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Prime-time mythology

Utkarsh Patel, --- @utkarshmp

Updated: December 23, 2015, 11:10 AM IST
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Prime-time mythology
With the advent of the television, mythology came home. It opened up a world which was hitherto little known to many.

A sudden spurt in mythological serials on television warrants the basic question - just why has there been a sudden interest in mythology? The focus is not just on the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, but different gods and goddesses, like Shani dev, Hanuman, Santoshi Mata, Bheem, Narada muni, etc.

If we see the history of mythologicals, as they are popularly referred to, this was a staple ever since Dadasaheb Phalke made the first movie, Raja Harishchandra, which was a mythological movie and soon many such of the same genre followed suit. Similar movies in different regional languages were being made and the audiences were lapping it up as mythology was a subject which every Indian was very close to. While all this while, people had known the stories, getting to see them was a visual treat, what with all the magic and grandeur thrown in!

With the advent of the television, mythology came home. It opened up a world which was hitherto little known to many. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana created history in television viewership like never before and much to the discomfort of its critics, who had ruled out the success of such serial. In the absence of any ratings like the TRP’s, the rising advertisement revenue was a testimony of the success of the serial. The devotional response of the audience to Phalke’s movies and Sagars serials, though separated by more than half a century, was much the same. The audience euphoria to Sagar’s teleserial was unprecedented and the rest as they say was history. Then came B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharat, which too saw a successful run, making unknown actors, overnight stars.

Then there was a glut for a decade or so, when the saas-bahu soaps ruled the roost. The last few years however, has seen a new rise in the mythologicals. Every TV channel is vying to have one mythological serial in its offering. But times have changed and so has production value, and one look at the serials will tell you that graphics play a very important part in today’s serials. The grand sets of palaces, battle-field, mountains and valleys, etc. are a visual treat for many, who are now exposed to the grandeur of Hollywood and Bollywood alike. Technology is very important and the visual treat is a major factor in many of them. However, according to many people, the only casualty is authenticity. Is that true?

During my interaction with one of the consultants to a popular mythological serial I came to know that the consultant was told by the production head that they wanted the serial to have the look and feel of “Lord of the Rings”! When the consultant asked them why, he is supposed to have said, that it gives them a larger audience and a younger audience too! A serial based on Ramayana, which is on air is supposed to have shown the ashram where the child Ram undergoes his education, a rather huge structure (a la Nalanda) as against a Spartan ashram of the erstwhile times. Also, sages who were supposed to be imparting the knowledge of scriptures were also imparting martial training – was it a mix up with the Mahabharat? An occasional romantic interlude, where there was none, is visible too between the central characters, makes it more fictional than mythological.

A recent article in the national daily has raised instances of deviations from the original epics. Should that be allowed? While the question is pertinent, just where is the central authority for such works? Numerous versions of the myths and epics have made them vulnerable and very often the creators of these serials end up creating new myths to get eyeballs. Challenging the veracity is an arduous task and the consultants who often are scholars in their fields end up having to overlook the anomalies, as the director and the producer take the final call.

Will not the new generation learn a dubious version of the myths that are shown on the television? On the brighter side, they will know something, instead of nothing. If such grandiose production gets them closer to our epics then the purpose might just have been served. On the darker side, this tweaking in the myths will only end up creating a new version of the myths, like many other in existence.

Is that fair? Probably not, but then this is entertainment and not education. This is run-up to popularity not Puritanism. This is commerce, not classic. Those interested in the truth, will have to seek it in texts and those keen on entertainment; will get it in the box, seems to be the nonchalant message! The start of a debate itself is a good beginning though. While mythology and legends are being given a grand visual presentation, an ‘occasional transgression’ is a minor casualty. Economic considerations for the production team and an easy acceptability with an audience which prefers an experience to authenticity, has only led to a vast evening-audience whose prime motive is entertainment.

Not much has changed from the 80s when Ramanand Sagar had ignored the growing tribe of critics since the audience preference was in tangent to that of the critics. The nay-sayers can write columns and criticise and the scholars can speak against it, but the popularity of the teleserials is only growing with a little care to the ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’.

The television channels seem to be saying, with due apologies to the bard – If mythology be the need of the hour, dish it till the audience can take it no more! If entertainment be the main factor, then serve them in the grandest of a-la-carte that that can be offered.

First Published: December 23, 2015, 11:10 AM IST

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