For 78 weeks between 1987 and 1988, India, courtesy Doordarshan, was hooked on a heavenly opiate: the Sunday morning serialisation of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Variously termed, the ‘religious serial’, the ‘soap opera of the gods’ and so on, the television drama, had notched up a mind-boggling viewership of 85 per cent. Examples of its popularity were Legion: brides refusing to participate in wedding rites till the end of the episode; ministers turning up late for their own swearing-in ceremony; an entire train kept waiting while the driver and its passengers caught up with the latest instalment.
Familiarity rather than novelty appeared to be the key to its success. Rama, the hero of the serial and an avatar of the god Vishnu, was probably the best-known deity in the Hindu pantheon. Dussehra, the day he triumphed over his adversary Ravana, and Diwali, the occasion of his return home after a long absence are widely celebrated Indian festivals.
The story of Rama: the dutiful son who left his kingdom, Ayodhya, to fulfil a promise made by his father; of Rama the powerful warrior who battled with the mighty Ravana to retrieve his wife Sita; of Rama the noble king who put his people before his marriage; were known throughout
the length and breadth of the country. It was the stuff of bedtime stories as well as philosophical discourses. It had also been a fount of inspiration for poets and dramatists. The original Ramayana was believed to have been composed some time between 1500 and 200 BC by a robber turned sage Valmiki who was said to have been inspired by the god Brahma. Since then the saga had been
written and rewritten innumerable times. According to the author, R. K. Narayan, who produced his own English version, The Ramayana Retold: ‘India is a land of many languages, each predominant in a particular area and in each one of them a version of the Ramayana is available, original and brilliant and appealing to the millions of readers who know the language.’ Kathakali dancers in the south routinely enacted the momentous war between Rama and Ravana. And a host of Ramlila troupes existed all over the country each performing its own idiosyncratic vision of the legend.
The television Ramayana however bore the unmistakeable stamp of Hindi cinema. Mythologicals though irregular were a familiar genre in Indian cinema and were characterised by a heavy reliance on trick photography, theatrics, garish colour and emotive music.
That all these elements were forcefully present in the small screen adaptation was not really surprising for its maker, Ramanand Sagar, was himself the epitome of the Hindi film producer. The short, bald producer, a Hindu emigre from Lahore who came to Bombay following Partition, started his career as a writer and went on to make a series of successful films.
His Ramayana, which he scripted and directed, had all the ingredients of a filmi production. It also reflected his north Indian origins. The sets and costumes clearly belonged to the north Indian tradition; the chief characters, apart from Ravana the king of Lanka in the south, were cast in the Aryan mould and spoke high flown Hindi which was the language of the Indo-Gangetic plains.
The televisation of the Ramayana evoked a storm of protest. The complaints stemmed from a concern that television was being used to propagate a certain ideological message. The belief was not without basis. Despite the partial commercialisation of the medium, Doordarshan authorities had continued to exercise powers of selection by insisting that serials should combine entertainment with a desirable message. Hence soaps such as Hum Log and Buniyaad were approved for promoting, among other things, a desirable idea of ‘national integration’.
What was not really questioned was the idea of a nation that came through these and similar serials which was clearly north Indian and middle class, a startlingly narrow definition for a heterogeneous country such as India. With the decision to telecast the Ramayana and consecutively, the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, concern mounted that in secular India, where 15 per cent of the population consisted of non-Hindu religious groups, the state was also propagating the ideal of a Hindu Nation. Predictably, the apprehensions were voiced most forcefully by a vocal section of the minorities, particularly the Muslim community which comprised 12 per cent of the population, and in the South the intellectual elite was also appalled by Sagar’s kitschy representation of the Indian classic.
The actual popularity of the Ramayana however, silenced its many critics. Within weeks, the serial had garnered one of the largest audiences in the history of television. And soon it was clear that its following, far from being solely Hindu, comprised people of various religious persuasions. According to an account by Mark Tully in his No Full Stops in India, fan letters poured in from Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, the very communities on whose behalf cudgels had been taken up against the serial.
‘May our Lord Jesus and Mother Mary Bless you and keep you well,’ wrote a Christian lady from the South to one of the characters. ‘Your name will shine and shine like the morning star in the horizon,’ gushed a Muslim in a letter to Ramanand Sagar.
So powerful was the impact of the serial that its cast of unknown actors not only achieved overnight celebrity status but the chief protagonists came to be venerated as gods. ‘At functions really grown-up people come and touch your feet,’ Deepika, the young actress playing Rama’s wife Sita told Tully. The programme’s popularity also enabled its maker, Ramanand Sagar to extend the serial way beyond its contracted period of 52 weeks and collect more money from his sponsors which included a toothpaste company, a noodle-manufacturer and a textiles producer.
Excerpted with permission from Telly-Guillotined How Television Changed India, Amrita Shah, Sage Publications/Yoda Press.