To the Millennials Mocking Ramayan & Mahabharat… Here’s Why They Were Truly Epic

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To the Millennials Mocking Ramayan & Mahabharat… Here’s Why They Were Truly Epic

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Dear Netflix-and-Chill Millennial,

About a week ago, I came across an Instagram post from TV star Karanvir Bohra. In the short video, soldiers in the background playfully engaged in “dandiya”, instead of killing each other in battle, while in the foreground Lakshman was busy delivering a serious dialogue. The scene is from Ramanand Sagar’s 1980s TV serial Ramayan.

Around the same time, a TikTok user uploaded a blooper from BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, where a dead soldier was caught adjusting his headgear. A little while before that in April, netizens had spotted a desert cooler placed next to Bheeshma Pitamah, from the same serial.

While millions of you, dear millennial, are liking and sharing these bloopers for a quick laugh, mocking not just the shows but the era that they belonged to, some of you are also drawing an unfair comparison between these two and multi-billion-dollar shows like Game of Thrones.

Either way, it helps the cause of two vintage TV serials based on our ancient Indian epics. It helps your generation discover two significant milestones in the history of Indian entertainment and TV.

Ramayan and Mahabharat helps your generation discover two significant milestones in the history of Indian entertainment and TV.

Good, bad, funny, or tacky, it raises interest in what froze the eyeballs of Indian families on Sunday forenoons – your parents’ generation and the entire nation held captive in shared reverence and devotion, watching Ramayan and Mahabharat. While the two epics are believed to have occurred a few millennia apart, when it comes to tracing their historical basis, BR Chopra’s Mahabharat commenced immediately after Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan concluded in 1988.

They were arguably the most popular TV shows in the world, ever. Thanks to Ramayan trains stopped at railway stations to enable passengers to watch the show. Passers-by could walk into any home for a viewing and were accommodated without a fuss.

Even during the lockdown on April 16, a rerun of a three-decade old Indian serial notched up 77 million views, over three-and-a-half times what the Game of Thrones finale garnered last year. Given the economic reality of pre-Liberalisation India, pulling off production of both these shows – each running over two years – in terms of scale and logistics and the resources available those days, is more than remarkable.

Perhaps I can help you understand the context better, to get a sense of how the audience those days consumed Ramayan and Mahabharat.

Politically, Hindutva was on the agenda. The general entertainment content landscape looked something like this: Indian audiences were watching Mumbai underworld-funded Hindi films from the late ’80s to the early ’90’s. On the small screen, 9pm soap operas like Buniyaad, some of them legendary, dominated television prime time. The idea of what constituted “prime time” however, was redefined by these two epics on Sunday mornings.

Ramayan and Mahabharat, were arguably the most popular TV shows in the world, ever.

Streets were deserted for an hour; I remember local electric sub-stations were attacked by mobs if there was a power outage. Arrows were ready to leave quivers.

We weren’t crazy. We were just an entertainment-starved audience that did not have enough wholesome, family-oriented movies running in cinemas. When the epics started airing on Doordarshan, there was a general sense of gratitude combined with euphoria.

The memes that you’re now sharing? Well, the public largely overlooked and forgave these lapses, along with errors in detailing and gaps in historical accuracy.

To many Hindu Indian parents of now nuclear families, who dropped the ball on passing on the epics, religious beliefs, deities and rituals via the oral tradition, this was a godsend – their children were not only entertained but educated in two of the most significant stories to which beliefs of Hinduism are anchored.

Doordarshan assumed the role of absentee grandparents; Sunday morning television was a proxy temple visit.

In terms of screenplay, direction, and performance, both the serials borrowed from the Indian theatre tradition, which uses performance as a close encounter with the audience, and the fourth wall does not exist. In other words, viewers did not simply watch the play; they were interwoven as an integral element of the story being performed. The dialogues, the enactments were crafted in a way to transfer the archetypal energy of the characters into the people watching it. Much the same way, millions of Indians weren’t simply viewing the show, they were “feeling” the pain, the suffering, the agony, and ecstasy of the characters.

Several Indians of my generation still remember how women wept during the landmark episode of Draupadi being disrobed. Or how a shocked and dumbstruck audience mourned the unfair and violent killing of Abhimanyu, by the Kauravas.

Doordarshan assumed the role of absentee grandparents; Sunday morning television was a proxy temple visit.

The producers and directors of both the serials, who are nothing short of legendary, invested more in dialling up the emotional quotient rather than the visual look of the shows. While superficially the reach and viewership of these shows were high, the audience involvement was deep – so much that tacky computer graphics, shiny Chandni Chowk costumes, fake plastic pearls, and inexpensive props did not matter.

Today billions of dollars are invested in technology that will allow audience to be part of a movie narrative. Many movie titles are being re-purposed for VR, besides the “primitive” formats of 3-D and IMAX. We can feel Thor’s hammer pound us, but perhaps it lingers on only as much as the taste of the expensive popcorn.

Ramayan and Mahabharat are timeless, immortal stories about the human condition that will forever be relevant and evocative. And not just to us – even Iran had a Persian-dubbed version of Mahabharat in 1999.

But your tribe, dear millennial, the YouTube “pause-and-find-flaws” generation is intent upon calling out bloopers that escaped our attention. Give a guy a break; even the errors are relics of an era that shaped the thinking and attitudes of my generation.

Besides, let’s not forget, even your GOT missed clearing those Starbucks cups in “Winterfell”.

Sincerely,

Not a Millennial

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