Reviewing the new Mahabharat TV Series on Star Plus (2013)

It is a functional drawback of this review that this series will inevitably be compared to BR Chopra’s classic of 1988–1990. This may or may not be the bane of the production, whether or not through the means of critics’ reviews or otherwise. I am not excepted from making this comparison simply because the classic series interpreted the series in wholly-rounded, holistic fashion from a literary point-of-view, like the decisions Shakespeare made in his tragedies when having his characters explain every node of thought that popped into their minds.

In the twenty-first century, it is perhaps to be expected that the target audience of this show (youth) will be far more interested in style rather than substance, given that the show has a run-time of 20 minutes on average for five days a week whereas the classic was broadcast for a single one-hour segment every weekend. It cannot escape the viewer’s notice that this means grabbing hold of and attempting to sustain high TRP ratings, which have become the principal goal of any channel in a newly-privatised world of multiple channels vying for viewers’ attention. It is from this viewpoint that one must examine a series of unfortunate decisions made by the producers rather than the directors and writers of this production.

Ten episodes is all it has taken for me to decide in favour of publishing a review on this television programme. Casting calls have clearly required a certain talent for acting that involves a level beyond superficial expression constructions held in place through poor background music and haphazardly construed camera angles usually thrust at the viewer, which appeared very promising when the promotional material aired over the summer. My personal expectations involved anticipating a close-to-perfection technical level of expertise, as well as stunning graphics and appropriately grand costuming, as well as well-coordinated and brilliantly composed music and insightful dialogue — nothing, it must be noted, more than what was promised during the airing of the seven or eight different promos.

The first episode begins with Shantanu and his paramour Satyavati on a royal barge floating leisurely down a river. Sayantani Ghosh piques the viewer’s interest by persevering to catch a heavy fish. Sameer Dharmadhikari plays a subtle and loving father in finding his long-lost son Devavrat again — and performs excellently the role of the man torn between love and royal responsibility in naming a new Crown Prince. Arav Chowdhary as Devavrat has all the right voices and mannerisms for his character. The decision to omit entirely Ganga’s story before she returns her eighth son to her husband is the first in a series of creative resolutions that I cannot entirely understand but pin to the idea that the creators of this series know that they will be compared to BR Chopra’s magnum opus. By the end of the episode, Devavrat is crowned Crown Prince, and by the end of the second episode, he is already prepared to sacrifice all for one woman’s selfish (and don’t they make this as plain as the nose on anyone’s face) desires. Character development marks as well-paced in Chowdhary’s favour because the viewer knows what is expected of him — Ghosh’s is a marked (and pointedly so) departure from previous portrayals of Satyavati.

Dharmadhikari’s performance is brief and unconvincing in his granting of the boon of choice-of-death to his son following the latter’s taking of the terrible oath. The decision to omit Satyavati’s father entirely from the equation emphasises her own naked ambition, but is a curious decision because she remains unabashedly determined through her husband and eldest son’s deaths to place the younger son on the throne irrespective of his strange dispositions. Vichitrivirya means ‘strange, brave warrior’, and so his antics explain his careless attitude to life and therefore his ineptitude for rule of the kingdom — a clever decision on the part of the series’ creative adviser, Devdutt Pattanaik to shield a conservative audience in India from the ‘taint’ of homosexuality (to which Pattanaik attests to in his books).

Ghosh’s Satyavati again scolds Devavrat (now known as Bhishm — ‘the terrible one’) for berating her son, again drawing to the fore the absence of guilt on her part for depriving an extremely capable potential monarch from his post (and for forcing him into celibacy). She then orders him to kidnap princesses and force them to marry her young son, exploiting his considerable military prowess. Ratan Rajput’s Amba is at her fiery best, daring to speak out against her own forced kidnapping when she is in love with another man. When this man rejects her because she was claimed by Bhishm in public, she storms into Satyavati’s court, demanding justice. Amid beautifully choreographed transitions from one scene to the next and visually stunning cinematography, the drama plays out in tragically explosive manner.

Ghosh’s Satyavati continues to underwhelm the viewer because of her two-dimensional viewpoint on everything, be it her suggestion that material wealth and crowns could ever bring fulfillment or the idea that being perpetually cross with everybody is somehow an apt and feasible manner in which life can be lived. Ambika and Ambalika remain background characters — they might have been extras for the amount of screen space allotted them, or the stock ‘good-daughter-in-law’ phrases allocated to them (I for one would love to see them do more than smile and acquiesce or weep and acquiesce; and review the actors in their independent roles). The clear-cut and insensitive manner in which Satyavati informs her daughters-in-law that she will be asking her first-born illegitimate son to impregnate them immediately after their husband’s death is a clear message to the viewer: nothing and no one stands in this woman’s way.

Though that first-born son of Satyavati’s doesn’t appear on-screen, there is no explanation for why Dhritrashtra was born blind, Pandu born pale, or Vidur tragically born perfect. The cursory manner in which Ghosh leaps at a few of Chowdhary’s well-meaning and soothing words highlights an increasing lack of depth in the characters’ and story’s development, reminding one once again that technical and cinematographic brilliance is no substitute for engaging, insightful drama. The drama between Rajput’s Amba and Puneet Issar’s brilliant rendition of Parshuram is well-executed and well-scripted. Chowdhary excels once again in action sequences that are stupendous to watch, though the appearance of Mohit Raina’s Shiv is a poorly veiled attempt at commandeering some of Life OK’s gushing popularity sourced from their mythological show. I must admit I preferred Raina’s Shiv in this series because he smiled less and spoke more authoritatively — perhaps due to the lines given to him.

Giving the kingdom of Panchal a reason to loathe Bhishm was another clever decision on the part of Pattanaik, as there is little known of that history. The gorgeous maps that illustrate the transition in locations reminds one of the quality in which maps of Westeros are crafted in Game of Thrones. Jumping to Gandhar, Rio Kapadia’s Subal is magnificent in his demeanour, promptly responding to a threat which I felt was overblown in proportion by the scriptwriters but excellently executed in terms of showing off for the first time the show’s visual prowess in depicting an army on the march. Giving Gandhari depth by having her face her fears is a well-intentioned attempt at granting her character more depth, Shweta Gautam’s Sudarma is nothing more than a peripheral character essaying a sensitive and caring, doting mother who yields to her husband’s decisions. The pointless intrigue in hiding the identity of Gandhari’s groom from her is an absurd lengthening tactic, and ill-becomes Swastik Pictures in what is already an over-long story arc.

Analysis of the characters’ actions is essayed eloquently and deftly by Saurabh Raj Jain’s Krishn, in that he comes across as neither obstructive or superfluous — the careful placing of the onus of thinking in the arms of the audience is a clever ploy, however script-writers must come up with different ways of saying ‘swaym vichar keejye’ (‘think on it yourselves’). The introduction of Praneet Bhatt’s Shakuni is marked by a rendition of cruel-to-the-point-of-sadistic cruelty on his part, and though his dialogue delivery is impressive and his appearance geographically correct the idea of his closing one eye when contemplating less-than-ethical thoughts is overdone and superfluous to a viewer who wishes to see how the consequences of his actions affect him rather than reducing that effect to one action. The debate over the marriage proposal in the Royal Family’s council is well-executed and well-paced, but is unnecessarily melodramatic in its conclusion at the end of the tenth episode.

The introduction of Dhritrashtra, Pandu and Vidur is a fascinating microcosm into the many strengths and weaknesses of this production. The gorgeous portrayal of the blind prince by Thakur Anoop Singh’s Dhritrashtra is not at all hard on the eyes, (as is the case with most males and females cast) — but is justified by Singh’s grip on his character. The role’s strength is magnified when Dhritrashtra is introduced, but muted by Pandu’s introduction. His constant puppy-dog affection for his elder brother borders on being arduous for the viewer to watch. The solemnity with which Vidur is introduced smacks of the danger of a too-sombre, too-morose demeanour on the character’s part. Singh’s Dhritrashtra is diminished by his loud and persistent grasping for the throne, which the show’s creators intend to suggest is an inheritance passed down from Satyavati herself, because the viewer already knows the extent of his disappointment when he is denied the throne and does not need to have that hammered into us.

There are very few who will fault the execution of visual cinematography in this production. Some may suggest that the action sequences rely too much on movie magic. More still will question Satyavati’s role decaying into the role of a domineering matriarch who will stop at nothing to see the blood of her blood securely and sustainably on the throne — and treating Bhishm as little better than a slave toward that end. There are key questions that surround the casting of Sayantani Ghosh, because though she has the ability to allow a three-dimensional view of her role, she is hampered from doing so.

The weaknesses of this production lie in its thinly-veiled attempts to pander to and appease an audience saddled with stereotypes and habituated to type-casting when it might want to carve a niche of its own. I do not say this because BR Chopra’s magnum opus did carve its own name in society, but because it takes phenomenal courage to do so in contemporary Indian television. No one objects to washboard bellies on both men and women — many will appreciate them, but they remain cardboard statues that can be filled with cotton until they perform to convince us that they are human.

Near-herculean efforts are undertaken to humanise Shakuni, Satyavati, Dhritrashtra and Bhishm, and disappointing and underwhelming efforts are not undertaken to humanise Pandu, Sudarma, Ambika, Ambalika and especially Vichitravirya; with mixed results on both sides. It must be emphasised that aiming for high TRP ratings is not a fault, but appearing insecure enough to craft the story in a way that follows current trends of shallow two-dimensional melodrama is not the best way to present a glorious story to an eager audience. Is it time to go back to the widely-lauded, decried-for-its-appalling-special-effects 1988–1990 version for a lesson in this yet?

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