The Mahabharata is the greatest epic in the world. It is the greatest story in the world. So it is a pity that, so far, we have had only one full TV series based on it (BR Chopra’s Mahabharata, made in the Eighties; Ekta Kapoor’s version a few years ago stopped abruptly in the middle). As someone who is a devoted fan the epic, I was delighted to hear that the Mahabharata was coming back on our TV screens in a “magnificent” new avatar. But after watching the first few episodes, I must confess to feelings of disappointment. Here’s why. Yes, the scale of the Mahabharata is grand and overwhelming. The characters are larger than life. Highly dramatic events take place in the epic. But at the same time, it is a nuanced look at human beings and their frailties. There is never any doubt that the Pandavas have dharma on their side, but even so, the beauty of the epic is that almost every major character’s behaviour, seen from his/her perspective, has logic and force. Often, the characters are just tragic victims of circumstances.
It is this balance that is missing from the TV series. Everything is so exaggerated that you feel you are watching a series of unreal events rather than following a deeply emotional story. Even relatively less important moments are treated with such overblown drama that when you really need the drama at crucial junctures ­— such as Bheeshma’s brahmacharya pledge — the impact is lost. The constant, loud background music makes you yearn for some stillness and gravity — which you must have if you’re going to tell this particular story.
I also understand that in any TV series, the makers need to have some freedom to interpret characters, but I’m puzzled as to why the show has chosen to change crucial details. In every version of the Mahabharata that I’ve read, the condition — that Satyawati would marry Shantanu only if her son and not Devavrata became king — is not put forward by Satyawati, but by her father. (maybe the story is told differently in some versions; if so, I would be grateful for references) The show does no justice to Amba either, whose tragic story is like a festering wound in the story. In the TV show, they convert her into a crazy, screeching banshee (could Ratan Rajput have put in a worse performance? I doubt it). Was all this to present Bheeshma as an unblemished superhero who can do no wrong? (And, in the process, to present the women as shrill stereotypes?) If so, it is even sadder, because in the Mahabharata, the mighty Bheeshma is painfully human. And none of the women — including Satyawati and Amba — are one-tone characters. Perhaps the show will improve. But I’m not counting on it. So for the moment, I think I’ll just go back to reading the Mahabharata. Because the world’s most majestic story deserves an equally majestic TV show. We’re not there yet.