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30 years of Ramayana:The back story of DD’s show that changed Indian TV forever

30 years of DD’s Ramayana:The back story of the show that changed Indian TV forever
Thirty years after is was first shown on Doordarshan, a look at the breathtaking success of the TV serial Ramayana and its lasting cultural impact.

On August 28, 1989 thousands of people were gathered in the southern English town of Milton Keynes. The gathering, instructively titled ‘Sammelan,’ sought to bring together Hindus living in Britain and called for the reawakening of a larger Hindu identity. As part of the agenda, the need to move – politically and physically – for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya was unanimously pushed. Among the attendees – which included local labour MPs, gurus and other religious leaders – one man stood out, perhaps for the influence he had already built up and the wave of Hindu approval and recognition he had ridden on on his way to the Sammelan – Ramanand Sagar. Thirty years on, and a week after his 100 birth anniversary, Sagar’s legacy is more a source of questions than answers.

In January 1987, Sagar received a call from the offices of Doordarshan in Delhi’s Mandi House. Asked if he could present a pilot episode of the Ramayana within two weeks, Sagar said yes. “We met, my brothers and dad, when the call came in. I told dad we couldn’t do it,” says Sagar’s son, Prem Sagar. “We had shot four episodes. But turning that into a pilot was next to impossible. It required so much work. And we had little time.” The four episodes, Prem mentions, were eventually cut and stitched together to make a single episode. On January 25, the pilot was aired and Indian television would never be the same again.

Within a couple of episodes, Sagar’s Ramayana became a national sensation, eventually clocking viewership of around 650 million, telecast in 55 different countries and becoming the highest grossing show on Indian television by some distance. But behind and besides the narrative of success underlined by earth-shattering numbers, there were concerns, most of them political, and many controversies. Of the political concerns, chief was the telecast of the epic series in the shade of the Ram Janambhoomi movement that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

Sagar’s Ramayana played in the backdrop of a Hindutva shift in Indian politics, under the aegis of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political outfit, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the media and cultural commentators struggled to consider Sagar’s epic one way or the other, there were some who saw it as a catalyst, even if unintended, to the turmoil that the movement resulted in. Chief among them was Arvind Rajagopal, whose book Politics after Television (Cambridge Press, 2001) took the view that not only did Sagar’s show violate a secular principle adjoined to the concept of a national broadcaster i.e. Doordarshan – that Doordarshan should not be in favour of any one particular religion – but that it may even have been the fillip that turned the electoral fortunes of the BJP.

“LK Advani’s Ratha Yatra (from Somnath to Ayodhya) was like a lit fuse that traced a no doubt carefully selected trail across the Hindi belt – all of which responded enthusiastically to the show. Bear in mind that penetration was limited, only 14 million TV households in 1987. But hundreds watched at many viewing points,” says Rajagopal. Coincidentally, Advani was also present at the mahurat of Yogeshwar Krishna, a film project with Shashi Kapoor playing Krishna, to be helmed by Sagar, which however failed to materialise after its launch in 1975.

Rajagopal believes that the very idea of telecasting a Hindu epic on national television was in violation of a secular standpoint that at least the Congress government in power should have stayed true to. Then there were the likes of SS Gill, then a former I & B Secretary, who openly, in a newspaper article, took credit for having floated the idea of the Ramayana. The Hindi press largely followed Gill’s line in venerating the idea and Sagar’s execution. The English press though remained mute. “They couldn’t reconcile its popularity with their classicist and Orientalist understanding of the Ramayan as an Indian classic, and as somehow representative of the culture,” Rajagopal says.

The abandonment of the Nehruvian secular ethos in favour of a Hindu-centric aesthetic troubled many within Doordarshan as well. Sharad Dutt, then a producer there, and one of the first reviewers of Sagar’s tape of the pilot, says there was enough to make a few people backstage uncomfortable. “I won’t say there was outright rejection or unease, but a lot of people within the channel’s office weren’t supportive of the idea to begin with. But it had no motivation with what was going on politically. The Congress was in power and it had no agenda of the sort. Instead, it might be more crucial to discuss how poor the execution of the show was. That was my first question to Sagar after I watched the tape. Have you made Ramayana or Ram-Leela?” he says.

Criticism of Sagar’s execution is where most writing on the show coincides. Marxist scholar and playwright GP Deshpande called it ‘an injustice to the epic form’ and ‘calendar art’. Even Gill, in the same article where he declared himself the seed of the show, criticised Sagar’s execution of the idea. Dutt believes it was too long, too narrow in its view and too plastic to be worthy of any form of dissection. “It was made primarily to milk money. And the show did that with great ease. After a point, even Doordarshan couldn’t do much but cash in on the money,” Dutt adds.

That the show became as popular as it did points to other elements at work. Dutt says Doordarshan was bombarded by letters and positive reviews from viewers who considered the show as sacred, as if they were being given ‘darshan’ by the gods themselves.

In contrast to Dutt, Prem Sagar says that the show’s place on national television was natural. “Baba knew he would make the Ramayana as early as the 1940s. He had begun conceptualising the idea back in 1975 itself. But every time, at Doordarshan, someone or the other pulled the plug. They had an agenda. It was probably down to the officers high up in the organisation. Eventually someone got transferred here or there, or left office and the show finally happened,” he says. Shot in Umbergaon, a small town in Gujarat, the Ramayana was so frantically produced and prepped that actors were at times chosen a week before episodes aired. “The actor who played Sugrive was selected only a week before he had to appear for the first time. We just kept going. There was hardly any breathing space in between,” he adds.

Ramanand Sagar was born to a rich Kashmiri family on December 19, 1917. Sagar started out as a writer under various pen names. Eventually, he shifted to Bombay where his tryst with cinema began at Prithvi Theatre, as an assistant to Prithviraj Kapoor. In 1950 Sagar founded Sagar Arts, a production company, and made a number of bad to average films before eventually turning to television which would prove to be his holy grail. “He was a thorough student. He read almost all the Ramayanas and was the only one who could have done it. Look at what they do with the epic these days. They only know technicalities, but have no knowledge,” says Sagar.

Ramanand Sagar modelled his telling of the epic to Tulsidas’ Ramayana and chose to end the show with the coronation and homecoming of Ram (the beginning of Ram Rajya), omitting the part of Sita’s trial and the chapters about Luv and Kush. “Baba said his Ram couldn’t banish Sita as had been written by many. Mere Ram aisa nai kar sakte, he used to say, whenever there was criticism. But even he bowed under pressure. We made a special Luv-Kush episode for a man who was hospitalised in Chennai because he demanded that missing episode. We flew an exclusive tape to him. Such was the influence of the show on some people,” Sagar adds.

After the show, Sagar became an industry in himself, going on to make Sri Krishna, Luv aur Kush, Alif Laila and many more serials that became synonymous with mythology as text in India, before globalisation and foreign media altered the picture. Sagar’s image outside the context of television had been elevated to the level that he was carried on chariots through Ayodhya. The political clout that the TV series came to hold can be adjudged by the fact that Arun Govil (who played Ram) and Sagar were repeatedly courted by both the Congress and the BJP to campaign for them. Other actors like Deepika Chikalia (Sita) and Arvind Trivedi (Ravana) both eventually became MPs.

In 1992, Advani led a nationwide campaign to the doorstep of the Babri Masjid and changed India’s political discourse forever. On the question of Ramanand Sagar’s influence on the Hindu population and its mobilisation to devastating effect in the case of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Prem Sagar has a clear opinion: “Where else will you build Ram’s temple? What was wrong with it? Ram has to return to the place he belongs to,” he says.

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