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)