Prem Panicker has been working on an English-language re-telling of M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham, which is the Mahabharata from the point of view of the Pandava Bhima. It’s been going brilliantly so far: here are episodes 1, 2, 3 and 4, with many more to follow; Prem promises a couple of installments per week. (Note: the website is problematic, so refresh/reload a couple of times if it doesn't open at first try.) Wish I could read some of the other literature he mentions in his introductory post, but I don’t think there are any translations available.
Prem and I had an email discussion about the malleability of the Mahabharata and of old myths in general – how the plot specifics, and the way different characters tend to be regarded, vary greatly as you travel from one part of this vast country to another. Just two among the countless examples of what I’m talking about: the temples dedicated to Duryodhana in parts of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal; and the contrasting myths about Shiva's wife Sati that have arisen in various pilgrimage spots around the country where different parts of her body supposedly landed after her corpse was sliced up by Vishnu's sudarshan chakra. (More on that gruesome story and its aftermath here.)
As I've indicated before on this blog, I believe that the Mahabharata is in many ways a work in progress, demanding constant reinterpretation and extrapolation - the only way to do justice to a story so complex and multidimensional is to read as many different versions, written from as many different perspectives as possible. While characters like Draupadi, Karna, Bheeshma and Ashwatthama will always fire the popular imagination, I think it's high time someone did something on the more low-key characters, like Yudhisthira. He's usually thought of as insipid by most casual readers of the epic but there’s lots of potential for a deeper examination: the burden he always had to carry of being the embodiment of Dharma and how that might have affected his relationships with his brothers, wife and cousins, who were all more in touch with their baser feelings; the implications of the non-divine version of his birth, which has it that his real father was Vidura and that he was therefore the grandson of a low-caste woman – further muddying the issue of who “deserves” to be king.
(In a thoughtful essay on Yudhisthira in his book The Mahabharata: A Literary Study, Krishna Chaitanya points out that he isn’t as boringly moralistic and self-satisfied as he is made out to be; that he undergoes commendable personal growth over the course of the epic much like Karna does – though Yudhisthira’s growth trajectory, and life in general, are much less dramatic than those of his elder brother, with whom he shares many vital qualities. Chaitanya also alludes to the little-mentioned passage in the Mahabharata where, shortly after the Pandavas have been exiled, Yudhisthira confesses to his wife and brothers that he had accepted Duryodhana’s invitation to play dice in the hope that he would be able to win Hastinapura for himself.)
Anyway, back to Prem’s re-telling of Randaamoozham. You can read all the installments in order here.
And here's a relevant portion from the longer version of a piece I recently did for Tehelka, about mythological serials; it touches on some of the things Prem and I discussed on email.
[...My criticism of Kahaani… isn’t based on a rigid preconception of what the Mahabharata should or should not be. To the contrary, my own (irreligious) view of the epic is not as a holy text with lessons that are set in stone but a complex, fluid work of literature privy to constant rethinking and re-analysis. One of its great qualities 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, anthropological take, which analyses the less-than-savoury ulterior motives of even the revered Bheeshma.
Read closely, the Mahabharata offers easy answers to no one, except, perhaps, to those who are determinedly seeking only the easiest answers (in which case the simple-minded 1960s film version – a collection of audience-pleasing setpieces about the heroics of Bheema and Arjuna, played by Dara Singh and Pradeep Kumar respectively – should suffice). Once freed from the shackles of an instructive morality play, it provides imaginative filmmakers and scriptwriters with many rich possibilities.
For example, it’s possible to depict Krishna as the dewy-eyed God of the Bhakti tradition, omniscient, forever in control, naughty smile permanently in place (which is how all the mythological serials I know of inevitably choose to depict him), but it’s equally possible to show him as a shrewd Yadav chieftain with a powerful understanding of the hearts and minds of other men. Or even an Avatar who has only a dim view of his role he must play in the larger picture, and who is frequently swayed by the human dramas around him. (Ramesh Menon’s renderings show Krishna as a lonely, almost frightened God as he prepares to impart the Bhagwad Gita to Arjuna, knowing that this is the moment that his whole life has led up to, and wondering if he will pass the test. Incidentally, this aspect of the Krishna portrayal reminds me of Gandalf in J R R Tolkien’s universe, a divine being who is an incarnation of the demi-God Olorin but in his present form often vulnerable and confused about his role in the larger picture.) Each of these interpretations could be fascinating and insightful if done well, but realistically speaking only one of them – the first one – will ever make it to our mass audience-pleasing mytho-soaps.
The criticism of Kahani... that I don’t agree with is that the Greek-centurion look of the show – inspired by films like Troy and 300 - is inauthentic. This is a ludicrously myopic argument. Who gets to define “realism” or “authenticity” when it comes to a work like the Mahabharata? Go down this dubious road and you’d need a dark-complexioned Krishna and Draupadi (and what are the chances of any of our mainstream TV shows doing this, especially if Fair and Lovely lined up as a possible sponsor?). Peter Brook's version of the epic used austere gowns and robes that could scarcely be regarded “realistic” in terms of what was worn in the India of 3000 years ago, and it had actors from around the world playing the lead characters, but it captured the epic's nuances better than most of the Indian versions we’ve see. It also highlighted what a universal human story the Mahabharata is.
The real problem with the look of Kahaani... is its inconsistency: while the mortal characters sport sharp-looking costumes designed by Manish Malhotra, the divine personages like Ganesha and Brahma are laughably tacky. (Frankly, the Troy look just doesn't coexist well with supernatural elements. It’s no coincidence that Wolfgang Petersen’s film – which, interestingly, got a lot of flak for not adhering to the Iliad, even though it had never set out to do so – consciously dumped the divine subtexts of Homer’s epic. When Eric Bana’s Hector asserted that "the Gods aren’t going to fight our battles for us", it was completely in tune with the look of a film that was self-evidently about the conflicts – external and internal – of mortal men.) Consequently, Kahani’s attempt to be stylish comes across as half-baked. The shoddiness of the script and direction and the gross simplification of the epic’s characters adds up to a strange mishmash: a show that tries to be cool and new-age but still bends over backwards to kowtow to popular sentiments. At the time of writing, it was in such a rush to get to the story of Krishna’s birth in time for this month's Janmashtmi that it had fast-tracked its way through three generations of Kuru princes, not even bothering to depict the arrival of Yudhisthira and Bheema...]
(Edited version of this piece - which draws on my earlier posts about the new TV Mahabharata - here)