Prem Sagar's biography of his father, Ramanand Sagar, begins with the words "Jai Shri Ram", reflecting not only the TV mogul's preferred salutation, but also the slogan he made part of a vast swathe of Indian households through Doordarshan's Ramayan.
Even though he was a writer foremost, and a filmmaker of some repute, Ramanand Sagar's destiny " Prem believes " was to create the third Ramayana "after Tulsidas and Valmiki".
Chandramouli Chopra was born near Lahore; on being adopted by his maternal grandmother, he moved to Kashmir and was renamed Ramanand. (The last name of Sagar Ramanand took on years later, on coming to Bombay and being struck by the vastness and calm of the ocean, or sagar.) Sagar began writing from an early age. He studied Urdu at Punjab University, before being struck by tuberculosis. "That was the toughest phase of his life. He almost died," Prem says.
Prem writes his father's life as a battle against the odds, to not just survive but of course, fulfil his natural duty " bringing Ramayan to screen. Be it a last minute escape during the invasion of Kashmir after Partition, or his battle against tuberculosis, Ramanand Sagar faced obstacles as a way of affirming to himself and those around him, the sacredness of his existence. Prem writes in the biography: "The events in Papaji's life were like divine interventions that were slowly paving the way for him to fulfill his destined role " that of creating Ramayan for TV."
After escaping Kashmir, Sagar landed in Mumbai where he began writing for films, assisting major directors, and planning the course for his eventual achievement. Sagar's early years as director were made up of veritable successes like Arzoo, Zindagi and Aankhen (which won him a National Award). In 1985, however, after a couple of his films failed at the box-office, Sagar turned to television.
The production of Ramayan wasn't straightforward. There was dissent and opposition within Doordarshan (which Prem dismisses as "motivated against Ram"). That Doordarshan was the national network, and therefore ought to have remained secular in its programming, was a question Sagar never contemplated. "It was destined to come on television and lead to a spiritual awakening. People went mad. Even those in Doordarshan who wanted to plot against Papaji could not say anything after the stunning viewership that the show commanded," Prem says.
(L) Ramanand Sagar circa 1930s; (R) with Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah. All photos courtesy Prem Sagar
Sagar on the sets of Doordarshan's Ramayan
The seeds for Ramayan were sowed by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who feared losing the support of the Hindu vote bank after the judgement in the Shah Bano case. In his book, Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public, Arvind Rajagopal writes, "It should be remembered that it was the Congress that launched the serial, just as it was the Congress that launched the campaign to re-open the Babri Masjid. Arun Govil, who played Lord Ram in the serial, was brought out in full costume along with Deepika Chikhalia, who played Sita, to campaign for the Congress in an Uttar Pradesh by-election, and Rajiv Gandhi offered Ram Rajya to voters as a campaign promise in 1989. Whatever gains accrued for the Congress from these moves, the net beneficiary was the BJP."
Prem quotes Rajagopal and other critics in the book (in a chapter that seems somewhat forcefully superimposed, to lend the biography some balance). When asked about the presence of these critical anecdotes, Prem says, "They are out there. I have added them but I don't have an opinion about them."
The pilot episode of Ramayan was telecast on 25 January 1987. A rushed pilot prepared within two weeks, the episode was " according to many Doordarshan insiders " poor. The quality would however cease to matter, as extraordinary numbers began to pour in. The cast would come to be venerated by audiences, and so would Sagar.
Arun Govil " Ramayan's lead actor " would become indistinguishable from the role he played. And yet, he was not the first choice to play Ram. Govil remembers paying a visit to Sagar's office on finding out about the Ramayana project where the producer-director looked at him and then dismissed the actor, saying he'd be called once it was time.
Govil was called for an audition " and rejected. He heard that Sagar was in talks with another actor for the role. Then, he received a phone call: it was Sagar, asking him to come for a meeting immediately.
"He told me 'the casting people believe there can be no other Ram other than you', and that is how it all started," Govil told Firstpost during the launch of Sagar's biography in Mumbai.
Arun Govil as Ram in Ramayan
Deepika Chikhalia (L) as Sita in Ramayan
Govil says Sagar was not only an expert technician, but also "an actor's director". "He knew how much potential an actor had and he worked with it," says Govil, adding that the showrunner left the portrayal of Ram entirely to his leading man's discretion. "I played my role based on the knowledge I gained of Ram through various methods of storytelling and reading. There were no special instructions from Ramanandji. When I was selected for the role, he left it entirely to me to play the part the way I liked, apart from discussing a few technicalities on occasion."
Those associated with Ramayan frequently expressed a belief that some divine intervention helped Sagar bring the epic to the TV screen. Govil, for instance, told us that the serial wasn't the result of "human effort alone". Vindu Dara Singh, whose father Dara Singh essayed the part of Hanuman, recounted how Sagar convinced the reluctant, then 58-year-old star to come on board: "I have seen it in a dream," Sagar reportedly told Dara Singh. "God sent me a picture and you were Hanuman [in it]." Singh finally agreed " and according to Vindu, approached it like a sacred experience. When Vindu would, years later, play Hanuman as well, Singh passed on his 'hack' " "no alcohol, no meat, no evil thoughts".
As with Singh, actors Deepika Chikhalia (Sita) and Sunil Lahiri (Lakshman) too were Sagar's choices, and he wouldn't rest until he had convinced them to sign on for their respective parts. Chikhalia, only 18 at the time, remembers how Sagar told her she was "the child of god". Lahiri, who was initially supposed to play the part of Shatrughan, became Lakshman on Sagar's insistence after the original actor (Shashi Puri) opted out after shooting 3-4 episodes.
Chikhalia recounts how Sagar would begin writing the day's scenes every morning, and hand them to the actors by 2 pm. He'd then explain the scenes to the cast. By 6 pm, the actors would have their make-up on and be ready to shoot.
"He was very open to suggestions," Chikhalia says of Sagar. For instance, he left the choice of Sita's vanvaas costume to her. (Chikhalia wore a sari in the Gujarati style for those portions.) When Chikhalia asked Sagar why his usual greeting was "Jai Shri Ram" and not "Jai Siya Ram", he took note.
Chikhalia says Sagar called himself the postman of the modern world, and what he was delivering, was the Ramayana. "Not only did he deliver the epic's message, values, etc¦ but also got the entire nation into a time capsule, transporting them to Ayodhya or Lanka or wherever he wanted," she says.
This dedication could sometimes have unintended consequences. Sunil Lahiri remembers Sagar becoming so engrossed during shoots that he'd forget to break for lunch.
"We were young then and were used to having our meals on time, so I would get angry!" Lahiri recounts. "He would use that anger¦ exploit it. That's how my role as Lakshman became so memorable. He purposefully provoked me into anger, and then use that to show the anger of Lakshman. He used to call me his sixth son because of our love-hate relationship."
Members of the crew remember the Ramayan days as having an odd kind of alchemy, where everyone pulled off seemingly insurmountable tasks against tight deadlines and budgets. "Everybody did their best with whatever was available," says Rudra, who was in charge of the sound mixing. "Throughout the filming, no one got sick, there were no setbacks." Editor Subhash Sehgal says that even if there were ups and downs, those rarely affected Sagar, who was very attuned to the problems of others, and would try to solve them.
A report in India Today from 1987 states that villages where load-shedding was scheduled on Sundays, when Ramayan's telecast was scheduled, faced mass protests. People in Umbergaon, where the serial was shot, would fall to their knees at the sight of Govil. Vindu Dara Singh says when people found out that his father and other cast members travelled by a certain train to Umbergaon, they would all board it and come touch the actors' feet. "The show eventually went on to attract 650 million viewers," says Prem Sagar. "I was able to sell the show's rights in 54 countries. Nothing like it had existed, and nothing ever will."
The biggest political beneficiary of Ramayan wasn't the man who helped it get made, but the man who decided to ride the wave of sentiment it had created. As Ramayan hit screens across the Hindi belt of northern India, BJP leader LK Advani began his Ram Janmabhoomi movement, traversing India on a rath and demanding the construction of a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. The yatra would eventually culminate in the razing of the Babri Masjid and rioting across the country. Incidentally, Advani was a floating presence in Sagar's life, attending his plays and the launch of his films. Though he stayed away from active politics, Sagar often visited Hindu 'sammelans' including ones that called for a movement akin to Advani's.
The Supreme Court's recent judgement in the Ayodhya case is vindication for what Prem believes was his father's struggle and work. "It is written in the stars. I started research on the biography back in 2003 when he was ill. But I never got around to writing anything of note. It is perhaps destined that I completed this book and it was published around the time of the judgment. Justice has been served," Prem says.
Prem's biography of Sagar is full of this sense of fated-ness, but there isn't too much personal insight into the making of the phenomenon that was Ramayan, beyond pre-existing political conjecture and academic research. Asked if he ever disagreed with his father on anything during the creation of show, Prem says: "Never. Maybe on technicalities, but never about anything else. He was born to recreate the Ramayan. We all did as he said."
" With additional reporting by Suryasarathi Bhattacharya