Mahabharat (1965)

I hadn’t heard of this version of the Mahabharat till a few days back (not, of course, that the existence of this film is surprising; given Hindi cinema’s love for mythology, there was bound to be at least one version of this epic floating about). Then, commenting on my jewellery songs post, blog reader Afsal posted a song from Mahabharat, and mentioned part of the cast: Pradeep Kumar as Arjun. Dara Singh as Bheem. Padmini as Draupadi.
And good songs.

That sounded deliciously unlike the usual B grade Hindi mythological, so I went looking for it on YouTube, and watched it.

I won’t narrate the complete story here; the Mahabharat is too well-known for that (and if you aren’t familiar with it, I’d advise checking it out first before watching the film). Suffice to say that the film begins right in the middle of some action, without setting any preliminary background in place. At the court of the blind King Dhritrashtra in Hastinapur, the entire court is watching the two cousins Bheem (Dara Singh) and Suyodhan/Duryodhan (Tiwari) engage in a wrestling match.

The wrestling match at Dhritrashtra's court

Looking on are most of the rest of the people who’ll appear throughout the story. There’s the mother of the Pandavs, Kunti (Achla Sachdev, looking astonishingly young and fresh-faced), Dhritrashtra’s wife, the mother of the Kauravs, Queen Gandhari (Mumtaz Begum; who remains voluntarily in blindfold, in solidarity with her sightless husband), the patriarch Bheeshm ‘Pitamah’ (DK Sapru), and Dronacharya (Badriprasad), the man who’s trained the Pandavs and the Kauravs in the martial arts.

Bheeshm Pitamah and Kunti

Gandhari sitting next to Dronacharya

Also watching are the four other Pandavs: the eldest, Yudhishthir (?), Arjun (Pradeep Kumar), and the two youngest, Nakul and Sahdev (one of these is played by Salim Khan; the other, I couldn’t recognize).

The five Pandavas

Duryodhan and Bheem get so carried away with their mutual dislike that they come close to doing away with each other—and Dronacharya steps in, telling them to stop. He is echoed by Bheeshm who gets to his feet and commands the two younger men to call off the fight. That done, Dronacharya announces that they will now all watch an exhibition of the archery skills of Arjun “who is unparalleled in archery on all the Earth”.

This draws a sudden and unexpected rebuttal: a young man (Manhar Desai) stands up, saying that he will best Arjun in archery. He introduces himself as Karna, the son of a charioteer; and Kunti, on hearing this, looks distinctly worried. Arjun refuses to compete against someone who’s not even royalty, but Duryodhan—driven by his hatred of Arjun, and a desire to show him down—immediately bestows a kingship on Karna, declaring him the ruler of Anga.

Duryodhan bestows the kingship of Anga on Karna

Arjun’s argument can’t hold any more, so he willy-nilly goes up against Karna, who does prove himself to be a fine archer. Later that day, Duryodhan, smarting at the way Bheem and Arjun have proven themselves better than him, goes griping to his uncle, Shakuni Mama (Jeevan, at his evil best). And Shakuni Mama sets forth a plan: the Pandavs and Kunti are due to travel outside Hastinapur—and Shakuni will give orders for a special palace to be constructed for them. A palace of lac, in which they will all burn to death.

Duryodhan with Shakuni Mama

And so it proceeds, this enmity between the two lots of cousins. With all the important landmarks of the Mahabharat: the escape from the lac palace; Arjun’s arrival at the swayamvar of Draupadi and his acing of the fish’s eye; Kunti’s inadvertent bestowal of Draupadi on all five Pandavs.

Then, still in an uneasy truce with the Kauravs, Dhritrashtra’s agreeing to give the Pandavs half the kingdom, and their subsequent move to Khandavprastha, where (with the help of Vishwakarma, sent by Indra), the Maya Mahal—the ‘palace of illusions’—is built.

The Pandavas, their mother and Draupadi, with Krishna and Vishwakarma

…and Krishna (Abhi Bhattacharya) blesses them. But disaster waits right round the corner, what with Shakuni and Duryodhan plotting the downfall of the Pandavs. The fatal fall of the dice, the Pandavs losing their kingdom, their all.

The fateful game of dice

The cheer-haran of Draupadi, and the saving of her modesty by Krishna.

Draupadi's cheer-haran

Followed by the twelve years of vanvaas and the one year of agyaatvaas, in which Draupadi becomes the maid Sairandhri, in service to the Queen Sudeshna (Mridula Rani), while Bheem becomes the royal cook,

Draupadi and Bheem in disguise

Yudhishthir teaches the King dice, Nakul and Sahdev end up as stablehand and cowhand, and Arjuna, as the eunuch Birhanalla, teaches the princess dance [and no, Pradeep Kumar isn’t terribly convincing in drag].

... and Arjun as Brihanalla

All of it leading up to the inevitable clash. Because, once they’ve emerged from their exile, the Pandavs must avenge the many insults that have come their way. They must get back their kingdom, and evil must be shown the door. In an epic battle [and I’m using the word loosely here, when it comes to the film, because this is really one of the saddest-looking battles I’ve seen, the armies acting more like mobs in a free-for-all than anything else]—well, in this battle, Bheeshm will, even if his heart isn’t in it, side with the Kauravs. But at the end of the day, when a bleeding Bheeshm lies on his bed of arrows, it is Arjun who will bring him succour.

Bheeshm on his bed of arrows

And it is Krishna, as Arjun’s charioteer, who will give Arjun some of the most useful advice.

On the battlefield

While Karna discovers the truth about his parentage and makes a promise to his mother that five of her sons will survive.

Kunti goes to Karna with a request

I will admit I had doubts about whether or not this I would like this film. I mean, mythologicals, in any case, aren’t exactly my cup of tea. Then, the Mahabharat is such a sprawling, intricate story, that one needs far more than two and a half hours to do justice to it.

Krishna shows off

So what worked, and what didn’t?

What I liked about this film:

The way they’ve managed to pick up the most relevant parts of the Mahabharat and weave them together into a fairly coherent story. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the Mahabharat is truly epic; there are so many plots and subplots, characters and minor stories woven into the narrative, that it would take a full-length TV series to narrate anything even close to all of it. Despite that, Pandit Madhur and Vishwanath Pandey (who are credited with the screenplay, while Ved Vyaas gets the credit for the story) do a decent enough job of pulling together some of the biggest highlights of the story.

The Pandavas go off into exile

Then, the cast, which is really pretty good—and pretty suitable. Dara Singh, for instance, is superbly cast as Bheem: big, brawny, with the somewhat childlike innocence that I associate both with Dara Singh and with Bheem (and which, in Dara Singh’s case, is accentuated by that Punjabi accent!) Incidentally, in two instances when Bheem rescues female relatives—Kunti in the lac palace, Draupadi from a would-be abductor—you can appreciate Dara Singh’s stature even more: he picks up these women as if they were no more than children, effortlessly.

Dara Singh as Bheem

The songs, composed by Chitragupt to lyrics by Bharat Vyas, may not be memorable, but they’re good enough. For me, the most interesting of these was the title song, which comes in every now and then, acting as a sort of reinforcement to the narrative. Among the other likeable songs was the one which Afsal posted on my jewellery songs list: Meri chhun-chhun-chhun-chhun paayal.

What I didn’t like:

Unsurprisingly (given that the Mahabharat is so huge), the film has no time to deal with background. So, unless you already know who is related to whom and how, what is the history behind so-and-so, etc, you are quite likely to be somewhat frustrated, at least in the beginning. For example, the point at which the film begins—with Bheem and Duryodhan, both grown-up and fighting—means that we never find out how and why Pandu’s and Dhritrashtra’s sons are at loggerheads, who Bheeshm is, and so on. Some of it doesn’t really matter, some can be overlooked, but there’s a small bit that can be irritatingly obscure if one isn’t familiar with the original story.

Secondly—and this too is probably a result of too vast a canvas—the characterizations. With so many people in the film, and so much happening, very little time is spent on building up characters. The only characters who seemed believable to me were Krishna, Arjun, Draupadi, and Bheem—and those too only to some extent. The others mostly tend to get brief appearances and even briefer dialogues now and then, which leaves one somewhat unclear about motivations and so forth.

Draupadi tries to fight off the unwelcome attentions of Keechak

For me, one of the biggest disappointments was with reference to Karna. I find the tormented, pulled-two-ways Karna one of the most fascinating characters in the Mahabharat, but here he’s relegated to a fairly minor role. His only important dialogue comes near the end of the film, when Kunti comes to meet him in his tent at the battlefield and extracts a promise from him. Other than that, there is almost nothing about Karna and the various demons he battled.

Still…

… while this may not be the best version of the Mahabharat there is, I think it’s still not bad. And there are several interesting cameos (Anoop Kumar, for instance).

Anoop Kumar in a cameo

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34 thoughts on “Mahabharat (1965)

  1. he picks up these women as if they were no more than children, effortlessly.
    When one of those women is Padmini, there is really need for Dara Singh. :)

    Used to be a great fan of mythologicals when I was a wee lass. Now, the production values put me off; besides, one really needs a great cast to overlook all other stuff.

    That said, I recently watched Bahubali and was impressed with the look of the film (the film is also great masala fun – old-fashioned masala too) and the battle scenes and stuff, though the CGI meandered between good and pretty awful. Ramya Krishnan did a fantastic job as the Queen Mother, and if you do watch it, you can pick up parallels to the Mahabharata along with a whole host of Indian folk tales/fantasies.

    • “When one of those women is Padmini, there is really need for Dara Singh. :)

      LOL!

      The production values in this were surprisingly better than I’d imagined they would be, and anyway I suppose my expectations were so average that the film came as a pleasant enough surprise. Not without its flaws, of course – there are plenty of them – but overall, beyond my expectations.

      I’ve heard good things about Baahubali too. I won’t be able to go watch it in a theatre, of course, thanks to you-know-who, but will keep an eye out for the DVD, or for when it’s shown on TV.

  2. Mahabharata has always fascinated me and every time Iread it, I’m totally bowled over by the timelessness (is that the word I’m searching for?) about it. All the characters have so much flesh and are very multi-dimensional. No one is entirely good or entirely bad, no, not even Krishna. That is why none of the celluloid versions have ever done justice to it, for me at least. It is the usual case of filming a good book. I came to know of this film at Philip Lutgendorf’s page and when I saw the movie on you tube in bits and pieces, I do tend to agree with him. But I think the epic is just too big for a full-length movie. So considering the time it was made in and the genre, which Babubhai Mistry was used to, he did quite a decent job of it.
    Your screenshots capture the spirit of the film very well.

    • Harvey, I agree with you completely about the timelessness of the Mahabharat. At the risk of offending some people, I will say that I find the Ramayana rather too cut-and-dried as far as the characters go: the villains are irredeemable in their villainy (though I suppose those who revere Ravana would disagree), and Ram/Sita/Laxman/Hanuman can do no wrong. It all becomes a little too hard to swallow.

      In comparison, I find the Mahabharat more believable, more easy to relate to. The villains do tend to be pretty bad through and through, but you can see that certain things – like the way Draupadi taunts the Kauravs, especially Duryodhan – does play a part in angering him even further. Which makes Draupadi anything but wise (as would be expected of a heroine, and that too of an epic like this), and it makes Duryodhan all too human.

      But yes, it’s too complex, too long, for a film to do justice to it. And that said, Babubhai Mistry does a pretty good job of it.

  3. Considering that I am not enamoured by half the cast and Pradeep Kumar leads the pack (I just never liked his acting), frankly I do not think, I will enjoy this one very much. Maybe I should just listen to the songs, may find some familiar ones from my childhood.

  4. I love mythologies and have religiously (LOL) watched 2 different loooong television versions on DVDs, the BR Chopra one of 1988 and the latest 2014 series which ended this year a couple of months ago.

    Had not heard of this Mahabharat till now. I’m glad there’s another version to be watched even though a very short one compared to the TV series. :-)

    • I watched the BR Chopra version from start to end – such a long series, but so addictive. I loved that! I didn’t watch the newer version (I just don’t have the time), but my husband did, and said he liked it.

      Give this a try. It doesn’t, of course, go anywhere as deep into characters or even episodes as the TV series do, but I still found it fairly enjoyable.

  5. I had tried to watch this movie sometime last year, after I stumbled upon the title song. But honestly, couldn’t watch more than half the movie. Partly because the BR Chopra Mahabharata (which I loved) was kind of fresh in my head; and then Karna has been reduced to such a side character. Karna is my favourite character in the Mahabharata – such a layered, tragic character. Instead he was hardly there.

    • Same here! Karna is my favourite character in the Mahabharat. and in this he may as well not have been there. :-( Talking of him and BR Chopra’s TV series, that really did justice to Karna’s character. Actually, it did justice to the epic. Really well-made. I remember giving up on Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana pretty quickly – but Mahabharat was addictive.

  6. Madhu,
    I enjoyed your review because you have captured the massive epic beautifully in a very short, crisp write up. A movie on this great epic, in order to be great, has to do more than and different from presenting a linear story of good versus evil. As you and Harvey have observed, the characters are very nuanced and complex, everyone has shades of grey. It would be better if someone picks up a part of the story and tries to bring out the subtleties. I remember one episode of Shyam Benegal’s Discovery of India on DD, which depicted the scene where a heartbroken Gandhari is told of Duryodhan’s killing by unfair means. She removes her blindfold for the first time, and seeing the mutilated body of her son, curses Krishna in uncontrolled anger that he is responsible for this sin, and every other sin that has happened in the war, and that his whole clan would tear each other apart like hungry wolves, and omnipotent he may be, but he too would be killed by an ordinary hunter in sleep. That was taken from Dharmavir Bharati’s Andha Yug. Ila Arun as Gandhari and Gaus Mohammad as Krishna were deeply moving. Mahabharat is still waiting for a modern, sophisticated treatment. BR Chopra’s, too, falls short on this score.
    AK

    • Thank you, AK – I’m glad you liked my review.

      I had never seen this episode of Discovery of India – it sounds very interesting (and I can just imagine: both Ila Arun and Ghaus Mohammad were very good actors, given the opportunity). There’s recently been quite a trend in literature to show epics like the Mahabharat from a certain person’s perspective (Palace of Illusions has it from Draupadi’s point of view, and Harini had recently reviewed a book about Karna’s wife)… which might also make for an interesting interpretation of part of the epic, rather than the whole.

      Do you think the reason nobody tries – on screen – to give the Mahabharat the modern, sophisticated approach is because they’re scared of angering the Hindutva brigade? Just wondering. Everybody is so touchy these days…

      • Madhu,
        It is a difficult question to answer. We are the most offended society in the world. If Pandavas are shown as none too virtuous, we can’t be sure that someone in Ramnagar, Bareilly, Gaya, Jaunpur and other corners of the country would not feel his religious sentiments are hurt. And since we have Rule of Law, the producer/director/actors may end up responding to summons everywhere. But I think the reason is not this fear, but reluctance to try new ground.
        AK

        • “We are the most offended society in the world.

          So true! Sometimes I think Indians actually look for reasons to take offence, no matter if it’s intended or not.

  7. Awesome…
    this is a perfect review of the film mahabharat. I appreciate it very much.
    For Draupadi vastrakshek, long one coloured saree is used in most film/tv versions of Mahabharat.
    In this case it looks very funny, many coloured sarees are stitched together.
    one thing I noted recently is that, the hidumbi rakshasi (who marries Bheem) was padmini’s cousin Ambika. she also acted in another hindi film Royal mail 1963. I think she was a big star in kerala.

    • Afsal, thank you for telling me about this film! I hadn’t even known about it before, but thanks to you, I saw it – and mostly enjoyed it. I agree, those multicoloured saris do look funny (how difficult would it have been to buy white saris and have them all dyed the same colour?!

      I hadn’t known Hidimba was played by Padmini’s cousin. Thanks for that bit of information!

  8. Mahabharat is truly epic even twenty hours would not do. Regarding your point about Karna, If you want to see a movie from his view point you can do no better than looking up Karnan (Padmini pictures) it got a digital make over recently. so you should be able to grab a recent print. Of course it is in Tamil. The movie is worth a look for its grand art design, rivetting music and wonderful performance by an ensemble caste- Sivaji , NTR and Asokan as Karna, Krishna and Duryodhan being stand outs.
    It is ages since you went into regional movies and as the movie was made circa1965 would qualify.
    How was the special effects in this Mahabarath. Seems okayish to me from the screen shots.

    • Yes, you’re right – it’s a long time since I reviewed a regional film other than Bengali (and even when it comes to Bengali cinema, it’s been a while). Thank you so much for telling me about Karnan. I do want to watch more regional cinema (other than Bengali!), so this seems like a good lead. I’ll see if I can find a DVD online – I’m pretty sure I’ve not seen any regional language DVDs in brick-and-mortar stores. Perhaps Amazon or Flipkart or something…

      The special effects in Mahabharat were pretty good, mostly. The way the arrows form words in the sky was a little tacky, but other than that, not bad.

  9. I got to know about this movie when Mahabharat was coming on star plus. then i thought when i will get a private net connection. i will watch it. i got connection 2 months ago. My favourite scene is when chotu Raja who looks cute cause of his less height comes to participate in draupadi syamvara.

  10. Madhu,
    Taking off from where we left, I would strongly recommend a new TV serial called ‘Dharmakshetra’ on the Epic channel, which generally comes at 6pm on weekdays, and repeats the old episodes on weekends. This is not the ‘story’ of the epic, but the trial of all the principal characters in the court of Chitragupta, the celestial record-keeper of all our deeds, after the war is long over and they have all gone to heaven. This has the nuances and the complexity I was talking about. Every character is flawed; every character, including Duryodhan, has noble qualities. Every one is answerable before the court of Chitragupta to the charges made against him by the aggrieved parties.
    AK

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