The making of the epics into popular Indian television shows - Hindustan Times
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The making of the epics into popular Indian television shows

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Mar 28, 2020 10:45 AM IST

As the hit show makes a return, the makers recall people performing an aarti in front of TV sets every Sunday.

Filmmaker Ramanand Sagar’s son, Prem, believes that his father was born to make the Ramayana – one of the most popular mythology series on Indian television, along with Mahabharat. Both shows are being brought back on Doordarshan now, during the ongoing lockdown.

For most part, what survives in popular memory, is the vision of people performing an aarti in front of their television sets as Ramayana played every Sunday.(Livemint Archive)
For most part, what survives in popular memory, is the vision of people performing an aarti in front of their television sets as Ramayana played every Sunday.(Livemint Archive)

“His original name was Chandramouli, which is another name for Shiva, who is believed to have been the first to narrate the story of the Ramayana,” says Prem. “Later, his name was changed to Ramanand [Sagar was the last name that he adopted after moving to Mumbai and witnessing the boundless ocean]. My mother’s name was Leela. Taken together, their names become Ram-Leela. What’s more, he decided to join the film industry after watching the 1943 film, Ram Rajya. There are reflections of the epic in many of his writings too.”

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Still, for years, he remained a commercial filmmaker and his actual decision to make the series was quite sudden. “We were shooting for Charas – a 1976 film starring Dharmendra and Hema Malini – in a place which was on the France-Switzerland border,” recalls Prem. “One day, after the shoot was wrapped up, we went to a small roadside café and my father ordered a jug of wine. After serving us, the man at the cafe pushed a solid wooden rectangular cabinet of wood to face us and opened its front door to reveal a screen of glass. He switched on a button and there was film playing in front of us,” he says. The Sagars were gobsmacked. “We jumped up and ran behind the box to check for the reel, the projector… There were no televisions in India then,” he says, with a laugh. But as he watched that movie on the colour TV, Ramanand Sagar made up his mind to turn to television and present the stories of Ram, Krishna and goddess Durga.

But it was easier said than done. In his book An Epic Life Ramanand Sagar – From Barsaat To Ramayan, Prem Sagar recalls how his father sent him to his rich Indian friends across the world to generate funds for the series. But none of them were convinced by the idea back then. Ramanand Sagar was not willing to give up on his vision, however. After television had taken off in India and with the success of Vikram Aur Betaal, a series produced by Ramanand Sagar for Doordarshan in 1985, he believed the time was ripe to bring Ramayana to the masses. Still, there were bureaucratic hurdles to pass – “not everyone was in favour of telecasting the show on Doordarshan, though Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was in support of it,” says Prem.

When he finally received the go-ahead, it was only about nine days before the show was supposed to go on air. “We would shoot day and night. There was no concept of shift. Everyone just wanted to do their best for the show. The family-feeling, the Ramayana parivar, is my fondest memory from that shoot,” says Prem.

Many from the cast of Vikram Aur Betaal were roped in – Arun Govil, who played king Vikram, became Ram; Deepika Chikhalia, the princess in the earlier show, was cast as Sita; Dara Singh, the warrior Virvar in Vikram Aur Betaal, became Ramayan’s Hanuman. The shooting was done in Umbergaon in Gujarat, where art director Hirabhai Patel had a studio. “We made our set there and also did outdoor shootings – there was the sea, jungles… Only for one of the scenes, where Ram is shown in Rameswaram, Papaji [that’s how Prem Sagar refers to his father] didn’t think the colour of the sea matched that of the water there. He wanted the water to be more blue. So a photographer was sent south to take some photos.”

Ramanand Sagar wanted his presentation of the epic to be as accurate as possible. For the most part, says Prem, he went with Tulsidas’s writing of the epic. But he made some interpretations of his own. The most important of these was in Ram’s sending away a pregnant Sita from the palace. “Tulsidas hasn’t written about it, because he felt that Ram with his virtues couldn’t treat his pregnant wife like that. Papaji also didn’t want to show it in the series. But there were pressures on him to put it in. Finally, he said he will do it his way,” recalls Prem. “He shows that Sita finds out that the people of Ayodhya have started questioning her piety and are criticising Ram that he has forgotten his duties as king. So Sita tells Ram that the duties of a king are bigger than the duties of a husband and that she can’t bear to have him criticised by his people. So she is leaving.”

Not everyone was happy with this interpretation. “Some people even moved court,” recalls Prem.

For the most part though, what survives in popular memory, is the vision of people performing an aarti in front of their television sets as Ramayana played every Sunday.

How the Mahabharat came to be produced by BR Chopra – his son Ravi directed the series – was more straightforward. “Doordarshan approached him,” recalls BR Chopra’s daughter-in-law and Ravi Chopra’s wife, Renu. But the senior Chopra had his own reasons for wanting to make it. “He wanted to dispel the myths about the Mahabharat. It is said that people shouldn’t keep the Mahabharat at home, because it leads to disputes. But he felt that if the Ramayana taught you what you should do, the Mahabharat taught you what you shouldn’t do. If you look at it, it is actually the story of nearly every family, members fighting over property,” explains Renu.

As luck would have it, however, BR Chopra fell ill soon after the project came and the responsibility to execute it fell upon his son, Ravi. “He was only 36 years old at the time, but I believe it is his finest work,” says Renu.

Sometimes, Ravi Chopra would be worried about the budget – it was 6 lakh per episode, “but Ravi told his father that however much he tried, he couldn’t bring it lower than 7.5 lakh.” BR Chopra told his son to concentrate on the work and not worry about the finances.

A project of this magnitude required thorough preparation – and it went on for a year-and-a-half. The show itself aired between October 1988 and June 1990, and was divided into 94 episodes. Most of the actors were new, “hungry to perform”. Workshops were held at the Chopras’ residence. “And as soon as work was over, they would make a beeline for the kitchen. We would eat together. It was like a family,” says Renu.

Most of the shooting happened at Mumbai’s Film City. Except for the war sequence, which was shot near Jaipur. “We needed a place where there were no telegraph poles, since there weren’t any at the time of the Mahabharat and we found one such outdoor location near Jaipur,” says Renu. “After we reached there, my husband said we would need to hire extras for the role of the soldiers. But when we reached the spot the next day we found a crowd of locals waiting there.” Word had got around that shooting for the Mahabharat was taking place, and such was the popularity of the show that the locals landed up, eager to be a part of it and didn’t even want any money for it. “We didn’t hire any extras for the soldiers – except the front row ones. The locals would just come and be a part of the shoot from 6am to 6pm every day,” she recalls.

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