I’m not one to call anything a phenomenon very lightly, least of all something that airs on screen, but the Mahabharata is a legitimate television phenomenon. I have been watching the story unfold on television for as long as I can remember watching television. The version that left the maximum impact on me is BR Chopra’s. Yes, the sets were gaudy, the effects comical, and the acting got a little too dramatic at times, but the writing and the way the episodes were paced ensured that the series was ahead of its time. There was no compromise with regard to story in the Mahabharata of the nineties, for no relationship or character from the original epic was left behind. One would think that taking on all the subplots would make the series translate unfavourably for television, but the writers managed to juggle them all on screen with consummate ease. BR Chopra’s Mahabharata revolutionised Indian television of the nineties. I have heard stories of empty streets during the telecast, and about folks with television sets “hosting” people and children from their neighbourhood to watch the show together.
The second version I remember was animated — it was called Pandavas. It aired on a channel called Splash, one of the few exclusive to children in the nineties, and by god, it was awful. It was 3D animation; the technology was new at that time and the execution, terrible. Yet, I didn’t miss a single episode.
Two new versions of the Mahabharata have been on air over the last couple of years — one produced by Sun Networks, and the other, by Star. I prefer Star’s version — it has better special effects and modern casting (the hairy paunched Pandavas have been traded in for ones that have flat, muscular abs). Both productions, however, have people hooked on to their television sets again, and that just proves that the draw of a good story, no matter how many times it has been retold, is undeniable.
Given the wealth of stories we are blessed with in our country, though, I’m disappointed that Indian television isn’t experimenting enough with the “epic” genre of television. When you think about it, the Mahabharata has enough cloak-and-dagger activities, evil lords, kingdoms, creatures and dysfunctional relationships to make Game of Thrones look like an amateur western spin off, and this is a story handed down a thousand years ago! I would love to see a bold, raw version of it — one which doesn’t pander to family audiences (and a version, I’m sure, which will never see the light of day).
There is also a lack of variety in this genre. I’ve seen bits and pieces of series that have focused on Hanuman, Shiva, the Ramayana and Krishna. But, there are plenty more myths and legends, and the stories of warriors and princesses, which are yet to be showcased. Why, for example, isn’t anyone doing a Karna series? Or an Adventures of Lava and Kusha? Why isn’t anyone exploring a Vanara-based storyline from the Ramayana ? And why, oh why, isn’t anyone coming up with an original mythological hero or heroine? Because that, would be epic.