The new Star Plus serial Mahabharat tells a great story. But does it tell the story well? Does it really work? Also very importantly how does it stack up against previous attempts to dramatise this story in TV serial format, particularly the hugely popular first version by B R Chopra?

I have long held the view that the Mahabharat is among the best stories ever told. It has heroic characters with flaws and flawed characters with heroic characteristics; the story is tortuous, tumultuous and utterly gripping. So I found myself hooked to the 1989-90 version by B R Chopra. Alas the Balaji version – Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki (2008 terminated before projected date because of poor TRPs and criticism) completely passed me by so I became determined to catch this latest version of Mahabharat.

One would have thought that it would be hard to despoil a magnificent, sweeping epic such as the Mahabharat; that it would be great no matter how inept the retelling. With all the over the top costumes, highly melodramatic style of dialogue delivery, daily soap style of direction, the makers of the show did have a jolly good try at spoiling it, but ultimately this is such a superb story that it redeems even this retelling.

Show  –   Mahabharat (Original airing on 16 September 2013)

Runs – Monday to Friday at 8:30 pm on Star Plus

Starring –   Shaheer Sheikh as Arjun, Pooja Sharma as Draupadi, Saurabh Raj Jain as Lord Krishna, Sameer Dharmadhikari as Shantanu, Vivana Singh as Ganga, Sayantani Ghosh as Satyavati, Arav Chowdhary as Bheeshma, Puneet Issar as Parshurama, Rio Kapadia as King Subala, Ratan Rajput as Amba, Mansi Sharma as Ambika, Shafaq Naaz as Kunti, Praneet Bhatt as Shakuni, Rohit Bharadwaj as Dharamraj Yudhisthir, Arpit Ranka as Duryodhan, Aham Sharma as Karna, Vibha Anand as Subhadra,  Vin Rana as Nakuul

Producer – Swastik Pictures

Why the latest Mahabharat is good

One cannot give makers of the serial much credit for the story because it was Ved Vyasa after all who first documented this marvelous story, history, mythology, call it what you will. This epic story is a part of the Indian ethos and as such each Indian should be familiar with it. If the story is told in a simple, accessible, serialised, dramatic format on TV, so much the better.

mahabharata poster The New Mahabharat (2013 TV Serial) – Review

The phenomenal reach of the TV itself ensures that the Mahabharat serial now performs the function that grandfathers and grandmothers did, telling stories to kids. The near prime time slot for the serial each weekday and the daily soap style format of the show will ensure that people are hooked to the serial whether for entertainment, reasons of faith or any other motive.

The title track is good and some of the alaaps in the beginning were decent too. The sets are elaborate and glitzy, the show even has some amount of dancing and it generally entertaining and well packaged, never mind trifling details such as historical accuracy and authenticity.

Why the latest Mahabharat is bad

The makers of the serial have faithfully relied on calendar art to dress and deck up the characters in Mahabharat. Clearly no reliance is placed on actual research, and there is no concession made to how people might possibly have dressed thousands of years ago. We are stuck with extremely elaborate costumes, impossibly ornate head gear and jewelley (sometimes rather tacky) and some really serious make up. The makeup is so over the top that you can clearly see Krishna’s lipstick and Satyavati’s fake eyelashes.

If you shut your eyes while watching the serial you may be forgiven for believing that this is any old daily soap – it sounds so much like my mother’s TV each evening when she is immersed in her evening TV fix. The soaring, clashing background music, the highly melodramatic dialogue delivery (albeit in chaste Hindi, seeing that this is supposed to be thousands of years ago); all sound very daily soap-ish. Even the camera angles, the slow mo, the exaggerated facial expressions are daily soap style.

The first episode featured some slightly laughable ‘rakshashas’– the makers ought to have managed getups slightly more believable than a children’s fancy dress competition. And with the kind of technology now available to film and TV serial makers, the shooting arrows, backdrops, external palace scenes and the scene where the Ganga was dammed by arrows should have been far, far more realistic. As it is, they seemed shoddy and amateurish.

The beginning scene featured Satyawati and Shantanu on a raft with some elaborate throne, resplendent with crowns and jewellery (and the fake eyelashes) – it seems a leisure trip of some sort, and Satyawati decides to go fishing. It is not clear where this sub-story or sequence is from.

Oh and Krishna has a bit of a lisp. They should have cast someone else or should have ensured the actor did not have to say so many words with ‘ch’ or ‘sh’ in them.

How this Mahabharat compares with the B R Chopra version

Quite simply the B R Chopra version was better. My memory may be colored by the passage of time and the fact that for its time, that version of Mahabharat was positively path-breaking. The tinsel crowns may also have been over the top, the plywood chariots may have been rickety, and the special effects rather rudimentary, but the casting was much better and the screenplay far superior. And most people viewing this new version seem to miss ‘Samay’ the narrator in the B R Chopra version.

In this latest version of the Mahabharat the women may have better toned midriffs and the men may have washboard abs and hunky shoulders, but the characters are not as powerfully etched. To someone like me who watches no TV (I made an exception for Mahabharat)  the women all look bewilderingly alike – with their pretty, overly made-up faces and uniformly flashing eyes and laden with ornaments, I find it difficult to tell Satyavati from Ambalika and so on. Even Krishna seems sweet but rather insipid.

Contrast this with the original Draupadi (Rupa Ganguly) – she wasn’t just beautiful, she had strength and character stamped over her face. Krishna (Nitish Bhardwaj) was mischievous, conniving, and knowing. The characters were far more nuanced in the older retelling, whereas they appear rather one-dimensional in this latest Mahabharat retelling.

However the show is still in its early stages, having aired only a few episodes. The characters that have appeared so far haven’t had a chance to develop properly and the most interesting characters haven’t even made an appearance. I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and watch some more episodes – only because I enjoy hearing the story of the Mahabharat – no matter who does the telling.

By Reena Daruwala

Also See:
Who was more cruel – Aurangzeb or Shah Jahan ? – Part 1
Ramleela First Look – Poster, Trailer and Preview

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