Thursday, July 31, 2008

Days of their lives

I’ve been carrying on about Ekta’s Mahabharata, but the other day I came across a show titled Draupadi, on Sahara One. Saw just 15-20 minutes of the episode (think it was a one-hour slot) and though it looked quite dreadful in many ways – with the usual garish Amar Chitra Katha-style costumes, over-decorated sets and actors with Colgate smiles – I thought it was interesting for the way it turns the great epic into a languidly paced, long-drawn-out daytime soap.

For one thing, this show doesn’t seem too concerned with the “big picture” of the Mahabharata. Instead, it spends a lot of time showing the everyday details of the characters’ lives, especially the women’s – in that sense, it reminded me of Pratibha Ray’s intimate novel Yajnaseni. The episode I saw was set sometime after the Pandavas and Draupadi return to Hastinapur after her swayamvara, and it was full of homely conversations – between Draupadi and Duhshala (the Kauravas’ sister), and between Bhanumati (Duryodhana’s wife) and Rituvati (Karna’s wife). The talking point was that the visiting Karna has just sent Draupadi a bouquet of yellow roses, which she is known to have a preference for. What could this mean?

I’ve often wondered what might result if someone were to fully exploit the Mahabharata’s obvious possibilities as a never-ending daytime serial – to stretch it out for years, emphasizing the characters’ interactions and daily routines rather than simply moving from one dramatic setpiece to another. Such treatment would necessarily have the effect of humanising all the people; for example, it would be difficult to think of Duryodhana as a cardboard-cutout villain after you’ve seen him having a relaxed, post-dinner conversation with his wife and children, discussing nothing more important than their Math homework. In fact, the Draupadi episode I saw had a scene where Bhanumati asks Duryodhana what he thinks of Jayadratha. “You know he’s my friend,” he replies. I meant, what do you think of him as a suitor for Duhshala, she asks, whereupon Duryodhana turns to her, his face softening. “I never thought of him in that light before,” he says thoughtfully, and she replies that it’s usually the women of the house who think of these little details while the men are preoccupied with grander matters. I haven’t seen anything like this scene in any other mythological serial.

Note: meanwhile, Kahaani Hamaaray Mahabhaarat Ki (which I had thought was going to be an endless soap) is currently in such a mad rush to get to the story of Krishna’s birth and childhood in time for this month's Janmashtmi that it has fast-tracked its way through three generations of Kuru princes, not even bothering to depict the births of Yudhisthira and Bheema.
An excited Vishnu, reclining on his snake mount, turns to the viewer and announces that He is ready to take earthly form, and Kamsa maama’s personal background theme includes the mooing of a cow in obvious pain. Exciting times lie ahead.


  1. Man, your obsession with Ekta's Mahabharata is reminiscent of my mum-in-law's with Fox News. Can't live with it, and certainly can't live without it, eh? :-)

  2. *firmly in denial* But this post is about another teleserial on the Mahaharata, not Ekta's! Except for the last para, of course.

  3. Although I despise the genre, I have my views.

    What if more of the 'sins' are incorporated? Why not throw in more angles of adultery, incest? Why not more gay plots?

    Am I nuts?

  4. jabberwock, have you read "The Palace of Illusions" by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni? It draws a very human portrayal of Draupadi and is beautifully, albeit commercially written. I wonder if this series is a take on the book? A recurring theme of the novel is the unrequited love between Draupadi and Karna. Definitely an interesting theme for day soap types. Btw keep the Mahabharata posts coming they're funny.

  5. mynameescapesme: yes, have read The Palace of Illusions (blogged about it here), but this show predates that book. It's more likely a take on Yajnaseni or some of the other vernacular literature on Draupadi.

    kris bass: what genre are you talking about?

  6. Jabberwock, your posts on Mahabharata are totally bang on. Sometimes delightfully exaggerated but fun in any case.
    This new surge of mythological serials has made a permanent place in my life: with folks at home being addicted to the entire clever line up ( Jai Shri Krishna at 8:30, Mahabharata at 9 and Ramayan at 9:30). I think the speeding up of the Krishna chapter in Mahabharata has also got to do with competitive programming i.e superseding the rather sweetly paced Jai Shri Krishna in the narrative. It's especially fun to watch the exact same narrative in two vastly different avatars back to back: a traditional and Sagar Artsish villain Kansa at 8:30 and a random, gansta meets greek army Kansa at 9.

  7. I wish writer to be present.

  8. I wonder where this sudden fascination arises for linking Draupadi with Karna. As far as I know, Draupadi stopped Karna from participating in the swayamvara, saying he wasn't of royal blood. Is she supposed to have changed her mind, Bollywood style, when she finds his real parentage ?

  9. I am not sure if you liked or disliked the show. Like mynameescapesme said, the show reminds me a lot of The Palace of Illusions.

    The show actually sounds interesting to me. I loved Palace of Illusions because it puts all the characters ib a very human context without the grandiose and spirituality.

    I am not a very frequent commenter here but I never miss your Mahabharata related book recommendations.

  10. Anindita: well, yes, but I'm really irritated by the way the Kahaani chaps have glossed over the early bits of the Mahabharata (including important characters like Pandu and Dhritarashtra) while "devoting" so much time to a series of incidents that aren't even a part of the Mahabharata, properly speaking. I wonder if we'll now have to put up with 20-30 episodes showing the Krishna story in its entirety.

    Lekhni: it isn't a sudden fascination, it's a subtext that has been a part of the Mahabharata for a very long time - the Draupadi-Karna thing has repeatedly come up in many folktales and regional literature.

    The show actually sounds interesting to me. I loved Palace of Illusions because it puts all the characters in a very human context without the grandiose and spirituality.

    never mind: yes, that's what I said about this show too. I doubt it could do away with the grandiose and spirituality, but the format is certainly conducive to a more human approach to the epic.

  11. Jai, on a slightly tangential note.....I've been dying to get my hands on literature which looks more at the daily lives of these characters than the grander story line. Yajnaseni sounds interesting in that respect....have you read it? And do you know of other such books....especially on Karna?

  12. Ramya: yes, have read Yajnaseni (I wouldn't have referred to it in the post if I hadn't read it) - the English translation was awkward and stilted, but it's an interestingly intimate perspective on Draupadi, especially her feelings about Krishna and Karna. And it's written in a more earthy style than The Palace of Illusions, which reads very much like a cool, modern novel.

    The definitive work on Karna is probably Shivaji Sawant's Mrityunjay - it's very thoughtful and comprehensive. There are also plenty of lesser-known works in regional literature that deal with characters like Duryodhana, Ashwatthama and even someone as marginal as Sahadeva - but haven't read those yet.

  13. Have u read Shivaji Sawant's Mrityunjay? It was highly recommended to me by a friend. I searched a lot for the english translation but have managed only to get only the hindi version and its slooooow reading.

  14. I meant the epic-remake genre. I loved the first series of stuff like Mahabharatha and Ramayan.

  15. Ramya,

    Here are some books which tell Mahabharata as a story, enhancing different characters and plots.

    Mritinjay - Shivali Sawant - on Karna - very well written

    Radheya = Ranjit Dalvi - again on Karna

    Ha Jay Navacha Itihas Ahe - Anand Sadhale - complete story

    Jyeshtha - Rajendra Kher - On Udhishthir

    Madhyam - On Bheem

    Dhananjay - on Arjun

    Yugandhar - by Shivaji Sawant - on Krishna

    Parva - originaly in Kannada by Bhairappa - different and gripping depiction

    and finally Yuganta - Eravati Karve

    All of them are in Marathi..

  16. I said this a decade ago, they need to stop making movies/teleserials on our religious figures!! When you see krishna, bheema, ram, seeta, hanuman in those weird costumes, they end up being nothing but a laughing stock TO ADULTS!! Kids however love these type of things.

  17. Hathi Ghora Palki/
    Jai Kanhaiya Lalki

  18. The title of this post is sheer genius.

  19. Seasons: thanks for that list. There's also Andha Yug, of course, and Bhasa's plays, which are quite sympathetic to Duryodhana. Have blogged about some of those in the past.

    shrabonti: I think there are many other possibilities if you play about with American soap titles - As the Yug Turns, General Battlefield, One Yug to Live etc etc.

  20. I said this a decade ago, they need to stop making movies/teleserials on our religious figures!! When you see krishna, bheema, ram, seeta, hanuman in those weird costumes, they end up being nothing but a laughing stock TO ADULTS!!

    Sunshine: I would disagree with that comment on two grounds. Firstly, it rings dangerously close to censorship. Let's not forget that much of this stuff is inherently laughable anyway, if it's treated in literalist terms. Even if you're a religious person, you should be able to laugh at some of it. It's the loss of a sense of humour that lays the ground for people doing reprehensible things in the name of religion.

    But secondly, I know many adults who lap all this stuff up and take it very seriously, notwithstanding the garish costumes/makeup or the dreadful script/acting. On my own blog, I've experienced an amusing manifestation of this: for instance, when I write something snarky about the plastic trunk of Ekta's Ganesha, some people respond as if I'm talking not about a badly conceptualised character on a TV soap but about the God that resides in their own heart. And on the always-entertaining, when someone recently criticised the performance of an actress playing Sita in a serial, there was an immediate flood of responses by people saying "How dare you insult our Goddess?" and ruder variants. There are a surprisingly large number of such "adults" out there.

  21. A slightly tangential comment -

    Was watching the Errol Flynn starrer 'Adventures of Robin Hood' yesterday.
    The movie was so very enjoyable and well made despite being simplistic, straightforward and absolutely devoid of subtexts. A product of a more innocent era.

    Guess we've become a more cynical society today. Sceptical of noble intentions and heroic deeds. Always on the lookout for subtexts and ulterior motives. This is evident from the way GenX bemoans Mahabharata soaps that don't hint at Bheeshma's homosexuality or Kunti's promiscuity. While Kunti's promiscuity is in little doubt, the slur on Bheeshma is a little too far-fetched imho. A case of cynicism carried too far. There's little point in retelling these epics on TV if the viewers are absolutely unwilling to wear their 10th century BC glasses.

    Even a great director like Hitchcock received critical recognition only after critics unraveled subtexts in his movies that were probably oblivious to the director himself!

    I thoroughly enjoyed Rope, Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt on first viewing while being completely unaware of their supposedly underlying themes of homosexuality and incest. To me, it's a shame that these movies wouldn't be regarded too highly today had it not been for the fertile imagination of the critics :(

  22. There's little point in retelling these epics on TV if the viewers are absolutely unwilling to wear their 10th century BC glasses.

    shrikanth: well, obviously, they shouldn't be "absolutely unwilling", and I agree that viewing everything through modern/post-modern lenses can get a bit tedious. But you seem to be implying that the Mahabharata is a completely accurate reflection of the realities of the 10th century B.C,, and I don't accept that. I prefer to see it as a fluid work of literature that is privy to constant reinterpretation and re-analysis, rather than a set-in-stone (10th-century-stone) work. Besides, one of its great delights is that it can be interpreted in many ways, ranging from Kamala Subramanian's unabashedly sentimental view of the characters to Irawati Karve's clinical, anthopological take.

    As for Hitchcock, he was a great artist, and like all great artists he produced work that had many strong thematic resonances and that worked on many levels - in my view, the extent to which he was consciously aware of those levels and subtexts is largely irrelevant. (D H Lawrence's quote "Never trust the teller, trust the tale" is very important in this respect.) So let's not impute all the analysis of his work to the "fertile imagination of critics" - there's been some very intelligent, insightful and deeply personal writing on Hitchcock's films (Robin Wood and Peter Conrad being among the best examples) and it tells us an enormous deal about how Hitchcock has affected different types of people.

    It is of course entirely possible to enjoy most of Hitchcock's films at the most superficial level - that is, without consciously thinking about the deeper themes and ideas in them. This is what, in my view, makes him a greater artist than many of the more self-consciously "serious" filmmakers. But that doesn't mean that no one should attempt deep analysis of his films, or simply dismiss them as genre works that have no value other than "entertainment".

  23. shrikanth: what you said about The Adventures of Robin Hood - I felt almost exactly the same way while recently watching (on TV) the 1960s Hindi-film version of the Mahabharata, with Pradeep Kumar as Arjuna and Dara Singh as Bheema. It was utterly fascinating because apart from being a completely simplified, good-vs-bad version of the story, it was basically an out-and-out popcorn-cruncher: a collection of the action-hero setpieces (the exploits of Arjuna and Bheema) that would most appeal to viewers. So while the film spent hardly any time on the tragedies/dilemmas of characters like Bheeshma and Karna, it devoted a lot of space to the "whistle at the screen" moments such as Bheema dressing up as Draupadi to fool Keechaka before killing him (Dara Singh gets to wear a pallu, talk in a squeaky voice and instructs Keechaka to press his feet before beating him up). Great fun, and it was all done with such good-natured transparency that I didn't mind the over-simplification.

  24. I have revised my opinion of Ekta's Mahabharat, and now recognise it as a great fount of knowledge. In the recent episode, I was under the impression that God had pulled a fast one on Kansa by talking about Devaki's 8th son, when it was clearly a daughter. Thank god Vasudev cleared that mystery up, the suspense was killing me.

  25. I have given up watching Ekta's serial long time ago. Her serials brag a lot! Though, Not not sure of this particular one.

  26. Jai
    Thnx for the detailed reply!
    Agree with most of it.
    Regarding Mahabharat, I think that the epic is quite complex and is anything but a straightforward morality tale even when interpreted superficially.

    Among other things, the epic highlights the inevitability of wars and the futility of intractable vows. The epic's heroes even resort to chicanery and deceit to secure victory against all odds.
    The epic God is hardly a paragon of virtue. In fact, he is as worldly and fallible as the rest of us.

    Given the rather obvious shades of grey in the epic, I don't think it is possible for any rendering to make the epic seem simplistic.

    The TV soaps are awful not because they're not exploring the subtexts enough, but because of their awful scripts/direction.

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  28. Roses? Are you serious? You're not joking about this Jai, no?

    But I don't know why I'm getting so worked up. It's not as if I'd expect these dummkopfs to do any kind of historical research on indigenous flora of the subcontinent.

    What did they call it in the show? Gulaab? Oh heavens!

  29. thalassa_mikra: yup. The exact sentence as I recall was, "Sakhi, tumne suna kya? Ang Raj Karna ne Maharani Draupadi ko peele gulaab bhent kiye. Iska taatparya?"

    But I ask you, if ancient Indians invented the Zero and made most of the other key scientific discoveries, what's to stop them from figuring out the mysteries of rose cultivation thousands of years before other civilisations?