God of small screen

Most TV channels today have a mythological show on air. The reason is simple — to connect with viewers by creating a link between stories they have heard while growing up with a more seamless narrative that they can watch. SANGEETA YADAV studies this new trend

Back in 1987, Sundays were spent watching Ramayan. All household chores would come to a standstill at 9:30 am. From children to elders, everybody would sit in front of the TV to watch the journey of Lord Ram. Some watched it because of religious reasons, others were keen to imbibe life lessons from the ultimate victory of good over evil. The Limca Book of Records awarded the show the title of World’s Most Viewed Mythological series as it was telecast in five continents — North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. The show bagged a lot many national and international awards.

Looking at the success of Ramayan, BR Chopra, known for popular movies like Naya Daur (1957), Sadhna(1958), Kanoon (1961), Gumrah (1963) and Humraaz (1967), ventured into television with Mahabharat that too became a hit in 1988. According to production team member Kishore Malhotra, the total cost of producing of the series back then was Rs 9 crore.

Firoze Khan became so famous as Arjun that he later adopted it as his screen name. The show was shown in the UK where it was watched by 5 million people. Following the success of the two epics, Sagar Arts came up with a bouquet of mythology shows like Luv Kush, Shri Krishna, Jai Mahalaxmi, (2000), Brahma Vishnu Mahesh (2000), Jai Ganga Maiya (2003), Saibaba (2005), Jai Maa Durga (2007), Ramayan (remake of 1982), Mahima Shabi Dev Ki (2008), Jai Jai Jai Bajrangbali (2011) and Jai Jag Janani Maa Durga (2012).

Cut to 2017 and it is still raining Gods and Goddesses on TV with shows on Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna and Shani, soon to be followed by Maha Kali and Sai Baba.

 “Indian mythology is fascinating with many aspects being shared as folklore over generations. Such shows have witnessed an upsurge on a global level as well. A mythological show connects with the viewer’s imagination and creates a link between the stories he has heard while growing up to create a more seamless narrative that he can relate to. The visual aspect is very important here; the content and narrative is supported by lavish sets, intricately designed costumes along with layers of special effects which make it a more engaging watch for viewers,” Manisha Sharma, programming head, Colors, tells you.

No wonder then, these shows have taken over primetime slots and are garnering maximum TRP.

“Viewers are bored of repetitive stories. In mythology shows, at least there is a story to tell that moves forward. That’s the reason behind the rising number of such shows on TV. Some are being interpreted as per current tastes. But one should not distort facts in history and historical figures,” Gajra Kottary, TV scriptwriter and author, tells you.

The trend, which was kickstarted by Sagar Arts and which BR Chopra spread, opened doors for other mythological series. After hit shows like Mahabharat (2013), Suryaputra Karn (2015) and the on-going Color’s number one show — Karamphal Data Shani, Siddharth Kumar Tewary is now coming up with Mahakali—Anth Hi Aarambh Hai that will go on air from July 22 at 7 pm on Colors.

Mahakali whose story has often remained a sub-plot in many mythological shows will, for the very first time, be aired as a standalone one.

 “The show will talk about what led to the transformation of Parvati to Kali. We are saying Anth he aarambh hai because that’s how she turned into a destroyer. There is a message in the show — that today’s women are not weak. If you will push her into a corner, she can turn into Kali,” Tewary tells you.

No such big manoeuvres for Lord Krishna however. He makes a comeback, this time on &TV, as Paramavatar Shree Khrishna which narrates the adventurous journey of the mischievous Nandlal to becoming Lord Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu. While Sony Entertainment Television is running Sankat Mochan Hanuman, the highest rated serial on the channel, they are also getting Vignharta Ganesh andSai Bhakton Ki Sachchi Kahaniyan. Whereas Vignahartha Ganesha will showcase parent-child relationship and some unheard stories of Ganesha stories, Sai Bhakton Ki Sachchi Kahaniyan will be based on the original stories of devotees of Saibaba and aims to strengthen the Baba’s teachings of faith and patience.

The Epic channel has, meanwhile, launched Season 3 of the chat show, Devlok with Devdutt Pattanaik that will showcase a series of fascinating discussions and interpretations between Pattanaik and actress-turned-host Rasika Duggal.

“Beyond Hindu mythology, we will be talking about other traditions, pilgrimages and festivals and three integral parts of mythology — stories, symbols and rituals. We will talk about how stories change with time. The show has no script and is extempore. Sometimes the discussion becomes very complicated and the director asks us to break down the question to simplify things for the audience. The challenge is what to keep in the 20-minute episode. The left out information gets uploaded on my YouTube channel Devlok Mini with Devdutt Pattanaik,” Pattanaik says.

The history of mythology shows on TV can be divided into two phases — Sagar Art’s Ramayan, and post Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev (DKDM) and Mahabharat (2013). The inception of this revolutionary movement started way back in 1977.

 “Ramayan was thought of in 1977 when papaji (Ramanand Sagar) and I were shooting for Charas in Europe. Looking at the colour TV set for the first time, papaji decided to venture into TV and make Ramayan, Krishna, Durga etc. I approached our relatives in the UK and USA to raise funds for this project. They would say ‘the entire family has gone mad. Tum bhi doobogey aur humko bhi dubaaogey. Yeh mukut moochh ko kaun dekhega?’ I came back disappointed and told my father that nobody believes Ramayan as a series will work for TV. But papaji was determined and assured me that Ramayan will be made even if he had to sell all his assets,” Prem Sagar recalls.

Those were the days when popular serials Nukkad and Hum Log ruled the roost and nobody thought that TV would ever accept a mythology show. That is when Ramanand Sagar decided to make Ramayan for all communities, castes and religions.

As a test project, Sagar Arts started with Vikram Aur Betaal with the same cast – Arun Govil, Deepika Chikhalia and Dara Singh. It was a big hit. “The show was a hit and we knew that we were on the right path. With Ramayan, we were clear that it would not be just mythology that we would bring back but tenets of sanaatan dharm which would be for everybody to enjoy with no particular religious concoction,” Sagar says, adding that his father  took this as eternal truth which he put in his shows.

The show was shown in 55 countries. According to the BBC, it reached a 6-million viewership, which meant one in every 13 people on this planet had seen it. “It was not the greatest Hindu mythology but the greatest Indian mythology show,” Sagar emphasises.

It was not easy. A lot of opposition from Hindutva communities came when Ramanand Sagar showed Sita’s vanvaas which he took from the Radhey Shyam Ramayan. They said the incident was concocted and that Ram, the maryada prushotam was an ideal son, husband, brother and father who would not have let Sita give the agni pariksha. He knew his wife was pregnant; still she had to go through agni pariksha to prove the public her innocence. Ram was shown as a villain which was not liked by certain people,” Sagar recounts, adding that if Sholay sold 10 VCDs, Ramayan sold 150.

After Ramayan went off air, the Valmiki community put a lot of pressure on Ramanand Sagar to make a show on Luv Kush as well. “He was not interested in the project since he never agreed in principle to what Ram did to Luv-Kush. He was against it just like Tulsi Das was. Papaji told Doordarshan that he would only make Ramayan up to Ram rajya. But then the Valmikis took to the streets. There were phone calls from the Prime Minister’s Office requesting Ramanand Sagar to make the show. He agreed but had a condition — it would be his take on the story.

“The day after the first episode was aired, several cases, against my father were filed in various courts, including the Allahabad High Court. How can Ramanand Sagar distort mythology was the base of all the cases,” Sagar recalls.

In 1992, Sagar Arts came up with another winner — Shri Krishna. It became one of the biggest grossers for DD and earned over Rs 100 crore. On popular demand, the 156 episodes of Shri Krishna were telecast on DD1 in 1993. The rest of the 52 episodes were shown on Zee TV in 1999. The entire series was re-telecast on Sony in 2001 and later on Star.

Ramanand Sagar’s biggest dream was to make a show on Durga and he even signed Hema Malini for it. Unfortunately, DD refused to give him a slot. “Later, papaji abandoned the project saying he had no authority to show mysticism and mahavidyas that were an integral part of the storyline. Later, Star Plus asked me to make a show on Durga. My son, Shiv Sagar, and I made it and it touched 3.5 TRP on the first day,” Sagar tells you. He then went on to make other mythology shows like Sai Baba and the remake of Ramayan.

Soon, Shiv Sagar took command and made another show — Jai Jag Janani Maa Durga on Colors and Mahima Shani Dev Ki on NDTV Imagine that ran for four-and-a-half years and Jai Jai Jai Bajrangbali for Sahara channel. It was in 1992 when Jai Ganga Maiyaa on DD ran into controversy. “The show was on the No 1 slot for more than 100 weeks but they decided to increase the additional spot charge (a charge that one had to give to air the show at that particular time slot) after six months. We had to pay Rs 2 lakh more per day. For each episode we were paying them Rs 20 lakh for half an hour slot. We had to shut shop,” Sagar says.

Looking at the success of mythological shows, daily soap queen Ekta Kapoor also ventured into the sphere by launching a modern version of Mahabharata titled Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki (2008) on 9X.

 “In the name of modern-day Mahabharat, the makers took a lot of liberties. They showed Draupadi wearing a tattoo and took actors with six-pack abs. The costumes made them look like Greek Gods. I was against all this distortion in the name of creativity,” Mukesh Khanna, who played Bhishma Pitamah in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, says.

It was in 2011, the VFX revolution opened doors for showmakers to experiment and innovate. Life Ok’s big budget show Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev was the turning point for the TV fraternity. One of its episode featuring Kali killing the demon Raktabija rated the shows highest TRP with an 8.2 TVR.

“Before Devon Ke Dev…Mahadev, there was nothing on TV to see on that scale. It had raised the bar for other show makers to experiment with VFX and create surrealistic, divine and beautiful atmospheres. The challenge was to differentiate between the earlier mythology shows technically and story-wise. We were sure that to make a hit show that can work in the long run, it should be made with a lot of faith rather than as a TV show since Mahadev is more of an experience for people. That is why people remember it,” Nikhil Sinha, co-producer, Triangle Film Company says, adding that Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev ran in more than 20-25 languages and became a hit in China too.

With time, the treatment of mythology shows changed and the producers stopped differentiating between mythological and historical drama, calling all of them costume drama. “We are calling Ramayan and Mahabharat mythology but we genuinely believe that both mythology and history are intertwined and a part of our rich history. That’s why we celebrate Diwali and Holi. These stories are relevant even today and need to be told again and again,” Tewary says.

Tewary’s Mahabharat, speculated to be on a Rs 100 crore budget, was conceived earlier than Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev that went on-air before. Both makers made the best use of advanced technology not just through VFX, but through sets, costumes, music and dialogue. “The Mahabharat project led me to read different versions of the epic. The intent was not to remake BR Chopra’s Mahabharat or Sagar Arts’ Shani. I was clear that I was making my interpretation of the epic. You don’t need to be follow the same dialogues. What matters is the understanding of that subject and how well you tell the story,” Tewary says.

After touching a milestone with DKDM, Sinha came up with Siya ke Ram on Star Plus in 2015. “The biggest challenge was to cross the milestone reached after DKDM. I had to outdo myself. Another challenge was not to take too much creative liberties. You have to keep yourself in the periphery of the original story. As long as you are not hurting the sentiments of the people, it works. We have more than 300-400 versions of Mahabharat and Ramayan. For both Mahadev and Siya Ke Ram, we had experts Devdutt Pattanaik, Dr Bodhisattva and Anand Neelakantan as consultants. Our perspective was to find a different take on the story,” Sinha tells you.

Tewary’s on-going show Karmphal Data Shani on Colors has grabbed eyeballs and is one of the top three shows on TV. The focus of the show is to break the myths around Shani. “Many people told me not to make a show on Shani Dev as people are scared of him and will not watch it. But I wanted to break this taboo of people thinking Shani is bad omen. Karamphal Data Shani tells you how he is not meant to harm you. The show has changed the way they think about Shani. There is a reason behind Shani entering your life. Like my previous shows — Mahabharata and Suryaputra Karn, every story gives out a message. It should make sense to life and make you learn from it,” Tewary says.

Actors who play God get many offers to appear at live events at religious places or events, and for just few hours, they was offered money in lakhs.

 “After becoming famous as Shani Dev, I started getting offers to appear for TV shopping and commercials to promote healer lockets. I asked them if these things really worked and if they didn’t, I would not promote them as I can’t fool people. Once I went to an event as a guest, whatever money the client was giving me as a token of gratitude, I told them to give it to an NGO working in their area. Many people said you will earn some more through this but somewhere I couldn’t convince myself to become that greedy,” Daya Shankar Pandey, who played Shani Dev in Mahima Shani Dev Ki,” tells you.

While Swastik Pictures launched a separate VFX company One Life Studios to make shows like MahabharatSuryaputra KarnKarmphal Data Shani and Mahakali, the Triangle Film Company came up with an independent firm Vertex Volt with Hardik Gajjar which has done shows like MahadevSiya Ke Ram and many others. Today, makers are leaving no stone unturned and no platform unexplored to tell their story, be it TV or online. Some are even out-and-out knowledge-based shows like Devlok… on Epic.

“Mythological serials are designed around TRPs. They are not able to touch sanaatan shastra. For instance, Krishna himself is a deep philosophy. Showmakers are focusing on cute things and larger-than-life war scenes. With Devlok…, we are not indulging in TRPs. Our purpose is to forge a deeper connect with the audience by providing knowledge. What I say is philosophical but it is also highly refined and sophisticated. It is a very difficult thought but I am telling it simply,” Pattanaik says.

That is the secret of any mythological show. To tell a story as simply as possible and yet retain the essence.

(The article also got published in Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/god-of-small-screen.html).


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