleaded that the critics should wait for the film to release. However, Manoj Muntashir, the lyricist and one of the proponents of ‘nationalist’ cinema, said in an interview that both Ravana and Khilji represent the evil of different eras. “Even if they look similar, what’s the harm.”
Perhaps, the representation reflects a continuity that we missed and that Raut is getting the taste of the narrative that he himself flaunted before where the past is not seen from the prism of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (syncretic culture). Raut’s previous film Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior also had a problematic representation of the villain Udaybhan Singh Rathod, a general of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who fought against Tanhaji who represented Chhatrapati Shivaji in the Battle of Kondhana. While both the generals were Hindus, unlike Tanhaji, Udaybhan was shown without any religious markers and his get-up and food habits reflected the stereotyped version of a Muslim villain.
But the little-known Udaybhan doesn’t hold in front of Ravana, whom the faithful see as a brilliant Brahmin, a Shiva devotee who could not control his desires. Over the years, the face of evil has been an interesting subject for filmmakers to explore. In Mani Ratnam’s Raavan (2010), a modern-day adaptation of the Ramayana, Beera is many shades lighter than the popular image. He is shown as a social outcast who is out to avenge the injustice done to his sister and by the end, the lines between Ram and Ravana blur.
In Johny Bakshi’s Raavan (1984), starring Smita Patil and Om Puri, myth and reality intertwine as a village doesn’t burn the effigy of Ravana on Dussehra because years before a girl transformed a Ravana into Ram.
Similarly, Hardik Gajjar’s Bhavai (2021), originally titled Ravan Leela, captures the unsaid between Ravana and Sita, how the epic is being used for political gains, and in the process expects the audience to appreciate the difference between the character and the actors playing them.
The idea of interpretation is not exactly new. From Kamban to Tulsidas — who lived in the times of Mughal emperor Akbar — Valmiki’s Ramayana is one story that has inspired writers over generations. The basic storyline remains the same but they have taken creative liberties according to the times they lived in and their own lived experiences. For instance, the depiction of Lakshman Rekha changes from Valmiki Ramayana to Tulsidas’ version to Ramanand Sagar’s literal interpretation in the television serial. Similarly, the Uttara Kand is depicted differently in different versions. The way poet Kalidasa has described clouds in Meghaduta reads like a tribute to Valmiki’s description of the atmosphere when Ram was made to wait at the sea by the rain gods before crossing over to Lanka. When Akbar ordered the illustrated version of the Ramayana, the artists had little for reference. Many paintings are innovations of the Mughal period. Interestingly, Ram is shown without moustache in the miniatures.
However, in the recent past, an attempt is being made by creatives close to the ruling dispensation to blur the lines between literature and history. Perhaps, it helps because, in the real world, the followers of sage Valmiki are yet to be fully integrated into the Hindu fold. Characters like Kevat and Shabri are invoked during election speeches to underline an egalitarian past. Plus, a sense is being generated that we have been focusing too much on the calm face and are overlooking the weapons in the hands of our gods.
Reducing past to a binary
In Ram Setu, the writers make a clear push for considering literary texts as historical evidence. Some of the arguments do sound compelling but the moment you reduce the past to a binary, you tend to stifle the imagination of the next writer. So, in Adipurush, when the audience finds Hanuman’s portrayal different from what they have read in Hanuman Chalisa and watched in Ramanand Sagar’s version, they feel offended.
At the same time, those who know the Marvel universe better than Hindu mythology and are finding faults with the special effects of Adipurush should appreciate that technology is just one aspect of storytelling. From the outside, the Ramleela that plays out at New Delhi’s Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra seems technically much superior to the traditional Ramnagar Ki Ramleela in Kashi, enacted without any appendages of artificial lights and other paraphernalia. But both are equally popular and profound in their own way.
Sculptor Naresh Kumawat, who has sculpted figures of Ram, says the reference point for artists is Raja Ravi Varma’s iconography of Hindu gods and goddesses that emerged in the late 19th century through calendar art. “It has been etched in the public imagination and any deviation from that hurts their sentiments.”
Popular writer Amish Tripathi, who has just released his fourth book in the Ram Chandra series, says Indians have a big heart. “They are ready to see a different truth but as long as it is shown with respect.” He reminds us that if you tell somebody that there is a scene in the film where someone breaks the foundation of a shivling and lifts it up on his shoulder and takes it to a waterfall, he could feel offended but the way Rajamouli picturised it in Bahubali, it didn’t lead to any controversy because the director’s interpretation came from a space of respect. Similarly, Ramanand Sagar took creative liberties but the audience could see that it is the work of a true devotee.
And, he adds, sometimes, the controversy is created by the makers themselves because it makes it easier to compel the media to talk about it. “Otherwise, you have to arrange a dozen interviews and three-four events.”
Does this mean only a devotee could touch a mythical story? We know how the Academic Council of Delhi University had decided to drop the essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations in an apparent response to Hindutva activists who called the piece blasphemous. The essay describes 300 different retellings of the epic by communities across India and in other parts of Asia. And multiple cases were filed against an OTT series for allegedly denigrating Lord Shiva. People have found the depiction of Ravana’s Pushpak vimana in Adipurush inaccurate, but Amish has mentioned the use of glass in Ravana’s famed plane used to carry Sita to Lanka.
Amish feels glass was present in ancient India, but is not sure whether it was in use 5,000 years back. His point is the Indian audience could see through the intentions. “In some countries, people feel that there is only one truth, and if you deviate from that truth, you will burn in hell for eternity. In India, we don’t have such concepts.”
The response to a 106-second teaser, however, shows that some are keen on the idea of one truth. And those petitioners who miss the calm image of Ram and Hanuman have perhaps missed the Raudra (angry) version of the lovable Hanuman that has appeared on stickers pasted on cars and motorbikes in the last few years.