‘Parties took offence to African actors playing Pandavas in Mahabharata’: Mallika Sarabhai
British playwright and filmmaker Peter Brook directed the first and only stage adaptation of the entire epic of The Mahabharata in 1985. The play, however, never came to India.
Thirty years later, the only Indian actor in the original play – Mallika Sarabhai, dancer and Padma Bhushan recipient – says political pressure and racial discrimination prevented it from coming here.
Excerpts from an interview:
How did you come to be associated with le Mahabharata?
I think it was 1984. Newspapers in India were writing about casting calls by a British playwright called Peter Brook. I didn’t keenly follow up on it, because I wasn’t considering stage acting then.
One day, my friend who worked in the French embassy called me and said that he’d suggested my name to Peter, and that Peter wanted to speak with me. They invited me to meet them in Delhi, but I couldn’t go: I was recovering from a nasty bout of jaundice and hepatitis, and was too weak to travel.
So, Peter and his team came down to Ahmedabad to meet me. We chatted for about half an hour, and he asked me audition for the role of Draupadi. I literally fell off my chair.
But I didn’t jump to take it up. I was pregnant, my dance career was at its peak, and the play would take me away from home for a long time. And I didn’t know French. Besides, I’d decided early on that I wouldn’t take up the part without understanding Peter’s style of work. So I saw Carmen, Peter’s opera, in New York, and then gave two rounds of auditions.
You grew up with the Mahabharata, unlike the rest of Brook’s international crew. What did you think of his interpretation of the epic?
In India, nobody approaches the Mahabharata [on stage] in its entirety. We look at the smaller stories. Also, Indians tend to get lost in the gods and goddesses aspect. Peter wanted to look at it as the story of the race of men. His mastery lies in his imagery. For instance, Karna’s defeat is depicted by a common cartwheel that signified the warrior’s broken chariot. Indian interpretations are more like Ramleela – crowns, bushy moustaches and drama.
We did have few differences, though; mostly about his lack of focus on the concept of Shakti (female energy). Peter didn’t want Draupadi to fulfil her pledge of washing her hair with Dushyasana’s blood. He thought it was too gory. I told him that he shouldn’t have chosen the script if he didn’t want to depict these scenes.
Were you co-stars as well versed with their characters as you were?
My co starts used to have long chats with me about their characters. I remember calling my mother and asking her to send Iravati Karve’s Mahabharata interpretation. She would send me photocopies of the book, via post. There were times when my mother would come to visit on sets. When she was there, my costars consulted her about their characters. She spent hours talking to them.
Why didn’t le Mahabharata ever come to India?
We faced racial bias. We weren’t allowed to come to India. There were parties that took offence to African actors playing the Pandavas, who are regarded as demigods in our society. They agreed to screen the film in a limited capacity, but not bring the play. They gave us a ridiculous official reason: the TV serial was on Doordarshan (BR Chopra’s Mahabharat), and our play would “confuse” the audience.
What about the play’s international reception?
The international audiences were blown away. Women used to come backstage and tell me that my Draupadi inspired them in their walks of life. That had a great impact on me too. In fact, my women-empowerment centric activism is what I inherited from le Mahabharata.