As the title very fittingly makes it clear, this is a continuation of my efforts at highlighting tales which have something to offer beyond mere ‘entertainment value’
They espouse a whole gamut of human emotions throughout history and in this regard, the ten episodes of epic Indian series BHARAT EK KHOJ(DISCOVERY OF INDIA) that I further watched brought to life personalities and conflicts we read and imbibed orally since childhood. Maverick director Shyam Benegal gave them all a screen treatment which was lucid, acted excellently and maintained the language, expressive felicity of the ancient and middle eras they were set in.
This simplicity of execution and a lack of ostentation may be regarded as tame by today’s standards but the focus is on replicating the folklores associated with these myths and legends. Hence, there’s no compromise with the quality of each installment. Traditional singing and dances belonging to the particular states in which these tales are set give them then a diverse heft, an intertextuality that makes the visual experience more interesting.
I had earlier written about the two episodes centered on Mahabharata and here more episodic capsules come to the fore. Given its wealth of knowledge and authenticity, it’s a primer for every Indian and for those interested in its grand history. The people who have become part of our cultural consciousness through the ages are portrayed with all the multidimensional complexity of flesh and blood mortals. This aspect renders the series relatable to each viewer rediscovering this treasure trove.
BHARAT EK KHOJ- MULTIPLE EPISODES (1988)
The two episodes based on Ramayana focus on the verbal articulation of its iconic episodes including Rama’s exile, Sita’s abduction by Ravana and the fight for restoring order within this chaotic whole.
What struck me was how Rama’s step-brother Bharata denounces his mother Kaikeyi’s selfish machinations to oust Rama as the rightful heir, as the primary reason for overturning the tides of a prosperous kingdom’s fate. Also, these episodes make it clear how forest dwelling tribals were passed off as ‘demons’ by sages leading a mendicant life in that environment and this cultural conflict is very reminiscent of our own present-day xenophobic tempers. The debate regarding who constitutes an ‘outsider’ is wonderfully put in context. ‘Tribes as subalterns’ is a reality all too urgent now as it was centuries and eons ago.
These moral complexities rescue it from the usual beat of divinity attached with this tale and gives it an earthiness that is refreshing, informed by multiple texts over successive generations.
CHANAKYA AND CHANDRAGUPTA MAURYA
These two installments trace Chandragupta Maurya’s beginnings as an aspiring ruler belonging to a non-martial antecedent, managing to rise to power with the shrewd counsel of India’s original mastermind Chanakya, a Bhrahmin scholar who could be as ruthless as the one on the throne.
Lots of interpersonal conflicts are uncovered owing to Chanakya’s stance at dividing kingdoms and only focusing on successful acquisitions without primacy on emotions. Satyadev Dubey is excellent here in bringing out the flipside of one of the nation’s sharpest minds. He is able to extract the overarching theme of power wreaking havoc on those who claim to distribute it to kings and queens.
But for me, it is Mita Vashisht as Suvasini who is able to transcend her lost love and gendered status by bringing sage advice to her husband’s kingdom and then relinquishing conventional life beset by politics by becoming a Buddhist monk, relaying its influence on her, her first love Chandragupta and a whole generation in that era.
Her arc gives it a vitality and poignant charm as against Chanakya’s silver-tongued antics.
VEDIC PEOPLE AND THE RIGVEDA
This episode is more musically inclined as it seeks to portray the formation of age-old rituals and customs that we follow till this date. A civilizational idea of settlement and human interaction prevails.
It’s pivotal also as it marks our Vedic predecessors as hailing from the region that is present- day Iran thus pointing to a truly multicultural, transnational ethos that shaped us since the ancient times.
If you watch the first episode itself, you will find how much this series influenced Ashutosh Gowariker’s epic JODHA AKBAR(2008), especially the spirit of enquiry that made the great secular ruler visit the Agra Bazaar, in the guise of a common man, to grasp ground realities and allowed him the wisdom to punish his own brother for his misdeeds, to set an example of justice given to no familial obligations.
I loved these twin episodes for so impeccably showing us Akbar as a modest man who was not above his people or the collective expertise of his courtiers who were unwaveringly loyal towards him and had the foresight to aid his vision of an India where equality was able to be established. From his interaction with Jesuit priests to encountering cultural orthodoxy within his religious order, he listens to others’ views, a man who continues to be the template for a modern consciousness, deliberating and reflecting on policies before designing his fabled DIN-E-ILAHI.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda, a man whom I dearly admire for his performances over the years, is all flesh and blood as someone rooting for and implementing change while getting heartbroken by his sons’ avarices. He embodies Akbar like no one can, humanising him beyond the tropes of an unanimously beloved king whom history looks upon as a cultural touchstone.
You can never go wrong with a Nasseeruddin Shah performance and he is fiery and characteristically noble as the great ruler Shivaji.
In these two episodes, the equal support and counsel from his mother becomes a bedrock of his tryst with destiny. I particularly loved how two common men relay his legend in the last years of 19th Century Maharashtra, giving it both a mythic and folkloric sensibility informed by pure historic feats.
Watch these episodes to know how Shivaji’s father became a prisoner of his own loyalty to other invading rulers, a spell broken by Shivaji with tact and care, how his intervention turned barren lands within his kingdom to lush sanctuaries down the centuries. The best parts, however, are reserved for his confrontations with Aurangzeb (Om Puri)
Those legendary baritones and performative acumen on the part of these two men give it a charge that is tonally befitting.
Finally, to get a full overview of all the episodes, if you may not have watched them given the series’ expansive 50 part run, go through this hour and a half epilogue that takes into account the tale’s trajectory, from ancient times to the Independence era gravitas.
I will be watching more episodes and writing about them. For now, I hope you read about them and watch them courtesy Prasar Bharti Archives channel where all episodes are available in good definition and sound quality.
The individual, objective / subjective simultaneity of the scenes also carry a theatrical mode of storytelling which helps to convey its verbal ethos very fluently. The actors deliver those lines just as well.
Last but not the least is the legendary, multicultural Roshan Seth as Jawaharlal Nehru, the sutradhar who holds it together with his eloquence, based as this acclaimed series is on the premier’s own book DISCOVERY OF INDIA.
VAR VAR VARI(1987)
VARI is a Sanskrit word which means water and is used in the feminine sense. That way, this short film by auteur Kumar Shahani justifies its title. Beautifully photographed by Piyush Shah and with lucid sound design by K.A. Sarkar, the presence of lakes, rippling waves, inclement weather and rain get subsumed in a tale that gets more intriguing with each view.
Mita Vashisht made her debut with this diploma feature from the prestigious annals of Film and Television Institute of India. She is part enigma, part love-lorn lover as someone who begins the film as a meteorological scientist directly addressing the camera, telling us about the workings of her station and at the same time employing a teasing smile and look, as if to convey the fact that she is, quite literally, in control of weather patterns. Or a way of life. The sound design captures this brilliantly.
From her interactions with a wandering sage( G. S. Chani) and then her best friend ( the film’s editor Nandini Bedi herself), she assumes the avatar of a mythic creature, a mystery figure whose lines gave me the impression that she is an impersonation of the Weather Goddess herself, always one with the nature around her.
She’s also a young woman who asks her friend to carry her beloved’s food across the lake, on her boat. When more than a whiff of betrayal on both their parts is revealed, she lets her long hair be open instead of in a bun. Flooded fields close the film. It’s as if her own wrath brought an abundance of rain on earth. Maybe she manifests her emotions as the eternal Earth mother, signifying Prakriti(nature) and Saundarya( Beauty) along with their associative destructive forces. Hence, the unnamed protagonist is always in control.
Mita Vashisht is utterly fascinating and sensual in her portrayal here while Nandini Bedi is more static in her dialogue delivery, reminiscent of the style of ’30s dramas.
More than that, this is an aesthetically pleasing wonder, with its sepia tones ripe with beautiful imagery. Behold Ms. Vashisht by the lake, rocking a swing, dressed in her finery like a divine vision or by the mirror, her friend on the boat, the sage amidst the verdure of nature and the protagonist’s flowing tresses in the end. Or the image of the black swan in the first three minutes of the opening credits.
VAR VAR VARI is esoteric at first but is so full of contexts and interpretations that its 24 minutes will be lapped up by cinephiles who are buoyed by intellectual stimulation and aesthetics than just a straightjacketed narrative. Ms. Vashisht carries it beautifully with her quintessential grace.
KITBULL(2019) & PIPER(2016)
Finally, we steer the storytelling boat towards the varied and always triumphant array of short form animation.
KITBULL is a sensitive little gem about a dog and a cat who find a world of companionship away from human cruelty and man-made decrees of them being mortal enemies. The cat ends up rescuing the abused dog and their alignment with a doting human couple that adopts them is heartwarming.
PIPER is another genuine wonder, with its eye for detail regarding a young seagull’s journey to learn the basics of survival, getting affixed with the little one’s unlikely friendship with a crab, overcoming fear of incoming waves and learning life lessons. The sound design employed for the birds, the sea and the behavioural pattern are all authentic because it takes our observant eye to grasp those intricacies.
Blessed are these shorts from the famed animation studio Pixar that manage to tap into our love for these innocent beings and nature, in general, in under 10 minutes. That’s a miracle we need to imbibe wholeheartedly.