By Chandrima Pal May. 09, 2019
Long before hipsters gathered at pubs to watch the Battle of Winterfell, millions of people came together every Sunday to watch the Battle of Lanka and the Battle of Kurukshetra. With Ramayana and Mahabharata, Doordarshan gave us sprawling epics filled with kings, queens, monsters, magic, and intrigue decades before Ned Stark ever lost his head.
Only an anti-national would disagree that Indian gods and higher mortals achieved every noteworthy human accomplishment before the rest of the world. Commendable additions to this list are test tube babies (courtesy of the Kauravas), guided missiles (from the Ramayana), and aircraft (thanks to Ravana, who must have had some sort of an airline business in Lanka). And now, we can throw top-notch TV entertainment in there too, because while the rest of the world is obsessed with the final Game of Thrones season, our gods already gave us sprawling epics filled with kings, queens, monsters, magic, and intrigue decades before Ned Stark ever lost his head. I’m speaking, of course, about Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and BR Chopra’s Mahabharat.
Long before hipsters gathered at pubs to watch the Battle of Winterfell, millions of people came together every Sunday to watch the Battle of Lanka and the Battle of Kurukshetra. The best part was that spoilers didn’t matter — everyone watching the show knew exactly how it would pan out, and yet there was hardly a man, woman, or child who would dare to miss a minute of the show. When cousins visiting from the US quizzed us about our daily soaps, we would proudly point them to Arun Govil playing Lord Ram, radiating health, happiness and inner peace.
We proud ’80s kids were even more enthusiastic about sharing the glorious battle scenes from the Mahabharata with our First World cousins. Did they have any TV show where you had several episodes featuring a single game of chess? Or that electrifying moment when a grieving queen washes her unkempt hair with the blood of her son’s killer, who had his heart ripped open by one of her five legal husbands? Nope.
Between them, Sagar and Chopra gave ’80s India a taste of what HBO would do for the world almost two decades later. High drama! Pioneering visual effects! A captivating story! Characters you could root for! Both were dealing with material that had everything George RR Martin could put in his books, and showrunners in the scripts. And much, much more. The Stark and Lannister family feud is nothing compared to the Pandava and Kaurava beef. When it comes to Mad Kings, Ravana makes a much cooler tyrant than Aerys Targaryen. I could go on and on.
Seductresses in sexy outfits? Check.
Bastard kids? Check.
An earnest prince who was brought back from the dead? Check.
The Stark and Lannister family feud is nothing compared to the Pandava and Kaurava beef. When it comes to Mad Kings, Ravana makes a much cooler tyrant than Aerys Targaryen. I could go on and on.
The epics also score over GoT thanks to the powerful emotional connect that they already had with the audiences. These were shows you watched with your entire family. Grandparents included. The same cannot be said for HBO’s opus, that was once summed up, quite succinctly, by cast member Ian McShane as a show about “tits and dragons”.
And the makers of these epic desi shows did not hold back in their grand storytelling. If you cheer for the Mother of Dragons using her firepower to bring down evil rulers, remember Hanuman did the same, with a little help from his burning tail. That episode brought the devout in millions of homes to their knees, conch shells blowing, agarbattis lit. And the scene where Hanuman rips open his chest to show an image of Ram and Sita tattooed on his heart, had the nation genuflecting before the TV sets.
Mahabharata gave us some extraordinary women, intense action sequences, a staggering body count that included several kids, and a handbook on different ways to kill (beheading, ripping open the heart, chopping off limbs, burning alive, smashing the knees, and left to die a slow death). In its violence, blood, and gore, it was the baap of GoT. And we were watching it all on Sunday prime-time telly, not in the quiet of the night with age-appropriate company. And if you shed a few tears over Ser Jorah’s death, you have no clue what Bhishma Pitamah’s final moments on a bed of arrows did to an emotionally invested audience.
In a more innocent world, Bheem’s gada and Ram’s dhanush became the most-loved toys for kids. Every mohalla was selling Hanuman masks and plastic clubs. In a promotional video for GoT’s final season, Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), hits Times Square in New York, dressed up as Jon Snow, inviting random people to watch a live screening of the final episode with her. She meets strangers who have not watched a single episode of GoT, and men dressed as superheroes who have no clue what she is talking about. Imagine you are in 1987, dressed up as Hanuman or carrying Bheem’s gada. There is no way anybody would have not recognised you. Chances are, they would have even offered you a spot under a banyan tree and put a garland around you.
That’s how crazy we were.
The world, according to HBO is made up of two kinds of people. Those who have watched GoT and those who have not. The world, according to the children of Doordarshan, was made up of only one kind of people. Those who were glued to the TV every Sunday morning. The rest didn’t exist.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).