Featuring super-warriors, battles and new-age weapons, Graphic India’s animated web series, 18 Days, was launched recently. The series revisits the Indian epic Mahabharata and has been conceptualised by comic book creator and Batman writer Grant Morrison. Available on YouTube in weekly instalments throughout the year, he talks about how it had to be adapted to suit western audiences.
The Mahabharata is an epic that has been retold time and again. What drew you to it?
It was Sharad Devarajan (co-founder and CEO of Graphic India). When Sharad approached me with the idea of doing a new version of the story, I jumped at the chance.
When was it that you got acquainted with the story for the first time?
I’ve known about the Mahabharata since I was a child. I’ve watched it performed as a wayang shadow play in Indonesia, and as a BBC drama serial in the ’90s. I made a point of including it as an influence on my long-running comic book series The Invisibles. It wasn’t until I started work on this new version, however, that I really got to grips with the structure and the philosophical underpinnings of the story. I think it’s one of, in fact, several of, the greatest human stories ever told.
Have you read the original?
I read several versions, including RK Narayan’s condensed retelling, Ramesh Menon’s two-volume modern rendering and the short, punchy The Penguin Companion to the Mahabharata — which manages to explain everything in 138 pages. It is probably the best book for a newcomer. I have also read a selection of Amar Chitra Katha comic books on the story. Also helpful on the spiritual side were Sri Sri Paramahansa Yogananda’s God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita and Perennial Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Rama.
Were you able to relate to the concepts presented, like karma or the four ages?
I found it quite easy, although I had to disconnect from western ideas about good and evil and think instead in terms of karma and dharma, which are much more complex and, to be honest, more relevant and useful ideas. This story is less about Good vs Evil in the traditional western sense and more about dealing with compromise, anger, greed and fear.
Doesn’t the fact that everyone knows the story and the characters restrict your base?
While there are over a billion people who know the story, there are billions more who remain unaware of what they’ve been missing. The Mahabharata is one of those great stories of ancient knowledge that has resonance beyond any one culture.
A major issue with Indian mythology is that western audiences aren't able to relate to it.
A good story is a good story, no matter what, and this is a great story. Just as you don’t have to be a hobbit and live in the Shire to appreciate The Lord of the Rings, you don’t have to be well-versed with Indian culture to enjoy the Mahabharata. Also, we’ve taken what’s often portrayed as a historical battle and turned it into a mythical one, so it’s more fantastic and science-fictional than previous retellings.
Do you have a favourite character?
It is Karna. I love the idea of someone who should have been the ultimate hero — except fate decides otherwise and other guys get all the breaks. I find him human and relatable. Women have been catalysts in the Mahabharata, often altering the story. This take focuses mainly on the battle. The women make their presence felt in flashbacks. The fact is that Krishna basically sets the entire war in motion, and sacrifices millions of warriors to avenge the humiliation of Draupadi.
Yudish: “He is the leader of the gang and he fits the new ideal of the modern, realistic and conflicted hero. As a key to his stature, think of the King Arthur of India.”
Bhima: “He’s the Wolverine — the no-messing-around hero we all love. He also carries an unforgettable mace — quite simply an enormous techno-atomic hammer of the gods! Compared to this apocalyptic weapon, the hammer of Thor is a tiny fire-alarm-window breaker.”
Arjuna: “He is a super warrior of the highest calibre — one of five brothers who make the Justice League of America look like a high school football team.”
Lord Krishna: “Krishna is not of this world and embodies the spirit, alien, elf, or intelligent 'Other' races which haunt our stories and folktales. In a series filled with muscular giants, musclemen and super-athletes, Krishna is a rock star.”
Beeshma: “He is the Big Man. He’s Obi Wan Kenobi and The Terminator rolled into one, but his time is coming to an end, and perhaps he can feel the chill.”
Duryodhana: “Unlike the lunatics, megalomaniacs or just plain Satanic villains of western epic tales and movies, this is no cackling Nazi supervillain. Duryodhana represents the force of raging desire, greed and unstoppable ambition in all of us.”