Ramayan and Mahabharat began gaining popularity on the small screen in the mid-1980s. The success of the shows prompted the government to think of starting a TV series that documented the history of the country. Celebrated film-maker Shyam Benegal was approached for it. He agreed, and chose to base it on Pt Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, Discovery Of India.
“Nehru wrote the book when was in jail. It was his attempt to understand and discover his country. It became the basis for what was shown in the series. My team and I also got 15 historians on board to flesh out the story,” recalls Benegal.
The 53-episode series, titled Bharat Ek Khoj, was penned by Shama Zaidi and her team, which included 25 writers. Shooting commenced in early 1988, and the show went on air on Nehru’s 99th birth anniversary (November 14, 1988).
“The one-hour show became hugely successful, and had multiple reruns. It is also available on DVD. I was aware that the concept was unlikely to be repeated in the near future, so we wanted to be as accurate as possible while talking about the history of the country. We worried about the authenticity of the costumes, jewellery and architecture shown. It was a great adventure, and I am glad we could manage it well. We took everything extremely seriously, and it was worth it. After all, we were reliving history through the show,” says Benegal.
The unit shot at numerous places in the country, from the Taj Mahal and Western Ghats to other historical attractions. Two floors were booked at Film City, Goregaon, for the shoot of the show for a year. Multiple sets were also put up across India. Benegal says, “The effort paid off. Even after 25 years, people still talk about the show. No one has remade it, and the series is still referred to at various platforms. The show, and shooting for it for one and a half year, was an experience of a lifetime for all those involved.”
Benegal, an experienced director, wasn’t worried about the scale of the show or the challenges that came with it. However, only thing bothered him. “I wanted to finish it. I would get nightmares about dying. I worried about what would happen to the show then, and if it would remain incomplete,” he says, laughing.
While the script was well-researched, casting for the episodes focusing on the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Chanakya, Ashoka, The Chola Empire, the Delhi Sultanate, Akbar, Aurangzeb, Tipu Sultan, the 1857 revolution, Vivekananda and Gandhi, among others, was tough. They introduced 350 actors, largely from theatre, Delhi’s National School of Drama and other acting institutes. Popular names like Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Naseerudin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Piyush Mishra, Tom Alter, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Alok Nath and Mohan Gokhale, among others, were also part of the show.
“Puri was the narrator, and was also cast in numerous roles. There were two voices on the show – Roshan Seth voiced Pt Nehru while Puri was a narrator,” says Benegal.