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.