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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
…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 cheer-haran of Draupadi, and the saving of her modesty by Krishna.
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,
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].
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.
And it is Krishna, as Arjun’s charioteer, who will give Arjun some of the most useful advice.
While Karna discovers the truth about his parentage and makes a promise to his mother that five of her sons will survive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
… 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).