Retelling an epic

The much awaited Mani Ratnam production Raavan has finally hit the screens to mixed reviews. Mani Ratnam has turned to Hindu epics even before for inspiration. His 1991 blockbuster Thalapathi was a modern day retelling of the Arjuna-Karna legend from the Mahabharata. Both the epics have always provided food for thought for filmmakers in the Bombay film industry. They have dealt with the entire gamut of human emotions and every conceivable situation to be confronted by a human being. It must be said that the idea of a ‘nayaka’ (hero) and ‘pratinayaka’ (anti-hero) owes its origin to the story-telling traditions of the Sanskrit theatre, which had its roots in the stories of the ancient courts and epics. These ideas got enshrined in the folk theatre forms and found their way to cinema. Over millenia, these epics have undergone transformations and have been adapted to suit the needs of the times, even of the modern age. Ramayan has been the backbone of the idea behind the ‘Great Indian family’. Every role of every member in a family has been modelled around the characters of the Ramayan and it has been the benchmark against which a human being has been evaluated.

Ramayan made directs advents on the silver screen time and again. Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya (1943) was a huge success of its time and was the only movie to have been watched by Mahatma Gandhi. It blended the Uttar Ram Charit of Bhavbhuti and the idea of a welfare state conceived by Mahatma Gandhi and portrayed Ram as the apotheosis of ideal and just rule. Ramayan continued to come out in umpteen mythologicals through the decades. But the re-telling which made the biggest impact after Ram Rajya was on the small screen. In 1987 Ramanand Sagar’s television blockbuster brought the nation to a halt and even supposedly influenced the volatile political climate of that time. Ever since, every family soap has churned its script from the lather of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat.

 

Ram and Lakshman were the dream-boys of every Hindi family drama. Whenever the Hindi film hero had to be showcased as a paragon of virtue, it was Ram that our filmmakers turned to. Ram would appear time and again as the devoted son, protective husband, caring brother and as the noble citizen setting standards for the rest of the characters in the movie. He would come out in umpteen forms – sometimes as a noble patriot in Manoj Kumar dramas like Upkar and Purab aur Pashchim, as the stoic elder brother working hard to keep his family together as in Do Raaste and Deewar and sometimes as the conscience keeper of the nation as seen in Leader. Sooraj Barjatya, who launched the genre of family dramas with a loud thunder with Hum Aapke Hain Kaun drew multiple references to the epic. A decade later, the very same ideals would echo in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.
Hum Apke Hain Kaun was heavily influenced by the ideals of the Ramayan

 

But the epic provided more than character sketches and very often, the scripts were allegories to the main epic itself. When Subash Ghai titled his blockbuster Ram Lakhan (1989), he was giving the movie much more than a name. In the movie you could easily spot characters from the epic. Ram Lakhan was Ramayan meets Gunga Jumna (1960). Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) was a modern day Ramayan. If the likes of Ram Lakhan and Raavan exploited the action streak of the epic, Hum Saath Saath Hain played on the familial bonds enshrined in the epic.
But it is not just the shades of black and white that attracted the script writers. Ramayan came out beautifully with its shades of grey on the silver screen. At the dawn of independence when Mehboob Khan tried to portray the rapid westernisation of the Indian society in his classic Andaz (1948), it was the Ramayan that he referred to. ‘The self-imposed’ Lakshman rekha was depicted through the character of Nargis who brings disaster upon herself by breaking the norms of the society. The Lakshman Rekha made a reappearance when B.R.Chopra opened Gumraah with the story of Sita’s abduction and set the tone for his extramarital drama where the protagonist paid the hard way for having violated the norms of the society. When Justice Raghunath asked his wife to leave the home after she got pregnant, co-incidentally after having spent a night with the dacoit Jagga in Awara, it was Rama’s abandonment of Sita that Raj Kapoor instantly referred to as is evident in the song Zulm Sahe Bhaari, Janak Dulari. When Manoj Kumar cast aspersions on Waheeda Rehman (both of them dramatically named Ram and Sita) in the reincarnation drama Neel Kamal for sleep-walking out of her home every night and showed her the door upon being pregnant, Sita’s exile was reiterated. In the 1960s, Meena Kumari, in many of her tear-jerking dramas played the suffering protagonist to the hilt – often playing the stoic daughter, wife, sister and very famously, the sister-in-law – all modelled around Sita as conceptualised by the medieval poets.

The fact of the matter is that Hindi cinema for a long time had been unable to come out of the comfort zone provided by the medieval poets and failed, more often than not, to seek the grey pastures boldly. Valmiki’s Sita was not only aware of her super-human aura but also exercised her will and spoke her mind when required. She not only had the spirit to express her disagreement to her husband but also tactically proved her point. What is refreshing about Mani Ratnam’s Ragini is that she is closer to the Sita of Valmiki than to those of the medieval poets who glorified her as a door-mat wife. Ragini’s reaction to an Agnipariksha is full of revulsion and anger and not silent resignation. In Valmiki’s epic, Sita, humiliated by the words of Ram, seethes with rage and accuses Ram of ignobility. In Ravan, Ragini declares herself to be the medium and cause of the nemesis of Beera. She is not a prisoner of fate, but a cause of action. This take is interesting as Sita has been given her due after a long time, even if it is through an allegory drawn to mixed reviews.
(This article was published in The New Sunday Express)

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