Ramayan, Mahabharat cast open up on newfound popularity among new generation, and what makes the epics resonate today
The primary cast of Ramayan and Mahabharat recall the days when they were worshiped, and celebrate the present days when they are being appreciated as actors.
Over three decades after Ramayan and Mahabharat were telecast to an enraptured audience, the mythological sagas continue to enthrall and spell magic on the hoards of those confined to their homes during the lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak.
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After having a golden run and garnering enormous TRPs on Doordarshan, the epics are now airing on Star Plus and Colors. It was on 28 March that Doordarshan announced the re-run of Ramayan, starring actors Arun Govil, Dipika Chikhlia, and Sunil Lahri as Ram, Sita, and Lakshman respectively. After being telecast for a week, Ramayan occupied the top spot on BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) TRP list as the highest-ever rating show for a Hindi General Entertainment Channel (GEC) program since 2015, followed by Mahabharat and Shaktimaan.
Apparently, Ramayan broke the world record becoming the most watched show with 77 million views sometime mid-last month, and surpassed the viewership of the final episodes of popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory finale episode and Game Of Thrones.
“It is a different generation who are contributing to the success of Ramayan now, and in a very different way. When the serial was telecast for the first time, in 1987, it was people in the older age group, and kids watched the show. But this time, we have reached that particular segment where children are very adaptable to understand and know things. They are also from the digital era. It is the young India that’s watching Ramayan now, and that is the beauty of re-telecast. They are at an impressionable age. They will be learning something, whatever you may call it: culture, history, religion. Probably it’s the excellent storytelling, dialogues, direction, and performances that grabbed the youth’s attention to the show,” says Dipika Chikhlia, actress and former parliamentarian.
According to Nitish Bharadwaj, who played the central character of Krishna in Mahabharat that first aired on television in 1988, it is the millennial generation, between 25 and 35, who are the avid viewers of these series. “They appreciate the pace, drama, acting caliber of all actors, the dialogues by Rahi saheb (Rahi Masoom Raza), and above all, the vision of Mr BR Chopra to make it relevant to today’s life, which is the crux of Mahabharat, and which is why it is called the 'Mirror of life.' The younger generation is a curious generation who has realised that the earlier they learn from this great story, the better equipped they are to solve their career and personal issues in the Kurukshetra of life,” says the actor.
Bharadwaj, the former parliamentarian, further says, “Till the humans show the same behaviour of greed, misplaced loyalties, walking the wrong path of dharma under obligation, and flawed sense of entitlement to things which don’t belong to you, there will be conflicts in the societies and nations. And hence, Mahabharat will remain relevant at all times, and so will the philosophy of Lord Krishna and his definition of 'Dharma.' Dharma is to be defined and redefined as per the changing times and circumstances, and applied with one’s faculty of wisdom named Sat Asat Vivek Buddhi.”
There are innumerable fascinating stories during the time when Ramayan was telecast over a course of 18 months, in 1987-88. The show would virtually bring the country to a standstill for that one hour, with people scrambling to get near the TV sets, wherever they may be —in their living rooms, or of their neighbours. It is said that even the government had to re-schedule urgent meetings when Ramayan was on air. People would leave their footwear outside of their living rooms to watch the telecast as if they were entering a temple. Many would burn incense, perform pooja (prayer), and put garland and a tika on the television set, and some would even break coconut, and then sit on the floor with their heads covered and hands folded in prayer, to see the epic unfold. The actors doing these shows went on to become synonymous with their characters. They were suddenly in the vortex of immense veneration and deification, with people touching their feet and seeking blessings.
“When we were shooting, there were tribals in and around Umergaon. They would bring their newborn babies, and keep them on Arun Govil's feet and tell him to bless them. A few years after the telecast, when Arun visited Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London wearing T-shirt and jeans, it wasn’t appreciated. People only saw Rama in him,” recalls Prem Sagar, cinematographer on the show, and author of An Epic Life: Ramanand Sagar from film Barsaat to Ramayan.
"Wherever I went, people wanted to touch my feet, there was so much adulation and admiration, people would start crying out of happiness. I have a newspaper clipping of when I visited Varanasi in my costume: the headline said, ‘One Million People Gather to Look At Lord Ram,'" Govil had recently said in an interview.
As lord Ram, the show may have turned out to be a career-defining moment for Govil at that time but such was the character’s impact that the actor could not really bag any big roles after the show ended. His image as India’s ‘maryada pushottam’ was so deeply ingrained that he would prove unconvincing in any other role. "As an actor, the success wasn’t good for me as I was unable to get different roles. I was told, ‘Your image is so strong as Ram ji.’ In the beginning, that bothered me but it depends on how you take it. I’m still remembered, loved, and respected for that role," the actor was recently quoted saying on a television show.
“I got stereotyped and how. The very fact that I am being asked this question after 33 years proves that. Can you imagine the impact playing Sita had?” says Chikhlia.
“One just learnt to respect those people’s devotion to Lord Krishna, and respect their humility,” says Bharadwaj, further adding, “Though I would not entirely blame the film industry for my career graph, I would certainly admit that I would like to see more producers, directors, and casting directors, who will yearn to see the actor inside me, who has delivered one of the most difficult characters to be performed on celluloid."
However, Chikhlia has found herself back in the limelight. She was recently seen in Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar-starrer Bala, and in her next, she will play political activist and poet Sarojini Naidu. She sounds extremely happy with the reactions she is getting towards her character Sita this time. “I am glad that now we are not being worshiped and revered. We are now catering to an educated audience, who have understood that we are merely actors, and that is the big difference between the reactions (to the show and characters) then and now. We were made god earlier but now we are accepted as actors and performers. I always wanted to be appreciated for my work. Now, people tell me that we were all so natural in playing our parts and it didn’t look like mythology, and that makes me happy," she says.
"It used to be so embarrassing those days when elderly people came and touched our feet. I was only 18-19 years of age, and people from all age groups would come and tell me and Arun to give them aashirwad (blessing). But we maintained a low profile and dignity. Gradually, I moved away from attention, and got busy with my personal life. This is my second innings now. I will be playing a lot many more characters. I don’t mind playing characters with a negative shade,” adds Chikhlia.
Mukesh Khanna, who played Bhishma Pitamah in Mahabharat, agrees with Chikhlia. Recollecting the shooting days, Khanna, says, “Those days, people from different parts of the country would visit us on sets. They would be completely enamoured, and in awe of us. They would come across as devotees as if they were getting an opportunity to see a holy person but this time, people are commenting on the finer nuances in our performance, which is good.”
Further, reminiscing an incident when he was travelling in a train with his co-star Gufi Paintal (who played Shakuni Mama) when the show was on air, Khanna narrates, "Some of the travellers didn’t want Gufi to travel with them since he played a strategist and devious character in the show. People those days were very simple. I used tell Firoz (Khan, who played Arjun’s character) that don’t behave like a star, it is not your greatness but it is the simplicity of people that they see Arjun in you and Bhishma in me. When people tell me now that what I have done, no other actor could have done it, I tell them that even I can’t do it again. It just happened. We put more of ourselves during the making of Mahabharat,” says Khanna. Incidentally, Paintal had once received a threatening letter for 'dividing Pandavas and Kauravas' and 'for being the mastermind behind the Kurukshetra war.'"
Khan had reportedly refused to be typecast as the righteous character like his mythological persona in the epic, and had refused to play a character similar to Arjun. 'Thanks to Mahabharat, I have acted in over 150 Hindi films. But I refused to play a character similar to Arjun. It will be the death knell for any actor if he keeps repeating himself. As an artist, I derive more joy by playing negative characters," Khan had said in an interview after bagging an Indo-Canadian production a few years ago.
“These shows make for fantastic viewing because they are great stories that deal with so many relationships, and then they are backed by good makers and performances, and written by some of the great minds. They are perfect scripts, perfect granths. Mahabharat has a lot of grey shades, where nobody is perfect except for Krishna, who is the most practical person,” says Pankaj Dheer, who played Karna, one of the major characters in the epic. Famously, the electricity board had ensured there was no power cut at the time of Mahabharat telecast else they would have to bear the rage of the public.
While several Indian households spend weekends drenched in '90s nostalgia as the shows began their re-runs, it was great meme material for the '90s kids, lampooning the script and characters. “Teenagers send me several sequences from Ramayan through videos. So many memes have been made on the characters, and that indicates its popularity. This kind of response may have been there in 1987 but maybe because of absence of social media, we didn’t come to know. Today, I feel it is a bigger hit because in spite of so many options for entertainment and availability of 400 to 500 different channels, people are still watching Ramayan,” says Lahri who played Laxman. “I just love the memes. Some of them are so imaginative and clever, you get a different perspective from the younger generation,”adds Chikhlia.
Sums up Khanna, “It’s a coincidence that when Ramayan and Mahabharat were aired for the first time, there would be a curfew in the country, and now we are re-telecasting it because there is a curfew in the country.”
All images from YouTube.
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