Mythology has always been a fascinating treasure for our filmmakers to delve into. What’s the lasting appeal of our epics, will mythology be relevant to our cinema in the future, too?
With Raajneeti and Raavan this year — films that are adapted from our great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively — one would think there’s a certain revival of interest in mythological themes. However, fact is that Indian cinema has always drawn from the deep well of these influential epics. Every character and story within these epics have been so entrenched in our psyche and collective consciousness, that they have invariably come to determine our ideas of culture and morality. And the fact that our epics are such a compelling artistic and creative tour de force have made them timeless in their appeal and relevance. Not to add, they remain the ultimate source material for our arts, especially cinema.
Straight from epics
Naturally then, when Indian cinema took its first baby steps, it was mythological subjects that became the obvious choices for filmmakers. Dadasaheb Phalke’s most well-known films included Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), Satyavan Savitri (1914), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) — all derived from our great epics. And this was the trend across the country, with almost every film made down South, through the ’30s being a mythological one — Sakkubai, Sita Vanavasam, Krishna Tulabharam in Tamil cinema, to name just a few. These were all straight-forward representations of the epic tales and the fact that the audience were well-versed with the stories allowed them to make an immediate connection with the films. Hence, the transition to cinema proved to be an easy and pleasant one, where the content was familiar, even if the medium was a new one.
“Indians have a deep connect with their mythological texts. It’s an umbilical cord,” says writer and director Vinay Shukla. “There are so many strands in the Mahabharata that a filmmaker can base every story on the epic if he wanted, and yet never run out of material.”
The myth continues
With time, as cinema started evolving, filmmakers began experimenting with their stories, making it more contemporary. However, they seldom moved away from the templates and archetypes created by mythology. So the hero was mostly a representation of the ideal man Ram or the manipulative Krishna. The inspiration for the heroine came directly from the image of Ram’s dutiful wife, Sita — an embodiment of purity, compassion and sacrifice.
Even in the ’70s, when the anti-establishment wave took over, and youths were disenchanted with the old ‘ideals’, people got a new anti-hero after their own heart. Amitabh Bachchan’s characters in Trishul and Deewar, the illegitimate son and the underdog respectively, can easily be compared to that of Karna in Mahabharata, the illegitimate son of Kunti, who rebels and succeeds against all odds. Not only was such a character completely resonant with the mood of the nation, it also fired the imagination like none other. “Everyone has fantasies of being this abandoned child. It’s a universal fantasy, which is why Karna’s situation strikes such a deep chord,” says Anjum Rajabali, writer of films like Raajneeti, The Legend Of Bhagat Singh and Ghulam. “The don and his loyal henchman seen in countless films invariably draw their energy from the Ram and Hanuman relationship. Similarly, all our old villains have the same motivation that drove Raavan. It was revenge and lust. So he abducts the heroine to teach the hero a lesson and eventually falls in love/lust with her.”
A timeless treasure trove
“I have no doubt that our mythology is timeless in essence. Our epics are an external and dramatic representation of an inner life. Since human nature does not change, our epics will remain as compelling and influential as ever,” says Rajabali.
Almost everyone agrees that mythology has a treasure trove of stories and if they are are well-woven into contemporary settings, they will always find a resonance. “I would recommend every student and filmmaker to read the epics to simply understand how to tell stories and what these stories actually reveal. It helps one to see the entire range of depths and the layering of characters. They are simple, but never simplistic. For example, take the episode of Hanuman entering Lanka to retrieve Sita. Here is a man who is completely devoted to Ram and yet when he enters Raavan’s palace, he is struck by his glory and exclaims, ‘this man is fit to rule this world!’ This is the conflict which even Valmiki mentions in the original Ramayan. So our epics keep throwing cues at us, telling us not to look at things in a very simple way,” views Rajabali.
In spite of other narrative influences coming in, filmmakers believe that mythology can still be a great source of stories for films. “Mani Ratnam’s Roja is actually a simple tale of Savitri wanting her husband’s life back from Yama. And Mani does it very cleverly, so that the reference is never overt. I think South Indians perhaps have an advantage because mythology is very deeply ingrained in them. They can easily take the emotions from the epic stories and present them in the modern context,” says Shukla.
Rajabali too agrees that a lot more of mythology can flow into our films. “Unfortunately, the literary aspect of our films has not been explored enough. You need a literary tradition. Our earlier writers were all authors. Today, we don’t see that,” he says.
Mythology, a gimmick?
Author of several mythological books, Devdutt Patanaik believes our films, which directly try to adapt the epics or borrow recognisable elements from them, present very primitive versions. “They are cosmetically fantastic and alluring, but their soul is missing. They present to you a cosmetic archetype. So any person who is manipulative is Krishna, but then what about Shakuni? Earlier scholars who researched the Mahabharata and Ramayan tried to explore and impart the wisdom in it. That is not the intention of the films that one sees. Most of them only play with popular perception. They will glamourise the villain (Raavan) because the dark side is always interesting. But I doubt it is done with any understanding of the story. So I will say, they are great cosmetically, but on the soul level, there is a complete disconnect. A good katha should shake you up from your complacency and uplift you. Do you see that happening with any of these films?,” he asks.
Rajabali has a contrary view and argues, “I don’t see anything uplifting about Ramayana and Mahabharata. In fact, these epics make me ponderous and reflective. Both these texts end in tragedy. In Ramayana, you see Ram being the best king and having the ideal kingdom and yet, his life ends in pain. It is a way of telling us how life is very difficult and is ultimately very painful.”
The future of mythology
Since epics are living texts, the understanding is that they can be re-interpreted in a million ways, and they will still find a resonance among the future generations. Ultimately, whether one sees our epics as cautionary tales or inspirational parables, it is evident that their greatness lies in their narrative craftsmanship, emotional depth, and profound understanding of the human nature, something which every artiste can take inspiration from.
William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives sums it up best in a chapter about the Pabuji epic in Rajasthan and oral traditions, when he says. “Myths pick up the pieces when philosophy throws up its hands. Great myths help to think through the unthinkable and make sense by analogy.”