Reinterpreting epics

Last Updated 10 July 2010, 10:59 IST

Can an epic poem,composed more than 2,000 years ago and transcribed in an ancient language that only a handful of people can read, thrive in the age of Twitter? In India, yes. And not just one epic but two. The most talked-about movies in India this summer are based on the two great epics of Hinduism — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
It isn’t just Indian cinema that is smitten with those two works. The Difficulty of Being Good, a recent book that uses the Mahabharata to examine contemporary business and politics, has become an unlikely best seller here. This year India’s law minister, M Veerappa Moily, who has written a new reinterpretation of the Ramayana, credited its chaste, long-suffering female protagonist, Sita, with having inspired a women’s rights bill. In Bangalore, India’s technology capital, a contemporary-dance company recently performed a piece based on the principal women of the epics. The myths are retold too, in children’s cartoons and comic books.

Deeply ingrained stories
Indian modernity is beguiling. In this fast-churning, seemingly Westernising, increasingly English-speaking nation, the mythic past is also very much present. For ages the epics have been told, retold, fiddled with. They still resonate, in new but recognisable ways. “The Mahabharata and Ramayana, they sort of permeate our consciousness,” said Bibek Debroy, an economist who published the first of a 10-volume unabridged English translation of the Mahabharata in April. “The stories are deeply ingrained in the minds of Indians.”

So ingrained that when the Indian film director Prakash Jha saw The Godfather for the first time, he saw in it the story of the Mahabharata — a parable of power and blood, centred around a man who, in spite of himself, ends up killing everyone he loves. Jha’s latest film, Raajneeti — the Hindi word for politics — has been described as a cross between The Godfather and the Mahabharata. It is a searing, overdrawn critique of contemporary Indian democracy. A lot of blood is spilled over the spoils of political power. A family destroys itself. There is no redemption.

“A lot of politicians are my friends,” Jha said in an interview. “Some of them have been keeping a safe distance from me now.” He has a personal stake in Indian politics. He ran twice as an independent candidate for Parliament, but lost both times. In Raajneeti a star-filled ensemble cast plays the gods and mortals of the Mahabharata. Draupadi, one of its central female characters, drives a convertible; Arjuna, the reluctant warrior, is an American-trained scholar of Romantic poetry; Karna, the doomed orphan, is the ill-fated leader of outcaste Dalits in a city slum. The film has struck a nerve with Indian audiences.
Nandini Ramnath, film editor for the Time Out magazine in India, pointed out, however, that using the myths in the movies can be a mixed blessing. “Viewers are curious to see how a big-name director reinterprets an epic,” she said. “The advantage of drawing from one of the epics is that viewers are by and large familiar with the characters. The disadvantage is if a filmmaker tweaks an ancient belief too much.”

Take this summer’s other myth movie, Raavan, titled for the 10-headed villain of the Ramayana. Starring Bollywood’s power couple, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, it’s also set in contemporary India. Here, Raavan is an outlaw who kidnaps the wife of a police chief (that’s the aforementioned long-suffering Sita) as revenge for the gang rape of his half sister by rogue cops.

Some critics have read the film as an allegory of the Maoist insurgency sweeping through the Indian hinterlands. The trouble is, Ramnath argued, Bachchan as Raavan “overacts furiously.” He also comes across as more sympathetic and honest than the police chief, making him far less of a villain than is the conventional reading of the Ramayana in Hindi-speaking North India.

In southern India, by contrast, Raavan is often a hero — actually, a learned man, which is why he has 10 heads — and the filmmaker, Mani Ratnam, has made an entirely different movie for the southern audience. Imagine an American Civil War movie with two versions — one for the North, one for the South. Such is the epic-size complexity of Indian pop culture.

The epics are not only used to portray contemporary political issues. They have also been deployed powerfully in politics. In the late 1980s the Ramayana, with its god-hero Ram representing the ideal Hindu man, was serialised on state-owned television, bringing the nation to a virtual halt on Sunday mornings when it was broadcast, and credited — or blamed — with fueling the rise of political Hinduism.

Neither the Mahabharata nor the Ramayana is considered to be the word of God. But they are powerful fables, and they represent for Hindus what the Bible and the Greek myths together may have historically represented in the West. Devdutt Pattanaik, a writer who uses the Hindu epics in human resource management, describes both books as “the template of Indian thought.”

Both epics are believed to have been composed between 300 BC and AD 300. The Mahabharata is longer and more complicated. It contains an estimated 75,000 verses, and its stories span a wide range of human sentiments. It was probably written in snippets and amended by different authors, in different Indian languages, before being codified in Sanskrit.

Characters act as reference points
Its characters are sometimes humans, at other times gods who act deeply human. It contains a story about how the world was made and how the world will end — an apocalyptic war to end all wars. It contains sermons on how to win a war, how to achieve liberation and, perhaps most important, on how to do the right thing. That last bit is the core of The Difficulty of Being Good, and as its author, a retired corporate executive named Gurcharan Das, pointed out, the Hindu notion of doing the right thing is astonishingly modern, emphasising the achievable, not the ideal.

The market for the Mahabharata seems to be insatiable. Penguin, which published both Das and Debroy’s books, is releasing Pattanaik’s retelling of the Mahabharata later this year. The epics are so embedded that they penetrate everyday speech. A woman may be warned against following the path of Ahalya, the adulteress of the Ramayana. A family feud might be compared to the battle of rival clans in the Mahabharata. There’s even a school named after Eklavya, a gifted archer who chopped off his right thumb to prove his devotion to his archery teacher. (Though students at the school are not required to chop off their digits.)

“I don’t know if anything in the Western world has that kind of currency anymore,” said Wendy Doniger, a Sanskrit scholar and a professor of religion at the University of Chicago. “Maybe Adam and Eve.” She recalled a recent encounter in Harrods at Heathrow Airport in London, where she came across a small ceramic pillbox in the shape of Noah’s ark. She mentioned this to the saleswoman, who gave her a blank stare. “The shop girl said, ‘What is Noah’s ark?’”

Doniger said. “In my world there are
no longer stories everybody knows. In India people really know the stories.” Doniger retells those tales in a lively 779-page book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Published in 2009, it is widely available in India, including at airports, perched next to a copy, say, of Who Moved My Cheese?

For Jha, the filmmaker, the stories of the Mahabharata did not first come through books. He was born into a family of Brahmin priests. Children were told the stories of the Mahabharata all the time. They were planted in his brain. To this day, he said, he sees it as the story of all stories. “Every kind of character, every kind of situation is embedded in the Mahabharata,” he said. “It becomes the reference point for our psyche. One is never out of the Mahabharata.”

That sentiment too arises from the Mahabharata. The story ends with this
admonition to storytellers yet to
come: “There is no story that is not contained here.”

(Published 10 July 2010, 10:59 IST)

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