Why the new Mahabharat is an epic fail

Deepanjana Pal

Sep,17 2013 19:57 49 IST

With TV becoming increasingly lucrative, it’s not unusual for a serial to have some buzz before it is telecast. In case of Swastik Production’s Mahabharat, it’s been more of a war cry than buzz. Hoardings, advertisements, articles, YouTube promos – the heralds of this new adaptation of the Hindu epic have been many and they have all sought to proclaim how totally and absolutely awesome this teleserial will be. It’s going to change how people watch TV, it will make the 9 pm news obsolete, it will revive the economy and it might even stop global warming for all anyone could tell from the promotional campaign.

Mahabharat has been in the making for three years. It’s the most lavish and elaborate television production to date, claim the producers. The cast includes well known stars of the small screen galaxy and the behind-the-scenes team is formidable. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s set designer, costumes supervised by Bhanu Athaiya, a cinematographer who works mostly with films, creative inputs from author Devdutt Pattanaik – all these people blew their own and Mahabharat’s trumpet in the build-up to the show’s grand premiere.

Pic: Star Plus

Most of Mahabharat’s outdoor sequences look like they’ve been shot against a desktop wallpaper. Pic: Star Plus

Yesterday, we saw the first episode of the new Mahabharat and during the course of its one-hour slot, we were given the following:

· Awful CGI
· Ghastly acting
· Unwieldy dialogues
· Inconsistent cinematography
· Idiotic interpretations and modifications of the original text.

The least you’d expect from a TV show with a budget of Rs 100 crores is that it would look good. But the actors in Mahabharat are still wearing the same satin dhoti with tinsel borders and mukut made of cheap, spray-painted metal and rhinestones. The only difference between the look of this new Mahabharat and BR Chopra’s Mahabharat from the 1980s is that this time round, the men are more buff, the women bare more well-toned midriffs and the budget for jewellery is better. But bling can’t save the day, particularly when it’s adorning actors whose idea of expressing emotion is to hold their breath.

Most of Mahabharat’s outdoor sequences look like they’ve been shot against a desktop wallpaper. I’d like to include a special slow clap for the geniuses who thought that it made complete sense to set a fishing village in the Himalayas. Also, a garland of chappals please for the bright spark who decided the south Indian temple dance of Bharatanatyam would be a neat fit as the court dance of the north Indian kingdom of Hastinapur.

Put simply, Mahabharat is not just a disappointment, it’s so badly done that it makes old codgers like me long for Chopra’s 1988 production of the epic, despite its melodrama, tin foil armour and precarious chariots made of flimsy plywood. The many flaws of Chopra’s Mahabharat were balanced by one great strength: a wonderful storyteller in poet Rahi Masoom Raza. Raza spent three years researching the Hindu epic and studying it with pandits. What he wrote eventually reflected these efforts. When Chopra’s Mahabharat first aired and people saw Raza’s name in the credits, there were some saffron-hued egos that were stung by the fact that a Muslim had adapted a Hindu epic. With the usual myopia of the narrow-minded, these detractors missed how knowledgeably and respectfully Raza had handled the complicated Hindu epic.

In contrast, the new Mahabharat – helmed mostly by Hindus if its promo material is any indication – has managed to mangle the original text in the very first episode. The story of Shantanu and Ganga’s marriage is missing (was it Ganga’s multiple male foeticide that the modern writers couldn’t handle? Or the fact that she left her husband, raised a son as a single mother and didn’t return to matrimony?). Satyavati is presented to us as beautiful, reckless and selfish. Her backstory has been edited and instead of her father, it is she who demands her heirs inherit the throne of Hastinapur. (Because if you’re a strong, ambitious woman, then you must have a few shades of villainy in you. Duh.)

Most curiously, the narrator of this Mahabharat is Krishna, of milky-white complexion despite his name and the description of the legendary deity. Krishna complete with flute and peacock feather; not Vishnu. Chronologically speaking, when Shantanu and Satyavati were romancing, Krishna was nowhere near being born since even his parents Devaki and Vasudev wouldn’t be a twinkle in their parents’ eyes at the time. Shantanu and Satyavati’s daughters-in-law gave birth to Dhritarashtra and Pandu, whose sons (the Kauravas and Pandavas) were Krishna’s contemporaries. So if he’s about two generations away from being born, how can Krishna be cheerfully playing the flute when Shantanu cavorts with Satyavati?

Considering one of the consultants for the new Mahabharat is Devdutt Pattanaik, who has written a number of wonderful books retelling stories from Indian mythology, this show's storytelling is particularly disappointing. From Pattanaik in particular, I expect better and more. Perhaps Mahabharat will improve with later instalments, having lowered our expectations to rock bottom with its premiere. As far as the first episode is concerned, it's a testament to how illiterate so many Hindus are about their own mythology and faith.

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