Mythological and Historical
India has its cultural roots going deep into its ancient
manuscripts, in its religious rituals and in its traditional customs handed
down from one generation to the next. At the sometime its illustrious history
has attracted scholars and travelers from all parts of the world. There was
nothing surprising that when it came to movie-making the first film makers went
for mythological characters and mythological televised series drew huge support
in a country with such socio-political background. What added on to the
plethora of televised representation of the past was the country’s both
religious and cultural diversity.
“For 78 weeks between 1987 and 1988, India, courtesy
Doordarshan, was hooked on a heavenly opiate: the Sunday morning serialisation
of the Hindi epic, the Ramayana – various terms- ‘the religious serials’, the ‘
soap opera of the gods’ and so on, the TV drama had notched up a mind boggling
viewership of 85%. Examples of its popularity were legion- brides refusing to
participate in wedding rites till the end of the episode; ministers turning up
late for their swearing in ceremony, an entire train kept waiting while the
driver and its passengers caught up with the latest installments.”
India's population was glued to the telly, be it in private homes, at friends
houses or in shopping areas with TVs. Streets were empty, weddings missed,
political meetings postponed, incense burned on top of the TV set and conches
Ramayana was the age old story of Rama who was born in a royal family and was
supposed to be the king, but because of his step- mother, he was forced to
exile from his kingdom for fourteen years. During this period his consort Sita was kidnapped by a demon called Ravan, who was the king of Lanka. Rama with the help of his brother, Lakshman, and an army of monkeys under
the leadership of Hanuman, rescued Sita.
The TV Ramayana bore the
unmistakable stamp of the Hindi cinema. Mythological stories though irregular
were a familiar genre in Indian cinema and were characterized by a heavy
reliance on trick photograph, theatrics, garish colours and emotive music.
That all these elements were
forcefully present in the small screen adaptation was not really surprising for
its maker, Ramanand Sagar- himself the epitome of the Hindi film producer. His
Ramayana –which he scripted and directed-had all the ingredients of a filmi
production. It also reflected his north Indian traditions; the chief characters
apart from Ravana- the king of Lanka
in the south-were cast in the Aryan mould and spoke high flown Hindi which was
the language of the Indo-Gangetic plains.
The televisation of Ramayana
evoked a storm of protest. The complaints stemmed from a concern that television
was being used to propagate a certain ideological message. The belief was not
without basis. Despite the partial commercialization of the medium, Doordarshan
authorities had continued to exercise powers of selection by insisting the
serials should combine entertainment with a desirable message. Hence soaps such
as Hum Log and Buniyaad were approved for promoting, among other
things a desirable idea of ‘national integration.’ What was not really
questioned was the idea of a nation that came through these and similar serials
which was clearly north Indian and middle class, a startlingly narrow
definition for a heterogeneous country such as India.
With the decision to telecast the Ramayana and consecutively, the
other great Hindu epic the Mahabharata, concern mounted that in secular
India, where 15 percent of the Population consisted of non –Hindu religious
groups, the state was also propagating the idea of a Hindu nation. Predictably,
the apprehensions were voiced most forcefully by a vocal section of the
minorities particularly the Muslim community which comprised 12 percent of the
population and in the south; the intellectual elite was also appalled by
Sagar’s kitschy representation of the Indian classic.
The actual population however,
silenced its many critics. Within weeks, the serial had garnered one of the
largest audiences in the history of TV. And soon it was clear that its
following, far from being solely Hindu, comprised people of various religious
persuasions. According to an account by Mark Tully In his book, ‘No Full Stops
in India’, fan letters poured in from Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, the very
communities, on whose behalf the cudgels had been taken up against the serials.
“May our Lord Jesus and Mother Mary bless you and keep you well” wrote a
Christian lady from South to one of the characters. “Your name will shine and
shine like the morning star in the horizon’, gushed a Muslim in a letter to
So powerful was the impact of the
serial that it cast of unknown actors not only achieved overnight celebrity
status but the chief protagonists came to be venerated as gods. “At functions
really grown up people came and touched your feet,’ Deepika Chikalia, the young
actress playing Rama’s wife, Sita
told Tully. The programme’s popularity also enabled its maker, to extend the
serial way beyond its contracted period of 52 weeks and collect more money from
his sponsors which included a toothpaste company, a noodle manufacturer and a
The distinguishing factor for mythological programmes lies in
the semantic units that make up the genre. Most often, these include Hindu gods
and incarnations pitched in battle against forces of irreligion. Structurally,
these narrative units are most often engaged in a battle between the ‘good’ and
the ‘evil’ forces which are characterized as religious elements and practices,
as distinct from the social ones of social programmes.
The primary difference between the social and religious
programmes is in the semantic units that make up the narrative. In the
religious programmes these units are theological, concerned with the practices
of the Hindu religion. On the other hand, social programmes deal with practices
that correspond with the social modes of behavior in everyday life. The primary
similarity between these social and religious programs can be traced to the use
of similar narrative strategies.
Mahabharata was able to occupy the median
position, where it co opted from both the religious and social. The serial consisting
of 94-episode originally ran from 1988 to 1990. It was produced by B. R. Chopra
and directed by his son, Ravi Chopra. The music was composed by critically
acclaimed music director Rajkamal. The issues that it represented could largely
be classified into concerns for the family and the modes of interaction in the
family. There are several episodes that deal with the issues of brotherly
affection, duty to mother and role of various members of the family.
T.R. Bhanot,’ the story of this epic passed on to the coming generations
through tradition having being told and retold down the ages. Full of ideal
romance, mystery, thrills, suspense, chivalry, adventure, awe-inspiring,
exploits and spine-chilling miracles, this wonderful epic depicts the moral as
well as social values of the time and thus provides valuable guidance to the
common householder for leading a pious, plain and virtuous life.’
B. R. Chopra’s tele-serial Mahabharata was the first time that the story of the grand epic was
been reproduced by a social bloc who were in position to edxercise cultural
power by their control over the television medium. The television serials were
unlike the circulation of the story in other modes (the literary and the oral
modes that were region and language specific). Doordarshan could however bring
a standardized story, simultaneously, to a large part of the country in one
Serializing the story resulted in dividing up the narrative
into multiple episode lays the foundation for the following one. In most of the
cases, each episode ends with a narrative situation that motivates the next
episode. There is usually no clear indication of the end of the serial. Unlike Hum Log and Buniyaad, whose closure had brought disappointment among the viewers,
Mahabharata and Ramayana had an expected ending. What brought these serials
near to the viewers’ heart were the effectively done episodes, constantly
generating within them a desire to see what happened next, even though one
might very well know what the next event will be. This attached to the serial
by all sections of the society reemphasized the centrality of the Indian
culture. The primary significane thus lay in the way it came back to the
audience every week, endearing the stars and the characters to the people, so
much so that the real identity and the reel name of the actors got overlapped
in a short time.
“Reoligious soap operas” stars emerged as a result of the
serialization of the story on television. For example, Arun Govil, who played ram in Ramayana was worshipped as an
incarnation by some people in the village of Umbergaon, where the serial was
shot. People would fall at his feet when he appeared in public, collapsing the
personality and the actor into one.
Similarly in Mahabharata
Roopa Ganguly who portrayed Draupadi received a lot of unpleasant publicity
for wearing western style dresses. This was considered unbecoming of a person
who comes home to millions of viewers as a mirror image of the ideal Hindu
Finally, the actor who played Arjun chose to change his
Muslim name to show business alias of ‘Arjun’, not only hiding his religion but
collapsing his off- screen name with the character he portrays.
The setting was also note worthy. The director
and the producers chose the North Indian locations for filming their serial.
This was because the original site of the main story was Hastinapur, somewhere
in the Indo-Gangetic plains. This needs special attention because here in crops
up the greatest dilemma of the religious conflict, the bringing in of the
Hindutava, emphasizing the Hindi-Hindu belt and eventually leading to religious
turmoil in the beginning of the next decade.
The broadcast also accentuated the setting by the costumes of
the people who inhabit Hastinapur.
The common people
depicted in the serials were seen in ‘dhoti’. The dress established a link
between the preferred practices of the attire, and the geographic location. It
also had a religious connotation.
In the use of the costumes for the principal characters, the
serial appropriated from variety of sources. North Indian representations of
the royal attire, crown, and other such details of dress had been meticulously
reproduced from old illustrations and paintings, typical of the North Indian
In this process the serial was not only able to establish the
inter-textual relation between the traditional renderings of the epic; but with
a selective tradition that was representation of a linguistic and religious
preference. Indeed the language of broadcast being Hindi made it more popular.
Chanakya was a highly acclaimed 47-part television
series directed by Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi which was originally telecast on Doordarshan
in 1990. It is a fictionalized account of the life and times of the Indian
economist, strategist and political theorist Chanakya and is based in the time
period 340 B.C - 320 B.C.,produced by Shagun Films. This serial too made an
essential effort to build up the aura of the lost times and told history beyond
that of the common tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Dr.
Chandraprakash Dwivedi himself played the lead role and the most prominent
episode that still hovers in my mind and so in the case of many of the surveyed
interviewees was that of the oath of Chanakya and his subsequent storming out
of the hall of the king Nanda. The setting was too different and far removed from
that of the elaborate grandeur of the serialized epics, being made out of wood
The show had brought in controversy, for critics had labeled
that,” Every Sunday morning, Chanakya makes a shrewd bid to spread the message
of Hindutva”.But the director had vehemently opposed all
criticism, on repetitive use “the slogans of har har mahadev” and h an obvious
attempt to toe the Bharatiya Janata Party line, and had went ahead stating that
the serial never attempted at creating a division in the social and secular
structure of the country. Moreover he had cited that Chanakya himself that once
proposed the Bharatvarsa –a whole India. Thus such accusations on him and his
serial was baseless.
The present generation might know Sanjay Khan as Zayed Khan’s
father or Hrithik Roshan’s father-in-law. But Feroz Khan’s brother, after a
successful innings in films, retired to television as the brave warrior from
Mysore, Tipu Sultan. The television serial – The Sword of Tipu Sultan
was first broadcast on the Doordarshan channel in 1990. The script was based on
a novel by Bhagwan Gidwani. It was an awe-inspiring a portrayal of the life and
times of Tipu Sultan, the erstwhile ruler of Srirangapatna. It was produced by
the company Numero Uno International which was owned by Sanjay Khan.
Akbar Khan, his brother directed the first 20 episodes of the serial for a
period of 18 months. The remaining episodes were directed by the actor himself.
A total of 52 episodes were shot, some of them in the Premier Studios in the
city of Mysore in Karnataka. Kids who watched it religiously would feel a sense
of pride within themselves. Young girls would dream to get married to a “sher”
like Tipu Sultan and boys would bubble with renewed energy so much so that for
a while popular film stars were replaced by brave Tipu in their make believe
games of kingly duels.
We had a
Tipu Sultan, A Great Maratha( Life of Chattrapati Shivaji), A Chanakya, so now
it was time to have a Prithviraj Chauhan. Priered in mid May-2008, on STAR
Plus” Dharti Ka Veer Yodha Prithviraj Chauhan” was launched by Sagar
Arts. It was a show about the last Hindi King of India, his early life, his exploits, his
love for princess Sanyogita. The main source of this piece of history comes
from Early Hindi/Apabhramsha epic of poet Chandabardayi called Prithviraj Raso.
What drew the young audience to this show was the captivating, perhaps too much
emphasized, love story of Prithviraj and Sanyogita. Many watched the show for
the grand performance of the teenage star, Rajat Tokas, who went on to win
awards for his performance, in the in house Star awards.
1) Shah, Amrita: Hype, Hypocrisy And
Television In Urban India: 1997 ‘The Rath Yatra’, Pg:-86, (Vikas Publishing
House Pvt Ltd)
2) Bhanot, T.R.; Mahabharata, Part 1, (1990)New
Delhi: Dream Publication.
3) Mitra, Anand:Television And Popular
Culture In India- A Study Of The Mahabharat, (1993) Mahabharat on Doordarshan:Pg
101;Sage Publication. New Delhi/Thousand Oaks’/London’.
4) ibid; Pg 102.
5) ibid; Pg 107.
6) ibid; Perface.
7) The Times of India; ‘Saffron for
Breakfast ‘by Madhavi Irani, !st December,1991.
8) The Telegraph,’ View from the couch, With
remote in hand’, by Sbhash K. Jha, april 14 2004.