It's Sunday. It's Sagar. It's time for the Ramayan.
If you’ve been feeling blue now that Aamir Khan’s swan song took place on August 15, and wondering whatever would happen for your quest for truth and spiritual salvation, fret not. Because Zee TV has found the perfect solution for your yearning mind. Lord Ram will show you the way. The channel’s brought back Ramayan. Bang at 11am. On Sundays. And from the house of Sagar, no less.
The Ramayan serial I remember is from when I was 10 years old. Ramanand Sagar had written and directed the 78-episode series which brought the country to a standstill every Sunday from January 25, 1987, to July 31, 1988 - at 9:30 am. And it was a TV revolution. India Today called it “Ramayan fever” where public transport - trains, buses and inner-city trucks would become empty when the programme was telecast and people would assemble in villages around the sole television set to watch the show. And it actually was a programme the entire family could watch. Everything Satyamev promised to be, till it started talking about paedophilia and fertilisers and asking parents to ask their children to leave the room.
The original Ramayan was educational, entertaining and engrossing. Of course at that time, we didn’t have 100 other channels vying for our attention. But anyway the new Ramayan has a lot to live up to.
It opened with Vishnu getting his legs pressed by Lakshmi while resting on an immobile Shesha Nag. Brahma with immobile extra arms and Shiva with a fake snake around his neck were introduced next. Prithvi comes to a blue and lugubrious Vishnu to ask him for help from Ravan and his asuras. Vishnu refuses to acknowledge her presence for a while and then opens his brown eyes and demurs to explain that he’ll go in human avatar and save the planet. Through it all, Lakshmi keeps pressing his legs with a beatific smile. Dasharat is introduced and each wife is then introduced separately. Kaikeyi – played by Shikha Swaroop – makes a dramatic entrance, while her two co-wives look at her adoringly. Other than Swaroop, there are no familiar faces. And even she while she does look suitably imperious, she simply cannot pass off as the youngest wife because she looks old as the hills.
Now one would think that a quarter century later, Meenakshi Sagar - who is Ramanad Sagar’s granddaughter and the director of the series - would introduce slightly better effects for the war scenes. But the war scenes seem to have the same special effects which marked the original. Perhaps that’s for nostalgia value. The asuras this time round look quite demon-like however, almost inspired by Tolkien’s Melkor.
The first episode introduces most of the key characters – with Manthara getting one of the most ominous entries and looking suitably evil. It also shows how the three wives love each other like sisters, but despite having a loving husband are devoid of joy because they don’t have children. And then they get pregnant by eating some kheer blessed by the gods. When Vishnu appears in front of Kaushalya, she tells him that he has honoured the entire female species by agreeing to be born as her son. OK, let’s put aside all the implications that a woman without a child is useless and joyless and that it is up to god whether you have a child and has nothing to do with fertility and sperm count. What can one do? That’s the way the story is written. Anyway just when you’re balking at the servitude being shown by both Lakshmi and the first two wives, Dasharath gives a speech on gender equality and does an arati of Kaikeyi for showing valour on the battlefield.
The second episode introduces Ram, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna and shows their time in Vashista’s gurukul. Ram is a little holier than thou, as he’s meant to be, and a little bit of a namby-pamby who won’t eat unless his father feeds him by hand. There’s something about his placid yet musical speech which reminds me of Sri Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. But then again, Arun Govil, the original Ram was hardly a man’s man.
What’s good about the series is the simplistic manner in which each episode is narrated. Names are repeated many times in case you are unfamiliar with the characters. The series never assumes that the viewer knows anything about the Ramayan. Which is good, because most kids today will most probably know more about Salman’s latest dhinkachika song than who Ram is.
Will this show also make demi-gods of its actors and actresses? I doubt it. Deepika Chikhalia who played the original Sita had realised the blind devotion viewers had for her, and decided that she might as well cash in and became a BJP MP from Baroda. The original Ramayan was known for its brilliant casting – with Dara Singh as Hanuman and celluloid’s wicked mother-in-law, Lalita Pawar playing Manthara. This one shows no such signs of inspired casting – unless there’s some great coup of someone well-known being cast as my favourite character Jambuvan.
A programme on our hallowed texts is much-needed when you think of the rubbish which is on the telly nowadays. And this is definitely a programme the entire family can watch. Parents should, in fact, encourage their children to watch it. Way better than Dance Ke Super Kids which came on right afterwards.
Maybe Zee has hit the nail on the head because that’s what families want to do on Sundays – watch TV together. As Dasharath said, “yehi satya hai, yehi satya hain”. I am, however, quaking at the sight of a bowl of kheer ever since, now that I know the virility it holds.