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The Mahabharat (1988-90)
Directors: B.R. Chopra, Ravi Chopra

review by Gary Couzens
Spoiler alert!
The Mahabharata was begun around 400 BC and, with additions and revisions, was completed around AD 400. It's one of the oldest poems in existence and at some 100,000 two-line Sanskrit verses, one of the longest. Over the time of its writing, it has absorbed almost every story in the Indian narrative tradition into its main plot of internecine warfare, including tales of mythic beings and gods. Many fantasy motifs have their beginning here.
   At the heart of the story are two families. The Pandavas are the five sons of King Pandu, each fathered by a different god, Pandu himself having been cursed into celibacy. On the other side are the hundred sons of Pandu's blind elder brother Dhritarashtra, led by Duryodhana (Puneet Essar). Over the course of this epic narrative, the two families become bitter enemies, resulting in a costly, bloody war.
   There are other major characters: Krishna Vasudeva (Nitish Bharadwaj), a cousin to both parties, and an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu. Krishna's address to Arjun before battle (quite likely a later interpolation to the text) forms the basis of the Bhagavad Gita ('song of the Blessed One'), a speech which encompasses many of the important ethical and theological themes of The Mahabharata as a whole. The Bhagavad Gita could be said to be as important to Hinduism as the New Testament is to Christianity. The final major character is Bhishma (Mukesh Khanna), the patriarch of both families, who swears an oath of celibacy which has devastating consequences. Also, there is Time, the narrator of this story (Harish Bhimani), who sees and knows all things and is often present to introduce key plotlines and to summarise the plot as needs be.
   Mahabharat was an adaptation for Indian television, first broadcast between 1988 and 1990. The complete version runs for 94, 45-minute episodes, totalling over 70 hours. The version under review is a shortened one of 15 hours. It comes on five dual-layer DVDs with the following running times: Volume One (195:30), Volume Two (172:38), Volume Three (180:39), Volume Four (191:37), Volume Five (175:32). There are opening credit sequences at the beginning of Volumes Three and Five, and a set of end credits at the end of Volume One. Although TV serials on British DVD aren't uncommon, foreign-language TV serials certainly are. One of the reasons for this would be certification costs, which for something of this length would probably be prohibitive for an undoubtedly limited audience. Arrow's DVD box set of the shortened version (the complete version is available on DVD in India) is certainly an enterprising move, no doubt one reckoning on a large audience for Indian material. It can't hurt that this DVD release is exempt from BBFC certification, which is normally reserved for documentary material. Presumably this is allowable for Mahabharat as it could be filed under 'religion' or 'myth' in your local DVD shop. (I'd guess this is 12-certificate material, thanks to a few brief moments that lift it out of the PG category: a baby-killing at the end of Volume One and some battlefield gore in Volume Five.) Having said all that, let's hope some enterprising distributor makes available such epics as Edgar Reitz's Heimat and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, both of which are around the same length as this DVD set.
   This shortened version of Mahabharat is structured around Bhishma, who is a dominating character in the early part (the Pandavas aren't even born until the beginning of Volume Three); his death closes Volume Five. It's clear from the notes provided by James L. Fitzgerald (Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee) that The Mahabharata has much further to go after that, which is presumably in the complete version. No doubt many subplots are not included here, which occasionally makes the complex web of character interrelationships hard to grasp, and sometimes provokes a lot of infilling from Time, notably at the beginning of Volume Three. However, the main storylines are clear, even to Westerners not au fait with Hindu epics. Most importantly, this is simple, powerful storytelling, demonstrating that the principles of successful narrative have been with us since the beginning of history. The characters are no doubt largely two-dimensional - many of them are actually archetypes rather than people - but if they are flat they vibrate quite a bit, and they're acted with conviction by the large cast. Set and costume design are bright and colourful, with silvers, reds and golds predominating. Some of the special effects look cheap even by late-1980s' standards, but strict documentary realism isn't the issue here. No doubt some people will treat Mahabharat as kitsch, but it's easy to surrender to its grip.
   A television production, Mahabharat was shot on videotape, and it's clear that not much of a remastering job has been done. The image is riddled with artefacts (which will be particularly noticeable on larger TV sets or more unforgiving viewers like PC monitors), with the Time sequences suffering especially badly. Every fine line or sharp corner aliases like crazy. Video gives the production a rather flat look, which you could say is entirely appropriate for material like this. However, if you're not too fussy, this is quite watchable. Needless to say, the aspect ratio is 4:3, anamorphic enhancement being neither necessary nor desirable. The sound is mono, as you would expect from an 80s TV production, but I had no issues with it: it's clear and well balanced, though biased more towards the treble than the bass. The dialogue is in the original Hindi, but English subtitles are provided. Many of the subtitles are on a grey background, which makes me suspect that a television master was used for this DVD. The only extra is a booklet, containing the notes by Professor Fitzgerald, cited above, and an incomplete list of characters and cast list. The box says the DVD "contains the Bhagavad-Gita," though that's only in the sense that it contains the scene where Krishna delivers these words: it's not available as a text extra.
The Mahabharat

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