When Mahabharat first went on air in 1988, on Doordarshan, not many people expected it to become this successful. Within weeks of its launch, the TV show became part of many Sunday morning routines. The epic show was produced and directed by late film-maker BR Chopra and his son, late Ravi Chopra.
What made Mahabharat so popular was the team that worked on its various aspects. While its script was written by renowned Urdu poet late Rahi Masoom Raza, popular music composer late Raj Kamal worked on its soundtrack. The title track of the show, which was sung by veteran playback singer late Mahendra Kapoor, gives TV lovers goosebumps even today. Mahabharat had only 94 episodes, and it got the highest TRPs at that time.
The cast of the show included Mukesh Khanna as Bhishma, Nitish Bhardwaj as Lord Krishna, Roopa Ganguly as Draupadi, Puneet Issar as Duryodhan, Arjun Firoz Khan as Arjun, Pankaj Dheer as Karna, Gajendra Chauhan as Yudhishthir, Praveen Kumar as Bhim, Girija Shankar as Dhritarashtra, Renuka Israni as Gandhari, Nazneen as Kunti, Surendra Pal as Dronacharya, and Gufi Paintal as Shakuni, among several others.
Apart from playing Shakuni, Paintal also played multiple roles behind the scenes. He was the show’s associate director, casting director and production designer. In fact, he also directed many episodes. He auditioned over 5,000 actors to choose the perfect cast. “It was a tedious job. We conducted the most extensive auditions in the history of TV back then,” says Paintal.
He recalls, “Puneet had accidentally punched Amitabh Bachchan in Coolie (1983), and was out of work. Nitish was spotted in an ad made by the Chopras.” He adds that around six actors were shortlisted for the role of Draupadi, including Juhi Chawla, who opted out of the show as she had bagged a film. “Ramya Krishnan and Roopa were the final names, and we chose Roopa, as her Hindi was good,” he says. Govinda and Chunky Panday were signed for the role of Abhimanyu, but they opted out when they bagged films. Later, Master Mayur played the role.
One of the most impressive characters, Bhishma, was played effortlessly by Khanna. “It got me noticed in the industry. I was offered the role of Duryodhan earlier, but I didn’t take it up, as I didn’t want to play the villain. I had auditioned to play Arjun and Karna, but I didn’t get those parts,” Khanna remembers.
Dheer was the makers’ first choice for Arjun, but he refused to take up the role as he was required to shave off his moustache for it. “I was thrown out of the show due to my refusal. After four months, Chopra saab offered me Karna,” he says. Meanwhile, when the role of Lord Krishna came to Bhardwaj, he felt it was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. “People would touch my feet in public, thinking that I was Lord Krishna. Playing the character got me a lot of respect. It also taught me humility,” he told HT in an earlier interview.
Paintal insists that the show helped every actor become successful. He says, “That role is a matter of pride for me even today. I am surviving today due to Shakuni.” Khanna feels that a show of that scale cannot be made today. “Actors had to devote a lot of time to the project, so that the director doesn’t compromise on the show’s quality,” he says.
Shooting the war sequences was the most difficult part for the cast of Mahabharat. They shot for the scenes 40km away from Jaipur (Rajasthan) in June. “We had no vanity vans or make-up rooms. We stayed in tents. There was one toilet for 40 people. We didn’t have personal make-up men. We would wear heavy metal costumes that would heat up and were very uncomfortable,” says Dheer.
He recalls a scene when his chariot was racing away in the field and it broke down mid-way. “The horses went haywire. I had to jump off the chariot or I would have died,” he says. Dheer was also hit by an arrow near his eye during a fight scene once and had to get surgery for the same.