IN DECEMBER LAST YEAR, between takes for the Hindi romance serial Pyaar Ka Dard Hai Meetha Meetha Pyaara Pyaara, Mukesh Khanna, dressed in a brown three-piece suit and a polka-dot tie, walked to his dressing room on the set of Rajshree Productions in Mumbai’s Film City. On the way, Khanna, who plays the leading man’s grandfather, ran into Kanwarjit Paintal, who plays a friendly in-law. The two men, both slightly bulging at the waist, exchanged pleasantries and discussed the day’s shooting schedule.
It was, in many ways, a banal moment: two spent actors casually chatting before their next takes for a regular television show. But there was something striking about it, too. Twenty-five years ago, at the very same location, these two actors were locked in battle as two of the most crucial characters in the most significant programme ever shown on Indian television: BR Chopra’s Mahabharat. (Paintal’s androgynous Shikhandi was used by the Pandavas to take down Khanna’s indomitable Bhishma in the battle of Kurukshetra.)
Every Sunday, beginning in September 1988, streets in cities across the country would grow deserted at the approach of 9 am. In rural areas, people cycled tens of kilometres to the nearest house with a television set, neighbours crowding in together to watch the epic show, which depicted the mythological conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas for the throne of Hastinapur. Across the nation, Mahabharat held the collective attention of 200 million Indians for 45 minutes each week for nearly two years.
Part of the show’s appeal was due to its timing: Doordarshan began broadcasting it soon after it aired the final episode of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, a stupendously popular television adaptation of Valmiki’s epic, which had stoked public demand for mythological entertainment. But Mahabharat was something more.
For many Indians, this was their first sustained exposure to an epic whose tales they had grown up hearing. Compared to the Ramayana, which is celebrated annually in the form of Ramlilas, the Mahabharata had had less reach in the public imagination. A story of endless family feuds, many Indians were superstitiously averse to keeping the book in their houses—which meant that, for most of them, their only link to the epic was through the 700-verse published extract of the Bhagavad Gita, the theological and spiritual discourse that Krishna passes on to the Pandava warrior Arjuna before the battle of Kurukshetra.
A lot has changed in the world of Indian television entertainment since Mahabharat’s final episode was telecast on Doordarshan, India’s national—and, at the time, only—channel, on Sunday, 8 July 1990. Two years later, cable entered India; by 2012, there were 848 channels. The Rs 370 billion Indian television market is now the third largest in the world. But, a quarter of a century after its first appearance on television, and despite all the advancements in craft and technology the industry has seen, what remains unparalleled is the scale at which Mahabharat was made, and the impact it had on its audience. Watched by almost a quarter of the Indian population, which was on the cusp of the wide-ranging political and economic changes that the early 1990s would bring, this monumental television adaptation of a relatively unpopular epic became one of the most important cultural signposts of independent India.
CONTRARY TO POPULAR PERCEPTION, Mahabharat wasn’t commissioned by Doordarshan to capitalise on Ramayan after the latter was rapturously received—according to Sevanti Ninan’s Through the Magic Window: Television and Change in India, Ramayan drew close to 100 percent viewership in parts of the country. The genesis of Mahabharat was less calculated. “Early in 1985 or thereabouts Rajiv Gandhi had written or spoken to the minister for information and broadcasting, VN Gadgil, about the kind of serials being shown on Doordarshan,” wrote Bhaskar Ghose, who was the Director General of Doordarshan from mid 1986 to the end of 1988, in his memoirs Doordarshan Days. “The minister said that the PM had given him and the secretary SS Gill to understand that Doordarshan should broadcast serials that depicted the values enshrined in our ancient texts and philosophy, the kind of values that were contained in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The secretary took this to mean that the prime minister wanted both the epics telecast on Doordarshan, and immediately shot off letters to two prominent film producers in Bombay, Ramanand Sagar and Baldev Raj Chopra.”
In their eagerness to carry out what they took to be Rajiv Gandhi’s command, the authorities at Doordarshan bypassed standard procedures such as shortlisting producers and scrutinising their work. “Both Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra saw the immense possibilities of making a fortune from these serials,” Ghose wrote in his memoir. “Both lost no time in getting hold of sponsors, who also recognised that these epics would draw large audiences. Within a short time, by early 1986, each had readied six or seven episodes of the respective epics.”
To prevent the mess that a simultaneous telecast might have created, especially the splitting of advertising revenues, Ghose asked BR Chopra, who was producing the series with his son Ravi, to defer the airing of Mahabharat. Thus the Chopras, who shot the first few episodes of Mahabharat for Doordarshan’s approval in early- to mid-1986, postponed the shooting of the remainder of the 94-episode drama to early 1988, the same year that the series finally went on air.
Chopra had just hit another high note in what had been a glittering cinematic career, with a series of successful movies that included Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980), Nikaah (1982) and Tawaif (1985). His entry into television, like many other film producers of his time, such as Ramesh Sippy (with the Partition-era drama Buniyaad) and Prem Kishen (with the short-story serial Katha Sagar), followed the implementation of a new policy at Doordarshan to allow private players to produce content for prime-time broadcasting, a move that ushered in the first rush of sponsored programming.
A film journalist before he made his first movie, Afsana, in 1951, BR’s interest in cinema sprung from a deep desire to bring about social change through art. As Rachel Dwyer wrote in her biography of his younger brother Yash Chopra, BR was critical of “film producers, who, in his opinion, were wasting their time with comedies and mythologicals, dancing and songs, thus avoiding dealing with any serious social issues.” When B.R. Films was launched in 1955, the filmmaker channelled his discontent into movies that addressed a range of diverse subjects: Nehruvian socialism, the emancipation of women on the margins of society, communal harmony, Partition and corruption. Aaj Ki Awaaz (1984), which was about a professor combating the world of crime, even began with the message, “THIS PICTURE IS ADDRESSED TO THE CONSCIENCE OF THE NATION…”
The Mahabharata, a story full of moral conflicts, was an epic that BR had long wanted to adapt for screen. “It is famously said of the Mahabharata that Vyasa imbued all concepts of feeling, emotion, sentiment, relationship[s]—whatever is there in the world—in it,” BR said in Mahabharat ki Mahabharat, a behind-the-scenes production commissioned by the Chopras. “Aur kaha jaata hai, jo is mein nahin hain, woh kahin nahin hain” (And it is said that what is not there in it, does not exist anywhere else). It was a story too big to be compressed into the three hours of a feature film. Television offered BR the freedom to explore its scale.
BETWEEN THEIR FIRST COUPLE OF TELEFILMS—Teri Meri Kahani (1982) and Dharti Aakash (1983)—and Mahabharat, BR and Ravi had directed and produced, in 1986, their period television series Bahadur Shah Zafar. When work on Mahabharat began, several members of the cast and crew from the series were carried over to the new production. Most prominent among them was Gufi Paintal, whose contribution to the magnum opus ranged from production design to casting to associate direction and, most memorably, portraying Shakuni, the dice-toting plotting uncle of the epic’s antagonist, Duryodhana.
“Ravi was very interested in expanding the business. With all his aspirations, he ventured into television, which was very big by then,” Gufi—now bespectacled and almost 70—told me, when I met him on the set of Zee TV’s Mrs. Kaushik Ki Paanch Bahuein, a family-friendly drama in which he played the character of a genial ghost.
The first challenge before the producers was to commission the script for the extraordinarily intricate and multidimensional story of gods, princes, miracles and destinies. In order to capture on television the nuances of emotion, ethical dilemmas and relationships the Mahabharata contained, the Chopras knew they needed the very best writers. The team they put together was a formidable one: Rahi Masoom Raza, the well-known author of novels such as Topi Shukla, signed up to write the screenplay and dialogue; Satish Bhatnagar, an eminent writer of screenplays, came on board to do research and work on the scenarios; and Pandit Narendra Sharma, who had translated several of Mahatma Gandhi’s speeches into Hindi, and conceived All India Radio’s light-entertainment station, Vividh Bharati, agreed to advise on the concept and write the occasional lyric.
Sharma was an expert on the Mahabharata. “We used to refer to him as team ke Sanjay,” said Gufi, likening Sharma to the blind Kaurava king Dhritarashtra’s charioteer, who relays to the king—through miraculous vision granted to him by Ved Vyasa, the epic’s author—the events at Kurukshetra. “Sharma would narrate the subject as if he was watching it. It was so clear in his mind. What comes where, every character—what is his attire, what is his look, what is his personality,” Gufi added. Sharma wrote the show’s title song, ‘Atha Shree Mahabharat Katha’, and a number of dohas (couplets) that appeared either at the end of every episode, as a kind of summary, or in the course of a particular episode, to stress specific points.
According to an anecdote Sharma’s daughter, Lavanya Shah, narrated to me over email, BR Chopra and Rahi Masoom Raza once asked Panditji, as Sharma was known, how he knew that Khanna’s character, Bhishma, always wore white. In his reply, Sharma read out a passage from the epic in which Bhishma gently reproaches one of the young protagonists for jumping into his lap with the words: “Vats, dekho tumhaarey dhool-bhare vastron se mere shwet vastra, dhooli dhoosrit ho jaatein hain” (Child, see how your dusty clothes sully my white robes).
Calling, no doubt, on his reserves of experience as well as the distant days when, as a graduate student at Government College, Lahore, he had studied English literature, BR supervised the scripting and screenplay sessions almost daily. In those sessions, in addition to the authoritative critical edition of the epic from Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), the team referred to a number of additional sources across languages, including poet and translator Purshottam Lal’s version in English—perhaps the most complete rendering of the epic in any language, and an attempt to stay faithful to the oral tradition in which the work was originally created.
AS BR AND HIS TEAM of writers laboured on the screenplay, casting for the series got underway. Auditions were held at Filmalaya studios in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri West. “We gave ads in all the papers all over India. We had about ten to fifteen thousand applicants. We came down to about 1,500 individuals whom we screen-tested,” Ravi Chopra said in Mahabharat ki Mahabharat. (The making-of video is an invaluable resource, especially now that BR has died and a breathing ailment has constrained Ravi’s ability to speak.) The briefs for casting, he explained, were inspired from existing depictions of these characters in popular culture: “You’ve seen them in paintings, you’ve seen them in comic books,” Ravi said. So, in Mahabharat ki Mahabharat, we see a very young, slender Kitu Gidwani auditioning for the role of goddess Ganga, Bhishma’s supposed mother—and losing the part to Kiran Juneja, a buxom woman who better conformed to popular conceptions of female deities.
“We didn’t really give as much importance to the acting part of it,” Ravi said, a statement confirmed by the previous track records of most of the final cast. Mukesh Khanna, Firoz Khan (who played the hero Arjuna), Nitish Bharadwaj (who played Krishna), and Surendra Pal (who played the cousins’ tutor, Dronacharya) had all been in small roles and forgettable films. Pankaj Dheer, who played the Pandavas’ estranged half-brother, Karna, had played the lead role in a couple of average movies—Bekhabar (1983) and Mera Suhag (1987)—but had not managed to leave much of an impression on audiences. Even those who had been working in television were not exactly stars. Gajendra Chauhan, cast as the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, had appeared in the hit series Rajni, in Darpan and even in BR Films’ Bahadur Shah Zafar, but was still waiting for a real breakthrough. Girija Shanker, the blind king Dhritarashtra, had played Raliya Ram in the memorable Buniyaad—but had been overshadowed by stronger actors in that cast, like Alok Nath and Anita Kanwar.
Despite the emphasis on looks, matching actors to roles was a painstaking process, and many casting decisions were eventually reversed. The entire process, Gufi said in Mahabharat ki Mahabharat, took a full eight months from late 1986 to early 1987.
“Kaunsa role doge?” (Which role can you offer?), Khanna recalled asking Gufi when I met him. He hoped to play either Karna or Arjuna, the two central warriors. “Bhishma was nowhere in my mind,” he added. After his auditions, Gufi told him: “[BR] Chopra saab thinks you will be a very good Duryodhana.” Khanna said he was nonplussed by the suggestion to play the epic’s main antagonist. He protested, saying, “Gufi, mere andar se villain nahin nikalta” (I just cannot play a villain), but the roles of Karna and Arjuna were assigned to Pankaj Dheer and Firoz Khan, respectively, while his own fate remained undecided.
The next time Gufi contacted him, it was with the offer to play the heroes’ teacher and mentor, Dronacharya. “I just took one second and said, ‘Ok, karta hoon (I will do it).’” His family members were aghast at his decision. “My brother was sitting next to me. He said, ‘Tu pagal ho gaya hai? Tune Duryodhana mana kar diya (Have you gone mad? You turned Duryodhana down), who was one man against five people, tum ek guru ka role kar rahe ho?’ (You’ll play a guru instead?)” But Khanna didn’t care. “I just wanted to be a part of Mahabharat,” he said. “I attended the muhurat as Dronacharya where Raj Babbar”—the film star who had been roped in to play the king, named Bharat, from whom all the main characters descended—“asked me ‘Mukesh, aap kya kar rahein hain (what role are you playing)?’ to which I replied, ‘Abhi tak to Dronacharya (Dronacharya, as of now).’” There couldn’t have been a more appropriate answer.
The man initially chosen for Bhishma was Vijendra Ghatge, an established character actor in Hindi cinema, who had also earned recognition as Vrushbhaan in Buniyaad. But Ghatge turned the role down on learning that it would require him to play an elderly figure for a large portion of on-screen time. According to Gufi, however, Buniyaad’s schedule was clashing with Mahabharat’s, and so the Chopras thought it wise to replace Ghatge. “Stature-wise, jo usko costume aaye, woh isko fit aa gaye” (The costumes that were tailor-made for Vijendra, fit Mukesh perfectly), said Gufi, who asked Khanna to step into Ghatge’s shoes.
“And that is why I always say, this was not done by Gufi Paintal or Papaji [BR Chopra],” Khanna told me. “It was done by destiny.”
PUNEET ISSAR’S CASTING as Duryodhana was similarly unforeseen. Few in the film world were unaware of Issar’s reputation, and the Chopras were no exception. “They knew me because of Coolie,” explained Issar, who had inadvertently injured Amitabh Bachchan, then at the dizzying heights of his stardom, on the set of the 1983 Manmohan Desai film. Bachchan lay for weeks on the brink of death, and the accident earned Issar both the fury of Bachchan’s fans and considerable notoriety within the business.
Issar had done quite a few films by the time he auditioned for Mahabharat, including the Ramsay brothers’ cult production Purana Mandir (1984), but the Coolie episode caused him to be typecast as a “fighter”. Thus, while the Chopras thought his muscled, six-foot-three frame made him the right candidate for Bhima—the second of the five Pandava brothers, known for his strength and size—Issar wasn’t interested. “I was clear that if I played Bhima, I would continue to be branded as a he-man,” said Issar, who shaved his head in 1993 to play the main villain in Ashaant (opposite a young Akshay Kumar) and has kept the look ever since. Instead, Issar, who trained at Mumbai’s Roshan Taneja acting institute, was keen on the role of Duryodhana. “Everything revolves around him,” Issar said. “And my own criterion was that I wanted to prove myself as an actor.”
The Chopras were not convinced. Issar recalled Rahi Masoom Raza, who was present, even rebuking him for his suggestion: “You must consider it your good fortune that you are being offered a hero’s role. Everyone is coming here to be a hero. Beggars can’t be choosers.” The problem, as Issar saw it, was, “Yeh paroksh mein thaa. Pratyaksh mein thaa (My qualities were hidden. What they could see were)—height, eighth-degree black belt, amazing body.” He remembered BR telling him, “Bete, is mein aap ko Hindi bolni padegi aur dialogues bahut hongey” (Son, you will have to speak in Hindi and memorise a lot of dialogue).
Issar couldn’t have asked for a better challenge. Having performed Jayadrath Vadh—a lengthy poetic rendition of the Mahabharata written by the famous Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupt—as a student at Mumbai’s Mithibai College, Issar responded by reciting lines from it to the Chopras. “Mujhe woh kanthast tabhi yaad tha (I remembered the poem by heart even then). I spoke continuously for 15 to 20 minutes in klisht (chaste) Hindi,” said Issar. On finishing, he heard BR say: “That’s my Duryodhana.”
Issar’s selection created a curious problem for the Chopras. Sagar Salunke, who was also being considered for the role of Bhima, appeared an unequal adversary to Issar’s formidably built Duryodhana. “Chopra saab [BR] would tell me jokingly, ‘Puneet, if we don’t get a bigger Bhima than you, to tere ko Duryodhana nahin milega (you will not play Duryodhana)’”.
In their hunt for a bigger man than Issar, the Chopras eventually heard of Praveen Kumar, a two-time Asian Games gold medallist in the discus throw (1966 and 1970). Issar promptly pushed for his selection. “Being a sports fanatic, Praveen Kumar was my hero. Six-feet eight-inches tall, awesome personality,” Issar said of the man who would eventually kill him on screen. Kumar, done with his career in sports, had already tried his hand at Hindi cinema as the villain’s henchman in films such as Loha (1987) and Shahenshah (1988). His selection as Bhima was settled the moment he entered the room. “Us mein tantana ho gayi” (There was a sense of commotion), he told me over the phone from Delhi. With Kumar cast as Bhima, Sagar Salunke was relegated to the role of Balarama, Krishna’s elder brother.
MEANWHILE, four people were contesting for the central part of Krishna. Mahabharat ki Mahabharat shows three of them—an awkward-looking Gajendra Chauhan, a soft-spoken Rishabh Shukla and a hairy-chested, moustachioed Nitish Bharadwaj—auditioning for the role. Rakesh Pandey, a small-time actor in several Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s, who had played Krishna in a few Bhojpuri films, was also considered for the part. “I was cast as Vidura [the soft-spoken royal advisor] initially,” Bharadwaj recounted when I met him on the set of Jallosh Suvarnayugacha, a dance competition on ETV Marathi, where he is a judge, though he insists that he is only “a guide” to the contestants. As soon as our conversation began, I noticed that he spoke with the same clear diction that was a hallmark of his performance in the series.
Bharadwaj was later called for another screen test for Mahabharat because Ravi Chopra, who had directed him in a few ad films, thought him too young to play the role of Vidura, the elderly uncle to the warring royal cousins. “That screen test, specifically for Krishna, was viewed by the entire team, which consisted of BR uncle, Raviji, Rahi Masoom Raza and Pandit Narendra Sharma. That’s how I was selected.” What worked for Bharadwaj, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, as Gufi said, was his command over Hindi.
“When the first list [following the auditions] came out, I was doing Krishna’s role,” Gajendra Chauhan told me. Once it was decided that Mahabharat would be broadcast only after the conclusion of Ramayan, and the shooting schedule pushed ahead, Chauhan used the time to act in a series of Malayalam films. “I shot in Cochin, Trivandrum, Quilon, Chalakudi,” Chauhan said. Although his career flourished, the southern state’s famed food did not exactly suit him. “I became fat,” he explained. “When I came back here and met Ravi Chopra, he said, ‘My god, what have you done to my Krishna? You have to cut down.’” But try as he did, Chauhan just could not get back in shape. It was at this point, he said, that the Chopras replaced him. “My weight issues and his smile, which worked to his advantage, led to Raviji voting in Nitish’s favour.”
Subsequently, Chauhan was asked to audition for the part of Yudhishthira. Having lost out on Krishna, Chauhan was apprehensive about playing the eldest of the Pandavas, of whose role in the Mahabharata he knew little. (Pankaj Dheer and Girija Shanker were also intimidated by their lack of familiarity with their respective characters, Karna and Dhritarashtra.) “As a child, in school and college, we had heard of the Pandavas and the Kauravas and there was some fight—but we didn’t know what, exactly, the fight was about,” Chauhan said. “Krishna’s role, the Lord’s role, had to be important, but the rest we didn’t know.” Ravi, nonetheless, prevailed on him. “They made me dress up in Yudhishthira’s attire, auditioned me,” Chauhan recalled. “Everybody liked it and I was taken to Chopraji [BR], who was immensely impressed. I was finalised on the same day.”
Roopa Ganguly wasn’t the Chopras’ original choice for Draupadi’s character, either. That was Juhi Chawla, who, having played Begum Nur Jahan in Bahadur Shah Zafar, had initially been signed on. But she backed out after landing the lead role in prominent filmmaker Nasir Hussain’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, which went on to become 1988’s blockbuster, and made her an enduring star. It was only after Chawla backed out that Narendra Sharma recommended Roopa Ganguly, whom he had seen in a serial called Ganadevta. Directed by P Kumar Vasudev, who had also directed the popular soap Hum Log, Ganadevta was a story based in a village, with Ganguly playing the role of a prostitute.
Gufi Paintal had no idea who was going to play Shakuni. After Gufi had auditioned several people for the role, the Chopras turned to the man who had already, for them, established his credentials as a villain—in Bahadur Shah Zafar, Gufi had been cast as the wicked Briton, Metcalfe. Gufi had been about to undergo an operation to fix a hip problem that forced him to move around with a slight limp; but he decided against it, in order to tap into the popular notion that evil characters generally suffered from some sort of infirmity. “I asked my bosses if I could make Shakuni lame,” said Gufi. “They all agreed, saying this is what will give Shakuni’s character shade.”
EVEN AFTER ALL THE ACTORS had been chosen, one part remained unfilled: Samay (Time), who would bind together each episode of the show with an opening narration. “One of the first things that we discussed was that it is such a vast subject that we require a narrator,” BR revealed in Mahabharat Ki Mahabharat. “One day Dr Rahi came to me and told me, ‘I want you to hear something which I have written.’ The moment he spoke his first sentence, ‘Main Samay hoon (I am Time),’ we were floored,” BR said.
Even in his earlier work, BR Chopra had been fond of using voice-overs to establish themes. Nikaah, which dealt with the laws of divorce in Muslim society, began with the image of a nude woman taking up the centre of the screen, before a female voice began an extended commentary on the many roles of a woman. The opening words were: “Main aurat hoon” (I am a woman).
But where Nikaah’s female narrator merely explained the background to the film, the narrator in Bahadur Shah Zafar, a personification of Delhi’s Red Fort, was closer in its scope to Samay. Having introduced itself in a familiar manner—“Main Lal Qila hoon (I am the Red Fort),”—the monument explained its raison d’être: “Main lal pathharon par likhi hui Hindustaan ki kaumi taareeq ka ek baab hoon, jo kaheen arq-e-gulaab se likha gaya hai aur kahin khoon-i-shaheeda se” (I am a chapter in Indian history, where the engravings on my red stone have at times been made with the extract of rose petals and at others in the blood of martyrs).
In the first episode of Mahabharat, Samay presented itself as: “Maine is katha ko itihaas ki tarah guzarte dekha hai” (I have seen this story unfold like the passage of history itself).
In the 1965 film Waqt, BR Films’ first colour production, directed by Yash Chopra, the Chopras had established the notion of the primacy of time. This was evident in the film’s title song:
Waqt se din aur raat, waqt se kal aur aaj,
Waqt ki har shai ghulam, waqt ka har shai pe raj
(Night and day are a function of time as are tomorrow and today
Every entity is a slave of time, time lords over every being)
“Someone said, Dilip Kumar has never done any narration, why don’t you take him, he will do it. Someone suggested we take NT Rama Rao because he has a saintly image,” BR said, recalling recommendations for the voice of Samay. The producers zeroed in on Harish Bhimani, an established voiceover artist and writer. “Oye, Harish, aa ja tu phir se” (Harish, you have to come again), Bhimani recalled, impersonating the manner in which Gufi called him each time over the phone in his Punjabi accent for the many trial sessions. By this time, Bhimani had lent his voice to some famous advertisements, including his turn as the devil in an Onida television ad that ran, “Neighbour’s envy. Owner’s pride.” He had also written the screenplay for the popular television drama Khandaan. According to Bhimani, it took him a long time to get Samay’s tone right, because the Chopra camp hadn’t fully disclosed the details of the project. “I thought it was a story for kids,” Bhimani told me. The only brief given to him, he recalled, was, “We don’t want God, we don’t want Akashvaani, we don’t want Harish Bhimani.”
At the end of his wits in the third meeting, but willing to give it one final shot, Bhimani adopted a certain grandeur in his tone, dramatically slowing the pace at which he read the opening lines. “I was thinking to myself, this is ridiculous,” said Bhimani of that last attempt. To his surprise, though, a paan-chewing Rahi Masoom Raza told him when he finished, “Harish beta, suno, is ko pakad ke rakho. Isko apne zehen mein baandh ke rakho” (Harish, remember this tone. Hold this thought). Later, when Bhimani attempted to speed up the pace during the actual recording, reasoning that the tone was too laborious to catch viewers’ attention, Rahi’s curt response was: “Sara mulk sunega. Aap wohi raftaar rakhiye” (The whole nation will listen. You maintain that pace).
“I was wrong. It worked,” Bhimani admitted to me. That final tone, he believes, was so well received because it was “completely my original timbre. It was a rhythm that had not been heard before—and I romanced every word.”
WITH 150 MAIN ACTORS, over 100 people in the production crew, over 2,000 pages of script and two straight years of shooting, the scale on which the Chopras executed the project was never in doubt. “The expenditure incurred on producing this entire show is approximately Rs 9 crore,” the production controller, Kishore Malhotra, said in Mahabharat Ki Mahabharat, which puts the average cost per episode at just under Rs 10 lakh, an imposing figure for that time.
Much of Mahabharat was shot at Mumbai’s Film City in Goregaon East. A few outdoor segments, such as those portraying Krishna’s childhood, were shot at Chena Creek in Navi Mumbai, while the opening episodes of the series, where the personification of the Ganga emerged from her river, were shot at Mahad, which is between Mumbai and Mahabaleshwar. For the final battle of Kurukshetra, the entire unit made its way for a 15-day schedule to Jaipur, where thousands of people were hired on a daily basis to recreate the battleground.
But big budgets did not necessarily translate into smooth production. “In those days, neither did we have the technology, nor the equipment, nor the know-how, nor the technicians,” said Pankaj Dheer, who, today, lives a few blocks away from Issar, with whom he has maintained a close friendship. “That meant we had to practically do every scene physically. We had to do actual shoots at actual locations.” Segments that would today be produced using special effects—such as the one in which Krishna reveals his ishwariya roop (divine form) to Arjuna just before the start of the war, or the crucial scene of Draupadi’s vastra-haran (disrobing)—took days to shoot. “Imagine wearing a mukut (crown), which weighed about three, three-and-a-half kilos all day long. Today a mukut weighs a few grams because it is made of a lighter material, but looks just as good,” remarked Dheer.
That the Chopras managed to make the serial’s vast, vivid scenes credible at all was, to a large extent, due to the ingenuity of art director YL Bagchi, who had recreated the Mughal era in Bahadur Shah Zafar. A commercial artist who had trained at the State Lalit Kala Akademi in Varanasi, Bagchi started by creating magnificent sets from scratch at Film City—such as the Lakshagrah set, the house made of lac in which the plotting Kauravas induced the Pandavas to sleep, so they could be burned alive. Bagchi explained that the structure was built with nothing but plywood and plaster, over which he put a coat of wax. “It was a gimmick,” Bagchi said.
EVEN AS EPISODES WERE BEING SHOT and readied for air, BR, who had envisioned the show as having a social role, kept improvising on the script to address contemporary Indian concerns. His ideological bent was apparent from the very first episode, which began with Bharat, the monarch, grappling with the issue of dynastic succession. As Saroja Bhate, member of the regulatory council at Pune’s BORI, confirmed, this was not how the critical edition of the Mahabharata, on which the show was based, commenced.
Samay, too, hinted at this departure a few scenes into the episode. When Bharat was about to announce his successor, Harish Bhimani’s voiceover boomed, “Yeh hai Mahabharata ki amar katha ka pehla, anlikha panna” (This is the first, unwritten chapter of the eternal story of the Mahabharata). Later in the episode, having found none of his nine sons worthy of ruling the kingdom after him, Bharat proclaimed Bhumanyu, the sage Bharadwaj’s son, as his successor. When confronted by his mother, Shakuntala, about the decision, Bharat responded: “I’m not only a father, but a king as well … Every citizen in my kingdom is part of my family. If I were to nominate one of my sons as heir to the throne, then I would be guilty of being unjust to both my kingdom and my subjects.”
“Since this episode was telecast at a time when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had succeeded his mother, was being criticised for his incompetence and corruption, viewers were able to recognise its relevance to contemporary politics,” wrote media anthropologist Purnima Mankekar in her book Screening Culture, Viewing Politics. BR brought up the inheritance debate again when the old, blind king Dhritarashtra—Bharat’s descendant and the Kauravas’ father—was haunted by the ghosts of his ancestors. Bharat, long dead, confronted him with the injustice he had meted out to the Pandavas, calling him a king who, “Apne putra-moh mein padkar, desh-prem, rajneeti ki maryada ko bhang kiya hai” (In the love for his son, has violated the norms of patriotism and politics).
Over the course of its two-year run, the series made a number of other socio-political assertions. After the battle of Kurukshetra, when the eldest Pandava Yudhishthira is crowned king, he envisions good and prosperous times for the people of Hastinapura, but he also holds that such a utopian state is only possible when people are committed to the service of the country. In the words of Devdutt Pattanaik, the prominent author and mythologist, this was “a speech very similar to John F Kennedy’s, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’” In the final episode, the family patriarch Bhishma—who has spent much of the war on a bed of arrows—stresses to the Pandavas the pre-eminence of defending the nation state, at any cost, against division. “Yadi koi paristhiti desh ke vibhaajan ki maang kar rahi ho, toh Kurukshetra mein aa jao, kintu desh ka vibhaajan kabhi na hone do” (If any circumstance threatens the unity of the nation, be prepared to battle, but do not allow the nation to split), he warned, at a time when Sikh separatism roiled Punjab and similar movements were brewing in Kashmir and the North East.
The show’s social messages came under fire from many sides. Several critics excoriated BR for the argument he seemed to advance about the connection between womanhood and nationhood. Though the dying Bhishma told the Pandavas that the development of any society could only be gauged from the manner in which its women were treated, a woman’s honour was ultimately shown to be secondary to the nation’s interest. “Tum apne apmaan ko baar-baar beech mein mat lao” (Don’t let your humiliation get in the way every time), Arjuna admonished Draupadi on the eve of his final battle against Karna. Draupadi responded by asking Arjuna whether her disgrace counted for nothing—“To kya mere apmaan ka koi arth nahin, dhanurdhar?” But he held firm to his view: “Hai, priya Draupadi, hai. Kintu utna nahin jitna tum samajh rahi ho. Tum Draupadi ho priye, Hastinapura nahin” (Yes it does, Draupadi. But not as much as you think. You are Draupadi, my dear, not Hastinapur).
“Chopra’s interpretation echoes themes found in fascist discourses of nationalism,” the critic Mankekar commented. “Not only is the nation conflated with the state, but it is patently clear that the ‘personal problems’ of Indian women, iconicised by Draupadi, cannot be permitted to overshadow the ‘national problem.’”
Other commentators worried that the show flattened some of the deep ethical issues, and the suffering, of the original narrative: “It portrayed Pandavas as good and Kauravas as bad and did not dwell on their respective moral dilemmas or what made them this way,” Pattanaik said. “It ended with the Pandavas winning. No suffering despite losing all their children.” Then there was the problem of cultural homogenisation. The academic Ananda Mitra criticised the series for being a predominantly North Indian interpretation of the epic—as is obvious in the costumes, props and backdrops, as well as in the language and music. The writers and producers were all North Indian, and their choices ignored other regional versions of the story. Still, as Mitra points out in his book Television and Popular Culture in India: A study of the Mahabharat, the narrative boundaries of the serial, clearly expressed in the song that played at the end of every episode—“Bharat ki hai kahaani, sadiyon se bhi puraani ... hai nit nayee puraani, Bharat ki yeh kahaani” (This story of Bharat, is an ancient one … It is a tale that is both old and new, this is the story of Bharat)—presented the show as the story of the entire Indian nation.
FOR THE MAJORITY of the Indian television audience, however, the show was utterly riveting. The figures more than confirmed the craze. “Doordarshan, it is believed, netted Rs 65 crore from it as advertising revenue, with advertising rates for this one programme being raised three times during its telecast, from Rs 65,000 for ten seconds in October 1988 to Rs 1 lakh for ten seconds in May 1989. In comparison, the rate for Ramayan never exceeded Rs 70,000,” wrote Ninan in Through The Magic Window.
With a family feud at its core, Mahabharat was an evolution over the Ramayan in terms of plot. It may have been profoundly religious in parts—particularly the episodes during which Krishna rendered the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna—but in tracking the declining fortunes of the Bharat-vansh family over several generations, its scope transcended that of mythology.
“Mahabharat was able to occupy that median position, where it co-opted from both the religious and the social,” wrote Ananda Mitra. Mankekar made a similar statement based on her work with Hindu, Muslim and Sikh viewers, who felt that the Ramayan was comparable to participating in a Hindu religious ritual. “By contrast,” wrote Mankekar, “the Mahabharat’s tale of blood and gore, romance and family politics, conspiracy and deception made for a multitextual viewing experience.”
At an individual level, too, Mahabharat’s characters appealed to contemporary Indians. Where Rama in Ramayan represented the ideal, each of Mahabharat’s characters was steeped in ambiguity and was eminently recognisable.
Draupadi, for one, emerged as an empowering figure for the women of India. Although Mankekar’s study showed that women across religions were moved by Draupadi’s vastra-haran, since it made them “relive personal humiliations in their families, in their offices, in public spaces,” and “reflect on, and sometimes critique, their own positions in their family, class and community,” Draupadi seemed a more modern woman than Ramayan’s female protagonist. Where Sita appeared to bear her suffering silently, Draupadi became an icon for gender emancipation, her indignation at the excesses of patriarchy fully justified to women across the country. “It’s not easy to gather so much of courage, so much mental strength,” said Roopa Ganguly. “That’s why women aspired to be like Draupadi.”
Mahabharat’s impact swiftly moved beyond India’s shores. In Britain, where it was broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday afternoons in the early 1990s, audiences were stimulated by its discourse on dharma and righteous action. Professor Marie Gillespie, who studied its impact on a Bengali family as part of a larger ethnographic study of the television culture among young Indian immigrants in London’s Southall district, told me over Skype that the broadcast, a part of the BBC’s diversity policy, was “empowering”. As she further explained, “It enabled young diasporic Indians to acquire a deeper knowledge and understanding of and to feel proud of their religious heritage in a context where parents had experienced racism and religious intolerance, and in a nation-state where religion was deemed to be a matter for the private and not the public sphere.”
In India, the combined impact of Ramayan and Mahabharat was amplified because their telecast coincided with the long political revival of Hindu fundamentalism, which eventually led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. “The telecast of this epic [Ramayan] every week for more than one and a half years helped to powerfully re-establish this Hindu epic in the national consciousness. In doing so it fuelled the Ram Janmabhoomi movement on a national scale,” Ninan wrote.
“Within popular culture, the recirculation of the Ramayana and Mahabharata brought Hindu heroes into the domesticity of nearly 90 per cent of Indian homes, reemphasising the Hinduness of India, and consequently, the un-Indianness of non-Hindus,” wrote Mitra. The representation of Ram, Krishna and the Pandavas in the two serials, according to Mitra, established the connection between the production of a heroic national image and Hindu religion.
However, Arvind Rajagopal—in an article titled ‘What If DD Hadn’t Telecast Ramayan?’ in Outlook, in 2004—suggested a nuanced difference between the two epics. Had Mahabharat been broadcast before Ramayan, he argued, the ethical rather than the identity component of Hindu culture might have been foregrounded. This, wrote Rajagopal, was because, “There are few rakshasas [demons] in the Mahabharat. Instead there is a Hindu joint family engaged in a ruinous civil war. Its characters are of a royal lineage, or have unparalleled qualities of strength or beauty. But each is ultimately alone. No identity, no religion or dynasty can save them. Each has to find the path of virtue, however difficult it may be. That is the lesson of this epic.” Rajagopal, who teaches in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, stuck by his analysis in an email exchange with me in December 2012, writing, “The Mahabharat was actually closer to great art—it made people think. Ramayan told you what to think and feel, by comparison.”
NOTABLY, all those from Mahabharat’s cast who entered politics following the series’ success—Mukesh Khanna, Pankaj Dheer, Gajendra Chauhan and Nitish Bharadwaj—aligned themselves with the BJP. “I am not a fanatic,” said Dheer, who campaigned for the BJP during Vajpayee’s regime. “My reasons were that I was anti-Congress and I was a person who admired Atal Bihari Vajpayee.” Bharadwaj, who joined the party in 1995, and who in 1996 was elected to the Lok Sabha from Jamshedpur, had similar reasons. “I thought the BJP was a party with a difference,” he said. “The way India had gone—rampant corruption, things being in complete disarray—there was this nationalistic feeling in me. I thought I could contribute through the BJP, to change the wrong things in India.” Chauhan, who started campaigning for the BJP in the early 1990s, was just as unequivocal: “No, our characters didn’t shape our political leanings,” he told me. “I campaigned for the BJP and Shiv Sena because I felt these parties were worried about India and Indians.”
In any case, it would have been a struggle to create a political identity independent of their association with Mahabharat. “People would visit us on the sets like they were visiting a temple,” Khanna told me. Chauhan said people came to see him as inseparable from his character; on the day the crucial gambling episode from Mahabharat was broadcast, he told me, “I had gone to Juhu in my car in the evening, and was driving back alone. I think it was at a signal at Seven Bungalows when someone from the adjacent car shouted at me and said, ‘Sab kuch toh juey mein haar gaya. Draupadi ki gaadi lekar ghoom raha hai kya? (You lost everything in the course of gambling. Are you driving Draupadi’s car?)’”
Today, the actors unanimously acknowledge the push the series gave to their respective careers. “This was the role that put me in the spotlight and put me in the category of a ‘good’ actor,” said Surendra Pal, who, after his stint as Dronacharya, went on to become a prominent face on television, working in serials like Chanakya and Chandrakanta. “Mahabharat gave me the stamp of an actor. I started getting work more easily,” said Puneet Issar, who acted in several major films after, such as Sanam Bewafa (1991), Khalnayika (1993) and Ram Jaane (1995). Pankaj Dheer said, “After Mahabharat, I was flooded with films. I did about 175 films after that. All A-grade films, all different roles. I played the bad guy, I played the good guy, I played character roles: Sadak (1991), Saugandh (1991), Ikke Pe Ikka (1994)—bahut zabardast daur chala (it was a great phase).”
Although several commentators think that the actors could not shed their Mahabharat images, irrespective of how their careers developed, many from the cast rejected this theory. “I am not trapped,” Gufi Paintal said, vehemently. “I have done varied roles.” Chauhan said the same for himself: “It never happened with me. No image can bind an actor. If an actor does any role convincingly, he will find success. I did Ajnabee on Doordarshan for four years after that. I was the main villain opposite Danny Denzongpa—it was a superhit serial.” Others handled such criticisms by exaggerating their later success. “I enjoyed very good popularity,” Firoz Khan told me. “I did about 165 films. Unfortunately for my other colleagues, they didn’t climb the ladder as high, but I shot up.” Even Nitish Bharadwaj, who initially admitted that producers were unwilling to experiment with him, ultimately said, “I was not trapped in the image, but people were trapped in seeing me as Krishna.”
Only Roopa Ganguly and Mukesh Khanna could escape their Mahabharat personas to any significant extent. Ganguly, having unsuccessfully tried her hand at Hindi films after the series, returned to Kolkata. “I did two or three Hindi films, but I realised it was not my cup of tea,” she told me. “I was not the kind of person who could dance around trees.” In Kolkata, she found stardom quite independent of the serial that had shaken the rest of the country, and went on to work with eminent Bengali filmmakers such as Rituparno Ghosh, Goutam Ghose and Sekhar Das.
Khanna’s career followed a unique trajectory. “After Mahabharat, I did 60 films where I became everyone’s father—from Shah Rukh Khan to Feroz Khan,” he told me, referring to films like Guddu (1995) and Yalgaar (1992). He was primarily seen as the “vivash pita-maha” (helpless patriarch), a clear reflection of his role as Bhishma, which came in the way of him getting lead roles. The frustration spurred him to make Shaktimaan, a superhero series in which he played the title character. It first aired on Doordarshan in 1997 and went on to become a phenomenon in its own right. As a superhero, Khanna appealed to a generation very different from the one who saw him as the elder statesman of the Hastinapur raj sabha. “In the BJP’s election campaigns, I would be introduced as, ‘Badon ke pita-maha, choton ke Shaktimaan (Bhishma for the elderly, Shaktimaan for kids),’” he said of this dual image, one he still enjoys.
It is telling, however, that Mukesh Khanna made Shaktimaan with his company Bhishma International. As telling is the fact that Surendra Pal named his Bhojpuri production house Dronacharya Films, that Firoz Khan changed his name to Arjun, and that Gufi Paintal anchored a satirical political show for Sahara Samay called Paisa Phenk Chunaav Dekh dressed in the costume of Shakuni.
THE CAST of Mahabharat continues to coexist in the vast expanse of Mumbai’s entertainment industry, barring a few. Nazneen, who played Kunti, the Pandavas’ mother, stopped acting after the show ended; Sameer Chitre, who played Nakul, one of the younger Pandavas, emigrated to the US 17 years ago; and Virendra Razdan, who played Vidura, passed away in 2003, but the rest of them continue to work.
Nitish Bharadwaj has given up politics. “I realised what Indian politicians need from actors is actors who can parrot lines or dialogues from their serials or films,” he told me. He is about to make his directorial debut with a Marathi film. He also awaits the release of a Hindi movie, one in which he plays the lead.
Pankaj Dheer had a similar experience in politics. “In the end, it was futile. All of them [politicians] are dirty eggs in the same basket.” He is doing a number of shows on television, as is Surendra Pal. They can be seen together in the hugely popular Devon Ke Dev, Mahadev, a mythological series based on legends about Shiva.
Gajendra Chauhan continues his association with the BJP as the joint convenor of its cultural cell, while remaining active on television, appearing in serials like Doordarshan’s Nancy. Arjun—once Firoz Khan—is looking to make his comeback after having taken a break from cinema about five years ago. “I was getting stagnated, with the same villainous roles, the same fight and rape sequences,” he told me.
Mukesh Khanna plans to revive Shaktimaan. “I have already made a telefilm on Shaktimaan. I would even like Shaktimaan to be made for 70mm,” he said, before explaining the rationale for his ambitions plan: “Everyone knows Ra.One was a disaster. Kids still know that Shaktimaan is India’s first superhero.”
Puneet Issar claims to be writing, directing, acting and producing an Indo-British film: “It’s a crossover film, on the lines of Bend It Like Beckham. I haven’t titled it yet.” Gufi Paintal is busy doing character roles in films and television; Girija Shanker runs a production house called Greenlight Films; and Renuka Israni, who played Dhritarashtra’s queen Gandhari, can be seen on Sony’s well-liked television drama Bade Achhe Lagte Hain.
Roopa Ganguly is now back in Kolkata, after having spent the past five years in Mumbai, appearing in shows like Kasturi for STAR Plus and Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo for Zee TV. “I took those characters to break the image of Draupadi,” she told me. “Both were very weak women. I enjoyed doing those roles.” Ganguly also won a National Award for Best Female Playback Singer for the Bengali film Abosheshey (2011), and played Ileana D’Cruz’s mother in the Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Barfi last year. “I don’t plan my future,” she told me when I asked her what she was doing next.
Praveen Kumar seems to have vanished from the screen. “I recently did some Bhojpuri films and ads, but will come to Mumbai only if there is some good work,” Kumar, who has retired to Delhi’s Ashok Vihar, told me.
The many who have stuck around in Mumbai, most of them residing in or operating out of offices around the Lokhandwala and Versova areas of Andheri, hardly meet to relive the memories. “I think people are very busy,” said Bharadwaj. “Their lives have gone in diverse directions.” Puneet Issar took a more pragmatic view. “In our line, friendships are only project-wise,” he said. “When you associate on a project, you think that the friendship will last forever, but it doesn’t work that way.”
SINCE MAHABHARAT WOUND UP in 1990, there have been, unsurprisingly, several attempts to recreate the phenomenon. In fact, even though Samay had declared an end to the show with “Maharishi Ved Vyas ka jai-kavya aaj samaapt hua” (Ved Vyasa’s great epic concludes today), the Chopras themselves tried to exploit its popularity through Mahabharat Katha, a 45-episode series that aired on DD Metro a few years later. The idea was to deal with some interesting side stories in the epic, but the sequel just didn’t measure up. “The reasons were many,” Gajendra Chauhan explained. “It was shown on a wrong channel [instead of DD National]. Satellite was booming. Thirdly, the Kauravas who were killed in the main Mahabharat were brought back to life in this. People did not accept this.”
“They [the Chopras] shouldn’t have done Mahabharat Katha, but they wanted to stretch it because they realised this was a goldmine,” remarked Puneet Issar. Other attempts included a stylised telling of the Mahabharata by Ekta Kapoor in Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki, where actors boasted six-packs and designer couture, for the TV channel 9X in 2008. That, too, failed to capture the public’s interest.
Five years on, this February, a film titled Mahabharat Aur Barbareek released across Indian theatres and went unnoticed. It was centred on the story of Bhima’s grandson Barbareek, whom Krishna prevents from taking part in the battle of Kurukshetra because of three infallible arrows awarded to him by Lord Shiva, which seemed an insurmountable threat given the brave warrior’s own oath to always support the losing side. The film brought together most of the actors of the original series. “People recognise them even today,” the film’s producer, KK Yadav, told me when I met him in his office in Andheri West. Otherwise a businessman from Gurgaon, Yadav’s first film was Miss Anara (2007), based on a real-life pornography scandal in Jammu and Kashmir involving a beauty pageant winner.
“If Arjun is standing on one side, Puneet Issar on the other, and they are engaged in battle, you don’t need to explain to the audience who they are.” But Barbareek was a pale shadow of the original. The men—some of whom now have double chins—are awkward incarnations of their characters, who are supposed to be the perfect embodiments of suppleness, strength and virility.
Yadav had begun his ambitious quest by approaching Gajendra Chauhan, who had worked in Miss Anara, with the idea of Barbareek. “He was shooting at Film City. I went there and I told him, ‘Mujhe saarey Mahabharat waaley chahiye (I want all the Mahabharat characters).’” Besides agreeing to help on this count, Chauhan also suggested the name of Dharmesh Tiwari, who played Kripacharya in Mahabharat, for director.
And so, 25 years after the original Mahabharat went on air, Nitish Bharadwaj, Roopa Ganguly, Gajendra Chauhan, Arjun, Praveen Kumar, Sanjeev Chitre (Sahdeva), Puneet Issar, Pankaj Dheer, Surendra Pal, Gufi Paintal and Vinod Kapoor (Duhshasan) found themselves cast in the same roles that had made them household names in India. “We even got the same costume and makeup persons we had in the Mahabharat,” said Chauhan, when we met before the film’s release.
“I did not want to do the role, but even if one of us backed out, then it wouldn’t have happened,” Roopa Ganguly said by way of explanation. A few others, such as Pankaj Dheer, were more practical. “I did it for the money,” Dheer told me. “I was paid really well. There were no emotions attached at all.”
The notable absentee in Yadav’s production, made on a modest budget of Rs 5 crore, was Mukesh Khanna. His primary concern was that he no longer did roles that required him to stick on a beard. “Gum itna laga chukaa hoon ki (I have applied so much gum over the years that) my skin revolts against it.”
“Where will I find the same dedication to play Bhishma?” he added. “I am a serious actor. I don’t want to look stupid.” On probing him even further, Khanna said, in a tone not too dissimilar from that of the taat-shree imparting wisdom to the Pandavas in the last scene of the final episode of Mahabharat: “Woh Mahabharat bantey, bantey, bann gayee. Aaj chance hi nahin hai, kyunki mahaul badal gaya hai” (That Mahabharat was destined. Today, it does not stand a chance, because circumstances have changed).