The Many Mahabharatas I Grew up With – and That Helped Me Grow

Ever since BR Shetty, a Dubai-based businessman, announced that he would pump in Rs 1,000 crore into making a Mahabharata for the big screen, I've been having the heebie-jeebies.

You might say I have a vested interest in it. The Mahabharata, in some form or the other, has either been a dominant fixture or a driving force in my life. It is this book/poem/TV serial/comic that pulls me into a reverie time and again and shifts my perspective.

BR Chopra’s Magnum Opus

I was eight years old then. This was the Vizag of the 90s; lazy, humid, a handful of hotels and four movie halls, and a 21-inch Videocon television set with a dark pink on/off button. Cable TV arrived and with it came USA's longest running soaps, ‘Santa Barabara’ and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful,’ and also ‘The Crystal Maze’, a game show hosted by a bald man with a funny accent and an overcoat.

But of all the shows, it was ‘The Mahabharata’ rerun at 9 am on Sundays that held my attention for an entire hour. I was in love with Nitish Bharadwaj's Krishna. Especially his wonked, wry smile that was at once sarcastic and endearing.

I understood as much – of the intricacies of Dharma and of the path of Yoga, and why Draupadi was molested in the presence of otherwise good men – as an eight-year-old's intellect allowed. But little did I know that the scene that showed a nameless tunnel digger putting the mighty Bhim in place would be etched in my heart and change the way I perceived 'work'.

Kalyug and the Absence of Krishna

I realised I was a movie buff when, in 1993, megastar Chiranjeevi's Mutha Mesthiri felt like old khichdi reheated as I watched it in the theatre. It was maybe a year later that I watched Shyam Benegal's Kalyug on TV. It disturbed me.

On the one hand, the movie was flawless. Everything – from the dialogues to the way the scenes changed to the depiction of lust – was new and stark and a few more things for which I had no adjectives at the time.

On the other hand, I was troubled by the tragedy. All of my heroes, placed in a modern setting, fell domino-like into the pits of their own petty desires and vast appetites. I reconciled with the movie eventually, observing that Krishna, the sutradhar of the story, was missing from the plot. "This is no Mahabharata,” I would often repeat to myself.

Millenial Comic and the ‘Other’ View

Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘Mahabharata’. The Gita comprised of a portion of the book. The translation from Sanskrit to English that a 10-year-old could understand was stupefying. (Photo Courtesy: Amar Chitra Katha)

I caught the bibliophile bug from my mother. I'd watch her read, on the bed or sofa or dewan or at the dining table, whenever she found respite. She'd hold the book in her left hand, and could flip the pages with the thumb and pinky! She'd be eating with the right hand. I am yet to master this art.

I read my first comic (‘Tinkle’) after I read my first novel (The Golliwog, Enid Blyton). And then, when I was seventeen, I dared to pick up Amar Chitra Katha's 'Mahabharata', a hardbound three-volume set. It was red in colour with gold lettering. The font belonged to a serif family. The titling was stretched calligraphically. I was then in boarding school and had returned home for my vacations.

It was one of the best reading experiences ever.

It was mango season and at the turn of every page, a slice of Imampasand or Banganapalli pressed juicily in my mouth. To me, the book still smells of mangoes and a summer 20 years old.

The epilogue of the omnibus was actually a story on how the Amar Chitra Katha team went about translating, scripting and drawing the epic. I realised it was one of those understated gargantuan endeavours that eventually changed lives.

In winter the same year, back in XIIth standard, I was introduced to Urubhanga, a Sanskrit play by Bhasa (3rd century) that portrayed Duryodhana as humane. I found this hard to digest at the time, but realised that my black-or-white approach to people and characters and myself was faulty. I didn't know enough about anyone to form an opinion, let alone judge.

Urubhanga forced me to grow up.

Kisari Mohan Ganguly and Neil Gaiman

Volume 8 from the Sandman omnibus. In it, stories within stories within sub-narratives coalesce beautifully. (Photo Courtesy: Vertigo)

I started earning in 2006, when I forced myself into a news channel in Delhi as a temp. More than half of my fourteen thousand rupees would go into graphic novels from Odyssey and Om Book Shop. Neil Gaiman's Sandman moved my world and Alan Moore's From Hell showed me that it was possible to fear the dark after reading a comic book.

Through all of this, every time I came across an amazing story, my mind would go back to the 'upakathas' (sub-narratives) from Kisari Mohan Ganguli's almost-literal translation of the Mahabharata in its entirety. The three-volume work was over five thousand pages long. There were more stories in the first hundred pages or so than I imagined possible.

Also, each story occurred within another.

The story of Garuda’s origins occurs within the story of Janamejaya, which follows the story of Parikshit, which is the retelling of the Mahabharata story by Ugrasravas, to whom Vyasa had first narrated it!

This throwback was courtesy my tryst with Sandman Volume 8 (‘World's End’), where four layers of stories beautifully coalesce.

Devdutt Pattanaik and Rashmirath

I haven't read any of Pattanaik's retellings. The excerpts didn't move me. And yet, Jaya – a recounting of the Mahabharata – is almost all around me, in conversations, reviews, references in other articles and in interviews ad nauseam. Maybe someday I'll give it a go, but not yet.

What did move me to tears was Manoj Bajpai's rendition of Rashmirathi, an epic poem by Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'. The portion he performed was a description of Krishna's wrath and the declaration of war. While I'm not enamoured by his view that Karna is a victim of circumstances, I fell in love with Hindi all over again. I was first introduced to Dinkar in 8th grade, with the poem Mazdoor.

Randamoozham and the Rs 1000-Crore Fright

Mohanlal will play Bhim in a screen adaptation of Randamoozham, an alternate retelling of the Mahabharata in Malayalam, from Bhim’s viewpoint. Will it be a colossal waste of a Rs 1000 crore budget? (Photo Courtesy: Garuda Creations)

Randamoozham is the Malayalam-language Mahabharata from Bhim's perspective. It strips the epic of the fantastic, and tries to depict the horrors of war (including problems of sanitation; where will the soldiers poop?). It is possible that the Malayali business magnate BR Shetty will adapt this version of the epic into a feature film, into which he is to pump in Rs 1,000 crores. Mohanlal has already come on board officially to play the role of Bhim.

Nostalgia apart, I am yet to come across a more convincing or nuanced visual interpretation of the Mahabharata than BR Chopra's 94 episodes. The 2013 version on Star Plus reduced it to a family feud, told in typical soap opera style. In most places, it was emetic, if not staid.

To try to confine the Mahabharata to a single viewpoint or story arc is to miss the point; it is a story that unfolds throughout one’s life.