From TV Show To Visual Scripture: Thirty Years Of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan
Much like the idea of Ram, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan is like an unexplained natural phenomenon that clicked despite all odds and impossibilities.
Envision Ramanand Sagar's opus Ramayan and the first thing that pops up in the collective consciousness of the masses who viewed the television series when it aired on Doordarshan in the late 1980s is the colourful arrows laboriously traversing the screen. Or, the calm face of Lord Ram played by, up until then the relatively little-known, Arun Govil, whose biggest challenge was to “emote without being too expressive”, or screen legend late Dara Singh as Hanuman.
Among the things that do not come to mind when one thinks of Ramayan is the fact that it was perhaps the most influential television series ever in the world. Today, when one believes that a global viewership of eight to 10 million, which shows such as The Game of Thrones or the season finale of Breaking Bad garner, is big, it would be startling to consider that Ramayan enjoyed an average weekly viewership of over 100 million. When the show ended its initial run, it went beyond being a successful television series, and its leads, Arun Govil and Deepika Chikhalia, who portrayed Sita, were literally revered as the very incarnation of the divinity they enacted. With the sole exception of B R Chopra's Mahabharat that followed a few years later, Ramayan would undoubtedly qualify as perhaps the world's biggest mythological show.
At the time Ramayan debuted on 25 January 1987 on Doordarshan, India's government-owned television network, the mythological genre that had been kind of evergreen in the early days of Indian cinema had nearly been done away with. The first full-length film to be made in India, Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra (1913), was crafted with elements brought together from Sanskrit epics and it would not be incorrect to say that Phalke’s film invented the mythological genre in the Indian context.
In her book Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, Rachel Dwyer points out that the mythological is unique to Indian cinema and was established in the initial days of silent cinema. This was also the time when “filmic ways of viewing religious symbols and practices became part of the visual culture of Indian cinema and indeed of Indian culture.” In many ways, the mythological also follows what is termed 'classical narration', where a film focuses mainly on the cognitive perceptions of the spectators and also tries to appeal to the viewers' emotions.
One of the earliest depictions of Ram was seen in Phalke's Lanka Dahan (1917), where Anna Saulanke played both Ram and Sita, as back then women were prohibited from taking part in commercial performing arts. From Lanka Dahan to Sagar's Ramayan, every major film to showcase the Ramayana has added a facet or two to the portrayal of Ram, even though it had rarely ventured beyond the mode of the classical narration. If in Lanka Dahan, the trope of Ram, though invisible to Sita, could still see her happy to receive his ring from Hanuman while imprisoned by Ravan suggested that he was omnipresent, Bharat Milap (1942) highlighted the love between Ram and Bharat as well as bhakti or the devotion among those around him and the manner in which Ram keeps his father's promise, doing what is just and preventing what needs to be prevented. It was perhaps this Vijay Bhatt-directed film that laid the cinematic foundation of Ram's righteousness, a trait that would aptly be celebrated the most in Sagar's television version.
There were many more versions of the Ramayana adapted for the screen and notable among them was K Somu’s Tamil Sampoorna Ramayanam (1958) that featured N T Rama Rao as Rama and Sivaji Ganesan as Bharatha. NTR had previously played Ravana in Bhookailas (1958) and would go on to play Ram in Lava Kusha (1963) and Shri Ramanjaneya Yuddham (1974).
The 1960s saw a major change in the mythological as far as Hindi cinema went. The genre had been somehow relegated to the sidelines, and while the films were successful, it was largely the second or even the third rung of stars that became associated with the genre. Actors such as Nirupa Roy, Dara Singh, Jeevan were the kinds one would see in the mythological whereas the mainstream stars concentrated on other genres. One of the major reasons for this transition could be a combination of a thrust towards urbanisation and a sense of identity crisis that grappled the middle-class. The growing disillusionment with the bourgeois nation-state and also with the deception of the Nehruvian dream that had promised the world, which Sahir expressed in his poem, ‘Chhabis Janvary’ (26 January), had now come to a pass.
Aao ke aaj ghaur kareñ is savaal par
Dekhe the hum ne jo, voh haseeñ khwaab kya hue?
Bekas barehnagi ko kafan tak nahiñ naseeb
Voh vaada-haa-e atlas-o kamkhwaab kya hue?
Jamhooriyat-navaaz, bashar-dost, amn-khwaah
Khud ko jo khud diye the, voh alqaab kya hue?
Come, and let us ponder on the question
Those beautiful dreams of ours, what became of them?
The helpless and naked cannot even afford a shroud
What happened to those promises of silk and satin?
Democrat, humanist, pacifist
What happened to all those self-conferred titles?
Coupled with the reality of two wars in quick succession, namely the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 and the Indo-Pak war of 1965, people wanted a new identity. They could go within the deep recesses of their being and evoke the ‘Ram’ within when needed as expressed by Kaifi Azmi in his song from Haqeeqat (1964).
Khench do apne khooñ se zameeñ par lakeer, Is taraf aane paaye na Raavan koi
Tod do haath gar haath uthne lageñ, Chhoone paaye na Sita ka daaman koi
Raam ho tum, tumhiñ Lakhsman saathiyo, Ab tumhaare havaale watan saathiyo
Draw a line on the sand with your blood, May no Ravan be able to cross it
Break those hands that rise against us, May no one be able to touch Sita’s garment again
You are Ram, and you are Lakshman too, Now the nation is in your hands, comrades.
But when it came to everyday existence, people ran in the opposite direction in search of a new future. The mythological became alienated and slowly it was consigned to smaller towns and villages where it did better business. It was also around this time that television had begun to make an appearance in the lives of common people, but unlike the mid-1980s where it became a great levelling tool across the different strata of society, the early 1970s was still a period when the TV set was more of a novelty.
Being a largely urban tool, much of the programming on TV was also far from something that would be conducive for the mythological. Cinematic experiments in the genre accidentally set the cash registers ringing such as Jai Santoshi Maa (1975), but to imagine a mainstream mythological extravaganza or a television series based on some such would be stretching it too far. It was only towards the end of the decade that the channel began to consider something more entertaining. While writing on the TV series Ramayan, Philp Lutgendorf, an American Indologist, attributes the advent of commercials and the commissioning serialised dramas from independent studios as the two major reasons why Doordarshan transformed enough for something like Ramayan to become a possibility.
Additionally, Doordarshan also had to take on video piracy that had bestowed Bollywood with the mass appeal that has now come to be seen as an essential feature. The VCR was promising to open up a world of entertainment where Doordarshan was a non-player. Lutgendorf further articulates that this was what gave Dooordarshan the nudge to offer programmes to the viewer that "could compete with the fantasies of the cinema." The result - dharavahiks or serials such as Hum Log (1984), and later Buniyaad (1986) and Nukaad (1986) that created believable heroes whom the common men and women could not only identify with but tuned in religiously to follow their stories.
It was not like there had not been any mythological serials before Ramayan, but none managed to capture the imagination or be as popular as the Ramanand Sagar venture. In 1986, two miniseries – Vikram Aur Vetal and Krishna Avatar – found their inspiration in folklore and mythology, but could not create an impact like Buniyaad and Hum Log, and in that sense were not considered big. Sagar was the creator of Vikram Aur Vetal and he had previously produced Dada Dadi Ki Kahaniyan, where the age-old tradition of grandparents telling children a story was translated into a 13-episode serial. Sagar was known for his successful film career, but hits such as Arzoo (1965), Aankhen (1969), Geet (1970) and later Charas (1975) were a thing of the past by the time he ventured into television. Incidentally enough, Sagar had never produced a mythological but considered himself to be “a lifelong devotee of the Tulsi Manas” (Ramcharitmanas), and approached the officials at Doordarshan during Dada Dadi Ki Kahaniyan with a pitch for extended serialisation of the Ramayana. No one at Doordarshan thought of it as a sustainable idea. Some even believed that such a show might be seen in a communal light. Some at best believed this to be like grandparents narrating stories from the epic, a la Dada Dadi Ki Kahaniyan.
In the end, when the show was green-lit, the network tried to play it safe and shunted the show to the Sunday morning slot, which per previous experiences had Doordarshan convinced that only a few viewers would be watching. Sagar was given a budget of approximately Rs 4,00,000 per episode and shot the show in ‘Vrindavan Studios’ that he created in Umbergaon on the Gujarat coast some three hours north of Bombay. Sagar cast little-known Arun Govil as Ram, and complete unknown Dipika Chikhlia, Sunil Lahiri and Arvind Trivedi as Sita, Lakshman and Ravan respectively. He got Dara Singh to reprise the character of Hanuman, a role he had portrayed on the big screen a few times, and also featured Vijay Arora, a one-time marginally popular film actor from the 1970s and the only other notable face beside Dara Singh, as Indrajit. Additionally, Sagar’s decision to cast certain ‘stereotypes’ like the known ‘evil doer’ Lalita Pawar as Manthara or Padma Khanna, a popular actress from the 1970s and someone known to play the vamp, as Kaikaeyi was also well-played.
The show debuted to lukewarm response and was greeted by critics with sub-par reviews in both English as well as Hindi press. India Today’s critic felt that the show had the finesse of a high-school function; Illustrated Weekly felt that the show “destroyed the spirit and the superb literary quality of the original”, and its sluggish pace was attacked across the board. Yet popularity of the serial rose with every subsequent week. Within three months, it had an average of 32 commercials as opposed to 15 in its second month; by June, it was the second-highest grosser for Doordarshan behind Chitrahaar and by September there were 40 commercials that were paying almost Rs 40,000 each during the hour-long telecast.
Originally slated to run for 52 episodes of 45 minutes each, the popularity of Ramayan compelled Doordarshan to extend it for a total of 78 episodes. Sunday mornings were now being seen as a darshan and not viewing of a TV show. Stories about how the nation came to a virtual standstill are the stuff of showbiz legend with a Jansatta report in 1988 observing that ‘bazaars, streets, and wholesale markets become so deserted they appear to be under curfew.’ There were television sets put up for public consumption every week, grandparents admonished youngsters to bathe before the show started, and many such incidents were reported from across India.
Is there something truly significant that Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan achieved that goes beyond mass adulation or the mind-boggling impact that it had on the viewer? Along with detailed stories of mass devotion elevating the show to a pravachan and the actors a near god-like affirmation or the criticism of the show’s languid narrative besides the tacky special effects, some great things that the show achieved often go unnoticed.
This was perhaps one of the earliest examples of a cultural event that had both Hindi as well as the English press invested, and it would not be totally incorrect to say that this, in fact, threw up interesting differences in the perception of the two. The English press referred to Ramayan as a “literary treasure” that was being butchered by Sagar’s pacing, while the Hindi press was of the opinion that it was ending too soon! A generation of convent school education, too, had somewhere made the urban viewer somewhat disconnected with the epic, which in smaller towns or villages was still a part of upbringing.
Lutgendorf notes that the English press, which was used to C Rajagopalachari’s 300-page retelling or R K Narayan’s shorter synopsis or the four-hour Ramlila or the three-hour previous film versions found Sagar’s pace irksome, but the Hindi-speaking critic who was more familiar with scriptures such as the Ramcharitmanas, where the text is often seen as an outline for imaginative elaboration, and if the listener is willing, could be extended almost indefinitely, were intrigued by the ingenuity of the production.
The biggest achievement of the show rather unfortunately has often been undetected and even barely spoken by critics and audiences and commentators alike. It is the manner in which ‘Goswami Ramanand Sagar’, a sobriquet bequeathed in all probability by the late Arvind Narayan Das in an August 1988 Times of India editorial for the influence that the filmmaker wielded, reinterpreted Ramayan for a contemporary context. Some have dubbed Sagar as the Tulsidas of the media age for just as the latter retold the original Sanskrit epic in vernacular to make it more accessible, Sagar, too, took many versions including Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, Valmiki’s Sanskrit original, the Tamil version by Kambam and the Bangla by Kritibas to make the narration apposite for his times.
In this, Sagar took some rather big changes in the way the text flowed and infused new ideas to the epic itself. It is in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan that for the first time one saw King Janak and King Dasharath refer to each other as equals or Ram singing a lullaby to comfort his brothers in Vashishtha’s ashram, which also established Ram as someone who is extremely fond of his brothers. But the greatest ‘new’ idea that Sagar imparted in the view of Belgian Indologist and film expert Heidi R M Pauwels was the scene where Ram views Sita as his equal and how he promises not to take any other queen in the future. Sagar even showed a repentant Kaikeyi being helped by Kaushalya when her son Bharat does not allow her to accompany her to Chitrakut to ask Ram to return. Despite Sagar claiming to not add anything new, these fresh interpretations created a new telling of the legend.
As Ramayan approaches its thirtieth anniversary, could there be a new way of looking at the opus that redefined television in India? Perhaps yes. Of course, the criticism of the show – tacky special effects, the slow pacing, and the lackluster production design (it is also said that Sagar hired some artists from Amar Chitra Katha to come up with imagery that would be readily acceptable to the viewer) etc. – all still seem valid, but critics have been far too harsh on the show. Sagar might not have been bothered about the technical finesse of special effects, which he believed were not crucial to maintaining the attention of the spectator. Like Lutgendorf observes, the emphasis was on seeing his characters and for most viewers, Ramayan was a feast of darshan.
There has also been a belief that Sagar’s messaging was not only religious but also political and this is something that was based on the filmmaker’s decision to blend Yoga, Hindu Vedanta philosophy, Vedic socialism as well as Gandhian nationalism. This argument got further fuelled when the then Prime Minster of India, Rajiv Gandhi, reacted to the show’s popularity and said, “Ramayan (the serial) has stirred the imaginations of millions of viewers. It has imbibed the great Indian culture, tradition and normal values especially in the young.” Sagar has even attributed his show becoming a reality to Rajiv Gandhi himself on some occasions as well.
Sagar was not unaware of what his opus had achieved. He told India Today in September 1988 that he had with Ramayan achieved what Gandhi and Nehru and a host of others could not do - he had achieved “national integration” with Ramayan. But he was more than clear to not venture onto thorny political paths and in the same interview declared that he “refused to go on any political platforms.” Yet many critics continue to look into the spectacle that Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan was and come with a twist. For instance, Vasudha Dalmia-Lüderitz, a German Indologist, is of the opinion that the generous use of close-ups in Sagar’s Ramayan only further developed the notion that the viewer was in presence of the divine. But, isn’t television considered to be a ‘close-up’ medium?
Chuck Klosterman, an essayist who focuses on popular culture, thinks, “television critics who obsess over the authenticity of picayune narrative details are like poetry professors consumed with penmanship”. This fits well in the context of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan. Much like the idea of Ram in itself, Sagar’s Ramayan, too, is like an unexplained natural phenomenon that clicked despite all odds and impossibilities largely because of the faith of the man behind the camera as well as the millions who were glued to the ‘idiot box’ for 43 hours and 13 minutes of its airtime.
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