BR Chopra’s Mahabharata is the stuff of legend. Although many television series have attempted to adopt its template in the hope of replicating its tremendous success, none have been able to achieve the popularity of the mythological series that aired on Doordarshan between 1988 and 1990. The episodes of the massively successful show have been translated into 30-minute radio programmes, which are being broadcasted from all primary channels of All India Radio and FM Gold stations of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai from Monday to Friday between 11.30am and noon. The 104-episode radio series began on December 19 and will end on June 30, 2017.
As a 1990s kid raised on a steady diet of Disney Hour and Hanna-Barbara cartoons, I never quite understood the appeal of Mahabharat. I have only ever heard about the show’s insane popularity, of how streets and shops were deserted on Sunday mornings while people remained glued to their television sets. I remember watching reruns as a child, waiting impatiently to listen to the morals that dotted the show, not much concerned with anything else.
I approached the radio show blissfully liberated from my rigidly schooled ideas of what a good-looking television show must constitute. I was thus able to fully appreciate why Mahabharat was such a success with an Indian audience not yet galvanised by the Star and Zee satellite networks. While popular culture was caught in a downward spiral in the inane 1980s, Chopra’s Mahabharat was the Goldilocks blend of myth, moral and melodrama, wrapped up in a story integral to the cultural fabric of India.
Compared to the television show, the radio version sits at a contradictory juncture in terms of audience gratification. For a generation that has become inured to fast-paced narratives, the truncated length is likely to make it infinitely more engaging. But for viewers who have collectively succumbed to the tyranny of the eye, it is likely to seem strangely incomplete at first.
Judging by today’s standards, there was nothing remotely special about the special effects at the time when Mahabharat was produced. As a result, it is unlikely to be able to compete with the kind of visuals that audiences have come to expect. Since the radio version is liberated from the burden of having to look credible and grand, it is evocative and dynamic. For instance, hearing King Shantanu whisper romantic endearments to Ganga is much more erotic than watching the actors fumble with each other stiffly.
Most of the dialogue is evocative enough, and can be easily translated into colourful mental images. But it is particularly entertaining to listen to Harish Bhimani’s narration as Samay (Time). The omniscient samay was always meant to be a disembodied and esoteric device, but the charm of radio makes the voice seem even more untethered, and therefore more powerful.
The power of hearing lines without visuals
The life cycle of popular cultural products has always been prone to extension – only the means have evolved in tandem with technology. The radio show of Mahabharat is reminiscent of the time when the life of popular films was extended with cassettes that regurgitated punchy dialogue. As I sat listening to the show, I fully understood why my father still recites the dialogue of iconic films such as Deewar. Hearing lines without visuals is an extremely powerful way of revisiting a piece of film or television – it allows the audience to personalise scenes.
Dialogue is still the most striking feature of Chopra’s Mahabharat. Although the monologue and narration-heavy episodes may seem too verbose in retrospect, this loquaciousness works very well for the radio show, helpfully filling in important details. The unmixed background score also seems appropriately quaint and is great fun to revisit. But the conversations often seem strangely sped up, and lose the introspective and ruminative quality that was the cornerstone of the television series.
The radio version also wonderfully exposes how voice plays a huge role in characterisation – a facet of performance that is eclipsed by body language and costume and goes unnoticed. The radio version allows listeners to appreciate that King Bharat speaks with a soft and lilting voice befitting his personality, the tortured Shantanu has a thicker voice, and Bhishma’s voice is gruff and deep.
Although it has been almost universally revered, Chopra’s interpretation of the Mahabharata epic is by no means pristine. Divorced of their historical context and visuals, several pieces of dialogue now seem to ring of misogyny and casteism. It is an illustration of how the interpretations of the epic change with time, reflecting different social discourses in every decade.
In the most basic sense, Chopra’s Mahabharat is a period drama that hinged on historic nostalgia, a yearning and wonderment for a bygone era. But like all reruns, this radio show is inextricably wound up in a different sort of personal nostalgia. As I tuned into the show, I heard my father hum the title track along with Mahendra Kapoor with a strange wistfulness. After the programme ended, he spent an hour reminiscing about an old home, a big, boxy television set, and a time when vast open spaces in Mumbai were not a pipe dream.
The radio version of Chopra’s Mahabharata stands fairly well by itself. But its connection with numerous personal memories imbues it with tremendous nostalgia, making it sweetly appealing and heart-warming.