In 1976, during the course of shooting for the movie Charas in Switzerland, Papaji and the three of us—Subhash, Anand and me— were sitting in a very tiny roadside cafe in the French part of the Alps town Les Deblecaire. It was freezing cold. After a hard day’s work, Papaji ordered a jug of red wine. Having served the wine, the French-Swiss man pushed a solid wooden rectangular cabinet of wood to face us and opened its front door to reveal a screen of glass. He switched on a button and soon, we were watching a French film in colour. It was unbelievable to see a solid wooden cabinet with no film tape or cassette playing a film on the screen. We were stunned! It was a colour TV—something we had never seen till then.
Papaji went into deep thought over his glass of red wine. The awakening had happened as ordained. He announced to the three of us, ‘I am leaving cinema … I am getting into television. My life’s mission is to bring to mankind the virtuous story of Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram; followed by the one with sixteen virtues, Shri Krishna; and finally, the story of Maa Durga with infinite shakti.’
The industry people thought that the Sagars had lost their mind. After all, we were a successful production house and things were going fine for us in cinema, so why would we even think of moving to TV? Who will watch a serial about mukut-mooch (crown and moustaches)?
But Papaji was firm. He got pamphlets of Ramayan and Shri Krishna printed, announcing them to be launched through video cassettes; bought me a round-the-world air ticket, gave me contact letters to some of his richest overseas Indian friends and sent me off on a business trip to collect funds for his mammoth dream project. Some of them stared at me in disbelief. A few politely instructed their secretaries to see me out of their office. Close friends advised me to put some sense into my father. After a month of hobnobbing, I came back empty-handed. There were zero buyers for Ramanand Sagar’s vision and Ramayan.
In the mid-Eighties, when TV had taken off in India, Sharad Joshi, scholar and columnist of the Indian newspaper Navbharat Times, and I got down to the roots of Somdev Bhatt’s twenty-five stories of the Indian classic Betaal Pachisi, the foundation of the TV serial Vikram aur Betaal. The idea was to take a classic story and make it both engaging and deeply meaningful. The serial was designed for children and families, but the allotted time slot seemed to be a disaster…But Vikram aur Betaal created history on Indian television with the India Today magazine talking about its ‘… electronic special effects coming to Indian television …’ and how ‘Vikram aur Betaal has unveiled an electronic era …’
Papaji was now confident that ‘mukut–mooch’ would work. The entire test-marketed star cast of Vikram aur Betaal was cast in Ramayan. Arun Govil, who played King Vikram, was cast as Ram; Deepika Chikhalia, the princess in many episodes of Vikram Aur Betaal, was Sita; Sunil Lahri, the prince in many episodes, became Laxman; and Dara Singh, who had played Virvar the warrior, was now the mighty Hanuman.
Another important reason that made Ramanand Sagar shift from cinema to TV was the increasing hold of the mafia in Dubai on the film industry. The dispute regarding the overseas rights of Feroz Khan’s film Qurbani was settled by the mafia. Not only Papaji but also a number of other serious dedicated filmmakers considered the future of Indian film industry to be dark, what with the mafia in Dubai increasingly interfering in the film business.
Initially the think tank of the Government of India was averse to the idea of bringing the Ramayana and the Mahabharata on DD. But DD’s officials argued that these were classical epics, purely depicting our culture, and not necessarily religious. Valmiki treated Ram as a human being, who is an ideal man—‘Maryada Purushottam’.
Everything seemed to be going just fine, but a storm was brewing, gathering strength in the power corridors of Delhi. Many a power lobby in the Congress Party felt that broadcasting Ramayan on DD would topple the apple cart of politics and the ruling government. Apparently, a major objection came from the I&B minister V.N. Gadgil who felt a Hindu mythological serial on a public broadcaster would give rise to Hindu power and benefit the vote bank of the BJP. He feared that Ramayan would instil a sense of pride in the Hindu community and increase the possibility of the BJP coming to power. On the other hand, there were whispers that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi himself had suggested that the DD authorities telecast the great Indian epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and that these epics were our cultural heritage and needed to be shown with pride and in all their glory. The conjecture was that the judgement of the Shah Bano case was perhaps influencing his political decisions.
A cat-and-mouse game had begun between the bureaucracy ruling Delhi and the cultural decision-makers in Mandi House, the DD headquarters in Delhi. The ploy was not to convey an outright ‘no’ but find some excuse or the other to delay the permissions and finally find faults or loopholes to not let the epics be telecast. For days and months together, Papaji was made to go around in circles. At times he would wait for hours outside the offices in Mandi House or the secretarial corridors. Many a time, he would park himself for over a week at The Ashok Hotel in Delhi, waiting for a phone call or an appointment, which if it materialised, lasted only a few minutes and yielded no positive results. At times he landed up early mornings at a bureaucrat’s house, finding the husband and wife tending to their garden, excusing themselves for not having time for him. It all seemed like a dark tunnel with no light at the end. To add to this, the four pilot episodes were reduced to one. Finally, a peon in Mandi House, while handing back the video cassettes of the four-reduced-to-one episode, officially conveyed to Papaji what the babus at DD felt … that he did not know how to write dialogues and his language needed to get better. It was humiliating for an author of Ramanand Sagar’s standing, having written so many books and film scripts, to hear this.
Coincidentally, there was a reshuffle in the bureaucracy. The anti-Ramayan group of secretaries, joint secretaries, etc., planted by the ministry were shifted to other portfolios. It seems four secretaries were shunted out in a single day. V.N. Gadgil had already been given a new ministry around November 1986. He no longer had any say in the I&B Ministry or DD. The new I&B Minister Ajit Kumar Panja was more cinema-friendly.
It was a normal practice for many sadhus to come home or to our office at Natraj Studios… That day, instead of my mother, Papaji decided to meet the sadhu.
He was a very young sadhu and had a brilliant aura around him. Papaji asked him how he could help him. He said that he had come to give him a message from his guru in the Himalayas. Suddenly, to Papaji’s shock, the tone and volume of the sadhu changed into that of a command, ‘Who are you? What is this pride—I will not do this … I will not do that! What do you think … you are making the Ramayan! Why are you worried? In the upper spiritual world, there is a yojana vibhag (planning commission). India is going to lead the world and a few of you have been sent to create awareness. Do your work and come back …’
Excerpted with permission from An Epic Life Ramanand Sagar, Prem Sagar, Westland.