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‘Mahabharata’ doesn’t belong to one country or race – Peter Brook’s nine-hour play is proof of that

In the 1980s, when Indian audiences were watching BR Chopra’s TV series, a critically-acclaimed stage adaptation of the epic was touring the world.

Three years after British playwright and screenwriter Peter Brook staged his French production of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata by the river Rhône at a quarry in Avignon, France, the carelessly baroque and massy version of the great epic beamed from our Weston and Onida TV sets in Hindi. This was 30 years ago, in the October of 1988. We didn’t know much about the French version of Mahabharata then, and that the play also had an English version soon afterwards.

The Mahabharata that played on Doordarshan was an instant hit. In the 1980s, the national television channel was a nest for adaptations and stories engaged with the larger social realities of a young nation. The good people in Doordarshan were building up a reservoir of some of the best screenwriting ever produced in India.

The very year BR Chopra’s Mahabharat started airing, so did two other staggering works: Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India and Govind Nihalani’s Tamas, based on Bhisham Sahni’s novel of the same name. Both works dealt with vast themes related to Indian history and identity. Acting, writing and directing talent worked a lot for Doordarshan in that decade, far removed from the mainstream film pantheon that thrived on over-emotionality and which Amitabh Bachchan and his films had by then fortified.

Chopra’s 94-episode Mahabharat was aired on Sunday mornings. It was an opulently mounted religious melodrama, based on the 90,000-couplets epic by Vyas. Audiences swelled, Sunday mornings became ritualistic – it was nirvana viewed by appointment.

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Creative differences

Le Mahabharata, which Brook turned into an austere film production in 1989, was the stark opposite of the TV serial. Its ambition had a different DNA. With a multi-racial cast of 21 actors from 16 different countries which included Mallika Sarabhai from India in the plum role of Draupadi, it was a vast, immersive enterprise that took the playwright several years to make and write with Jean-Claude Carrière. Although parts of the epic have been used for at least a hundred years in Indian films and other art forms, most significantly in Kathakali, this was the first time the whole epic was adapted for the theatre, and then as a feature film.

Brook’s play ran into nine hours but the film retained its essence of a moral thriller and magnified its human proportions. Actors of African lineage played the roles of Bheem (Mamadou Dioumé), Bhishma (Sotigui Kouyaté), Karna (Jeffrey Kissoon) and Kunti (Miriam Goldschmidt), while Asian actors played Dronacharya (Yoshi Oida) and Gandhari (Hélène Patarot), and most members of the cast were white. It was a truly global project, which took the Indian epic to audiences worldwide.

Peter Brook's The Mahabharata
Peter Brook's The Mahabharata

Like all epics, the Mahabharata wasn’t just for the country of its creation. The New York Times was generous and exaggerated in its praise of Brook’s work: “Revered in India but little known in the West, The Mahabharata is to South Asians what the Bible along with the Iliad and the Odyssey are to us.”

Tricky business

But expectedly, the multi-raciality didn’t go down well in India. In 2015, just before Battlefield, Brook’s sequel of Le Mahabharata premiered in Mumbai, Sarabhai told Hindustan Times in an interview that racial bias had prevented Brook’s Mahabharata to be staged in India when he tried to bring it here a few years after the English version had premiered in Europe. The official reason given was: the TV serial was on, and this play would “confuse” the Indian audience.

Our relationship with our epics hasn’t changed much since then. Other great epics of the world such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf, Virgil’s The Aeneid, Firdawsi’s The Shahnameh are part of classical literature. Mahabharata and Ramayana are sacrosanct. The Bhagvad Gita, one of Hinduism’s greatest texts, is part of the Mahabharata. Alternative readings of Hindu texts are few, such as the exceptionally rational Yuganta by anthropologist Irawati Karve. She argues in her book that religious institutions like temples and gods, even Krishna as a god, are later interpolations to Vyas’s original text. She interprets the Mahabharata as the end of an epoch.

A new Indian film adaptation is in the offing with Malayalam superstar Mohanlal playing the lead role of Bheem in what’s being already promoted as a Rs 1,000-crore multi-national production – an adaptation of MT Vasudevan Nair’s novel Randaamoozham.

Peter Brook's The Mahabharata
Peter Brook's The Mahabharata

Hindi cinema’s most ambitious star Aamir Khan recently expressed his desire to play the role of Krishna or Karna and mounting a production with Baahubali director SS Rajamouli. Soon afterwards, the media reported that after seeing the hostility towards Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) Khan changed his mind about attempting to interpret an epic that is so central to Hinduism. If only he could muster the imagination to bring alive the origin of the internet as a Mahabharata story, as Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, proudly did.

Universal story

Brook’s version is akin to Karve’s because he too strips down the godly and lays bare the skeletal humanity of the text. He celebrates the fact that the Mahabharata is not just a monolithic good-versus-evil morality tale, but about ambivalent, mortal things – relationships, dreams, disguises and shadows. Carrière writes in In Search of the Mahabharata: Notes of Travels in India with Peter Brook 1982-1985 about the difficulty in choosing the rights words for the script (he translates atman as depth of one’s being).

Without the elaborate stage dynamics in which Brook and his team mounted the play, the film retains the soul of the Mahabharata. In simple but beautiful and powerful words, they take us through the timeless moral dilemmas of life: What’s righteous and where does righteousness take us? Why does man lust for power? What is fidelity, motherhood and bravery? What are the advantages of privileges we are born into over mere beauty and strength? What is the meaning of god, heaven and hell?

Peter Brook. Photo credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP
Peter Brook. Photo credit: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

Brook seems to believe the Mahabharata exists everywhere. He has said in several interviews that what interested him most about it, and the reason he first thought of adapting it to stage soon after the Vietnam War, was the idea implicit in it that there is a cosmic harmony which is perennially under threat, and all individuals contribute their bit to this disruption. That’s one of the reasons the Mahabharata is relevant to all ages and reigns.

I revisited the two-disc DVD recently to find that nothing like it exists today. The special effects are primitive, the costumes are luxuriously detailed in a few shades of black, brown and white, and the acting has the stiltedness inevitable when stage theatrics pass through the prism of a film camera. The story begins with Vyas who is more than the writer and narrator of the story. He is taking a young boy named Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson, through the gory as well as glorious history of his ancestors – their wars and adventures, which, by inference, tell the story of all mankind.

The epic becomes intelligible and universal – and tells us why something as captivatingly human as the Mahabharata should not belong just to one nation or race.

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.