Attempting to make a 160-minute film out of such a vast text must be considered a daunting undertaking. (By comparison, the massively successful version of The Mahabharata made for Indian television between 1988-90 took 94 hour-long episodes to tell the entire story). The equivalent might by Dino De Laurentiiss authoritative claim to film The Bible (1966) in 174 minutes and not making it much beyond selected highlights of The Book of Genesis. To their credit, the filmmakers keep to and cover most of the basics of the story concerning the rivalry between the two clans and the culminating battle, although have had to truncate or ditch a good deal of the side stories that run throughout the text. We get nothing of the background of the two clans how the Pandava father Pandu is cursed to a life of celibacy after shooting a brahmin in the form of a gazelle and his wife then sires five sons after calling on the gods to impregnate her; and how the Kaurava mother Gandhari gives birth to a ball of flesh, which she cuts into a 100 pieces that becomes the 100 sons of the Kauravas. Also eliminated is the parts of the story that occur after the Battle of Kurukshetra, which comprise more than a third of the full text of The Mahabharata, dealing with King Yudhishthiras struggle to come to terms with the massive body count, the death of Krishnas earthly form and the decision of the remaining Pandavas to walk to the gates of Heaven at the end of the world. Some of the aspects of the story that are retained are highly truncated notedly the recitation of The Bhagavad Gita, which comprises some 700 verses and has become regarded as a separate sacred text in its own right and is the basis of the modern Hare Krishna religion wherein Krishna manifests his true form to the archer Arjuna and speaks of the necessity of dharma (ones duty to social order and universal harmony) and attaining yogic detachment from the world, which in the film is reduced to no more than a few key speeches. All things considered, Mahabharat appears to do a fair job of highlighting the dramatic basics of the story.
What we are concerned with here is Mahabharat as a film and the extent to which it works as an epic fantasy. The major problem I had with watching the film was in doing so as a Westerner. I was increasingly aware that I was viewing a film that was made for an entirely different ethnic and cultural audience to the one that I belonged. This in itself should never be a particular problem after all, foreign language films are released to theatres all the time and numerous ones are reviewed on this site. The problem here is that Mahabharat was made strictly for Indian/Hindu audience and makes no effort to explain its story outside of this culture. In severely condensing the original text, Mahabharat makes the assumption that its audience is familiar with many aspects of the story and it is only through a considerable amount of background research on the subject that I have been able to fully grasp what is happening on screen. The confusion is also added to by the huge cast of characters all of whom are dressed almost identically and sport the same prettified masculine looks, such that it often becomes impossible to tell who is on what side, let alone tell one character from the other.
That said, Mahabharat has an undeniable colour and an epic sweep that captivates the imagination. The film was made in the mid-1960s when there was a fad in the West for Biblical epics The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961) etc. One does not know how to what extent this fad spread to India but Mahabharat feels like a film construed in a similar vein. What Mahabharat feels more like is an Indian attempt to copy one of the Italian sword-and-sandal films that came out around the same time after the massive success of Hercules (1958). In particular, there are a number of scenes where the various brawny men engage in extended wrestling matches, which suggests that the filmmakers were attempting to appeal to the same audience for muscleman adventure as the peplum cycle. What Mahabharat has over the Italian films is a much more vivid sense of fantastic imagination, which was always something that was played down as much as possible by the Italians. There are some excellent optical effects for the era that allow the demon child Ghatotkatcha to grow to giant-size (in a scene undeniable reminiscent of the geniis appearance The Thief of Bagdad ), arrows to multiply as they fly through the air and carry their opponents severed heads away or spout streams of water when shot into the ground, or Krishna to appear in a giant-size incarnation with multiple heads atop his shoulders. One of the most magical scenes is where Draupadi is about to be stripped but Krishna appears and causes a robe to keep winding itself around her until her abuser is exhausted with the effort to unravel it. There is vibrant and lavish colour to the sets and costumes.
Dramatically, Mahabharat is less exciting. Director Babubhai Mistry shoots everything in wide angles and rarely breaks the drama up or focuses on any of the characters. There is also a wildly jaunty score run over every piece of action no matter what the occasion. Mahabharat does come into its own during the battle scenes, which are expectedly the highlight of the film and directed with a sizeable cast of extras. Even though the essence of The Bhagavad Gita has been drastically curtailed, one gets a fine sense during Krishnas lectures of Arjun of learning his sense of duty and belief in a greater good that lies beyond the battle.
Other screen adaptations of The Mahabharata have been made in 1920 and 1933, although little is known about these. The most famous version was the massively popular tv series The Mahabharat (1988-90), which had the highest viewing audience of any show ever in India. In the West, director Peter Brook made the highly acclaimed The Mahabharata (1989), a mini-series that was shown in six one-hour episodes, as well as a three-hour theatrical version in some places.
(Review copy provided courtesy of Suresh S.)
Full film available online here (no subs):-