Mahabharat review: Made for dummies, by dummies

The Mahabharata, an epic believed to be composed by the sage Vyasa, is often described as the fifth veda. Perhaps this was Vyasa tooting his own horn, but repeatedly the reader is told that if they read the whole Mahabharata, they need not bother with the four vedas for in this one epic lies all that is needed to feed human consciousness.

To many, the Mahabharata is a religious text. To some, it is a fabulous tale, teeming with myths and ancient lyricism. However you see it, the Mahabharata is a triumph of storytelling and the imagination. There must be thousands of details that have been lost over the thousands of years of oral storytelling but by the same token, thousands of nuances have been added by different storytellers. What we have inherited is a fascinating tapestry of ideas and beliefs. This is why it’s particularly disappointing that in the 21st century, the retellings of the Mahabharata are so terribly lacking in finesse and imagination despite our sophisticated arsenal of technology and storytelling devices.

The newest take on Mahabharata is for the silver screen. Produced by Kushal Kantilal Gada and Dhaval Jayantilal Gada and directed by Amaan Khan, this animated Mahabharat states at the very start of the film that it’s an edited version of the epic and its intention is to promote Indian culture among the youth. This prepares the audience for large chunks of the epic to go missing, but not what does lie ahead.

A poster of the film.

A poster of the film.

Some of Bollywood’s biggest names make up the voice cast of this film: Vidya Balan as Draupadi, Amitabh Bachchan as Bhishma, Ajay Devgn as Arjun, Anil Kapoor as Karna, Sunny Deol as Bhim, Jackie Shroff as Duryodhan, Shatrughan Sinha as Krishna – this is a star ensemble. And just in case you can’t recognize the voices, the characters have been drawn to vaguely resemble the actors providing the voices.

I say ‘vaguely’ because until I saw Mahabharat I had no idea what Balan would look like if she were ever zombified. Now I know and it ain’t pretty. I also know how Kapoor would look without eyebrows or eyelashes (definitely not pretty). Also, having seen Devgn’s face turned milky white by the power of animation, I now have evidence to support my long-standing belief that being fair doesn’t magically transform one into a good-looking man (or woman). If you close your eyes and just listen to the film, the actors haven't done an abysmal job of voicing these characters. Unfortunately, this is not an audiobook.

Mahabharat is, according to the film’s publicists, the most expensive animated movie India has produced. This isn’t because of the fees charged by the A-list actors, most of whom waived their fees, we are told. Perhaps the producers spent the money persuading distributors to surrender Dhoom:3 slots to Mahabharat because the money was definitely not spent on hiring professional artists or animators.

The artwork in Mahabharat is appalling and the animation is worse. From the movements of the characters to the visual effects – like two arrows going at each other – it looks like a pirated and outdated version of MS Paint was used to create the film. Each time a character opens their mouth to talk, you can see their molars (no doubt this was an attempt to be biologically accurate).

The movements of the characters are awkward and jerky, making it look like the mythical heroes learned how to walk from Godzilla. The battle scenes are not only badly drawn and animated, they’re also boring. A girl and a boy in front of me in the preview screening actually started playing Candy Crush Saga on their parents’ phones while the battle of Kurukshetra played out on screen, raising their heads only when Deol bellowed, “Duryodhan!” They’d rather squelch virtual candy rather than watch an epic battle. That’s how bad Mahabharat looks.

But more disappointing is the mediocrity of the imaginations responsible for Mahabharat. Krishna is an absurd man-child who is fair and has a beefy body topped by a pudgy face that is reminiscent of Marshmallow Man. Add to that Sinha’s growly baritone, and you have a Krishna that will inspire only mockery and laughter. The continuity from scene to scene is godawful. For example, Draupadi has reddish hair – cut in steps, if you please – in one scene and in the next, it’s black, distinctly step-less and longer.

The freedom offered by animation makes it a wonderful medium for myths and epics. The shackles of location, realism, physics don’t affect your storytelling. Whatever you imagine can be brought to life. And this is where most of our modern attempts at retelling epics like Mahabharata have failed, whether it’s in literature, cinema or television.

We’re unable to go beyond the clichéd imagery that started with vintage comic books. The women wear the same little triangular tiara and dhoti-type skirts with a panel of pleats in the front. The men have floaty dupattas and completely impractical armour (why would armour leave a warrior’s neck and arms so vulnerable?). There are little explosions of light when two arrows collide. We’ve been seeing these images for decades and if it’s boring to older folk like me, then just think how yawn-worthy it must be to children who have grown up with an inventive visual culture of gaming and fantasy fiction.

This new Mahabharata isn't so much a kid-friendly version as one made for dummies, by dummies. It’s awkward, sanitised and dissatisfying to those who know the epic and to those who don’t, it’s boring and ugly. What we learn about Indian culture from this Mahabharata has more to do with our present than our past: we’ve lost the imagination that we were supposed to have inherited from antiquity. Do your kids a favour. Tell them stories from the original epic and steer clear of this film.