Ramanyana

A Love Letter to Ramanand Sagar

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Ramanand Sagar was honored with the Padma Sri; an award on par with attaining Knighthood, or a Kennedy Center Honor

Recently, I coerced one of my Ramayana buddies into watching the original Ramayana tv series produced by Ramanand Sagar in the late 80’s; a series that revived a whole consciousness and national pride, and had far-reaching effects on what is offered on Indian television today. Having seen at least seven different tv versions of the Ramayana, some of them numerous times, this most recent viewing confirms for me that while there are others I have enjoyed and even “loved”, this original is in a league of its own.

I did not discover the plethora of Indian tv serials available on YouTube and DVD until just about three years ago. I’ve been a lost cause ever since, taking a few other with me down the rabbit hole. We have a secret club (well, not really secret, but somewhat embarrassed at publicly admitting our enthusiasm) exchanging links to yet another subtitled series, and we have been known to shuttle entire sets of DVDs containing hundreds of episodes back and forth from one end of the US to another.

When I have confessed this obsession to various Indian friends young and old, it usually evokes a “you’re kidding — you?” laughing response. That’s generally followed by full disclosure of their own obsessions with similar series.

Those of my own generation, (50’s and above) may then share stories such as the one I heard recently from a woman friend: how excited she was when, as a young woman, she happened to be in a hotel restaurant at the time that the entire cast of B.K. Chopra’s Mahabharat came in. Even telling the tale 25 years later her face lit up with youthful excitement. Or I heard a young father’s enthusiastic recounting of how he recently watched Mahadev online with his children and they used the opportunity after every episode to have a lively family discussion about values, morality and choices.

I hesitate to use the word mythological when describing these series, but it’s the way the genre is referred to by the tv industry.

For us, while it is entertaining for sure, it is not just entertainment. It’s a form of devotional practice—even if it does come with cardboard crowns, hunky actors and subtitles. The very last thing we do at night is to be absorbed in the “leelas of the Lord” (the divine stories of the lives of the avatars and dieties).

Listening to the stories of God’s play on the earth is one of the nine paths of devotion recommended by the great sage Narada in the Narada Sutras; that practice is the core of the Srimad Bhagavatam itself.

Of course, Narada muni probably wasn’t thinking about Mohit Raina as Shiva when he was first disclosing the devotional path, but it’s the 21st century, and there it is.

Convincing my friend to sit through many episodes of this first Ramayana was not an easy task, because it was produced when technology —and perhaps production budgets—were both relatively low. Compared to the avalanche of green-screen / Star Wars-like / Industrial-Light-&-Magic quality mythologicals that now flood Indian TV, this original Ramayana can seem primitive indeed. And some people, my friend among them, just don’t like classic movies with their slower pace and dated production values.

For those who were a part of the 80’s – 90’s Indian television-viewing population, (a group that does not include me), this Ramanand Sagar Ramayana remains the standard against which all other Ramayanas—and there are many—are measured.

For those nurtured on the current generation of shows like Devon ke Dev Mahadev or the current Siya ke Ram with their superhero physiques, stunning sets, drop-dead-gorgeous costumes and video-game-influenced special effects, it takes entirely rebooting a mindset to return to the early days of foil crowns and fully-draped females, not to mention some aging and (gasp!) flabby-by-today’s-standards actors (translation: normal people) in a couple of the famous co-starring roles.

To make an American analogy, I believe Arun Govil, whose placid demeanor and beatific half-smile immortalized his portrayal of Ram, would have about as much chance of being cast to play Ram today as Rex Harrison would have of talk-singing his way through the lead in My Fair Lady—if that musical was being premiered in 2016 instead of in 1956. No one gets cast in a major Broadway production anymore who is not a triple-threat: actor, dancer and singer capable of belting out the big notes.

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Arun Govil as Ram.  He was the first of a trifecta of television actors (Nitish Bharadwaj and Mohit Raina being the others) who learned to cope with viewers who worshipped them as the deities they portrayed. All three were known to handle it with respect and grace.

Comparably, acceptable physical standards for tv and movies have radically changed in the past 15 years, in some cases sacrificing nobility of character and depth of talent for six-pack abs.

I muse that Arun, a handsome actor and very well-proportioned by 1986 standards, would no doubt need to spend three hours a day in the gym to meet current expectations for a hero, as did Mohit Raina during the 2011-2014 filming of Mahadev.

The brilliantly nuanced performance of older actor Dara Singh as Hanuman would never make it to the screen today, nor would Arvind Trivedi’s portrayal of Ravan; so much more complex than some of the blustery characterizations of later versions.

So, despite our periodically giving way to laughter at the plastic demon costumes that look like leftovers from the sale section in the back of an Oriental Trading Company catalog, it didn’t take long for us to get sucked right back into the Ramayana vortex, and to be reminded that almost none of the writing in the mythological genre today compares with the powerful level of prose in the screenplays that Ramanand Sagar himself penned—and I say that going only by the English subtitles.

I assume we all know how unreliable subtitles are in conveying the beauty and subtleties of thought of the original language. Subtitles usually represent several degrees of devolution from their source material. By now, I’ve watched enough hundreds of hours of Hindi to know when they are skimping on or changing the English flashing at the bottom of the screen. To be profoundly moved by second-rate translations says something about the power of the original.

Our current viewing has reminded me that portions of Sagar’s scripts—particularly the monologues and question/answer segments—contain philosophical wisdom of the highest order. They come across with a vibrational frequency that remains unmatched. That frequency is the difference between a line that resonates as truth, and one that simply serves up well-known platitudes. I believe it was with the attunement of someone who has imbibed and lived the truths of his dialogues that Sagar succeeded in dispersing Vedic wisdom all over the globe.

Current mythologicals, with each generation of technology, put the emphasis more and more on buff bodies, lush sets and special effects. I admit to thoroughly enjoying all those improvements. Unfortunately, much of the time, improvements in production values have come at the expense of another, higher value—the level of vibration that infused Sri Sagar’s writings in this and other subsequent productions. I am confident that sentimentality is not coloring my observation through a lens of longing for things from my youth, because my youth was spent in the Bronx, NY in a Jewish home and all things Indian were far in my future.

The philosophies Sagar spoke through the mouth of Ram or any number of his other characters are a combination of the many versions of the Ramayana he lists in the opening credits plus his own interpretation. But oh, what an interpretation!

I have come to believe that like Tulsidas, Ramanand Sagar was another incarnation of Sage Valmiki.

Tulsidas, widely believed to be a reincarnation of Valmiki, put the Ramayana into the vernacular to make it available to those who could not access the story in scholarly Sanskrit. It was much like Johannes Gutenberg taking the Bible away from the exclusive provenance of monks and putting it into the hands of the people.

Sagar likewise re-cast the story in the new vernacular—television—and made the Ramayana available again to new generations on an unprecedented scale. His Ramayana has been viewed by at least 100 million people worldwide. Some YouTube uploads, from the many people who have uploaded it, carry viewer numbers in the hundreds of thousands still. Talk about making something available to a new generation! Perhaps only George Lucas has had that level of impact on mass consciousness.

Every year or two, there is a new Ramayana plying the airwaves. Of course there is, it is an inexhaustible source of remakes and retellings, no matter how difficult some aspects of the story are for a modern woman. (I will save wrestling with that topic for another post at a later date). Ostensibly, this newest one (Siya ke Ram) tells the story from the point of view of Sita. I caught a (probably bootleg) upload on YouTube of several episodes. I had to do without subtitles; since that kind of official release may be a few years away. But the story is embedded in me such that I can watch it and figure out most of what’s happening.

Tellingly, I happened to start with an episode where Ram (presumably taking a ritual bath) rises from the river water like Venus on the Half Shell, or Esther Williams in a 1930’s musical—a gorgeous man, dripping wet and stunningly lit. I wasn’t sure if this was the Ramayana or a centerfold shoot. I know that my first association with what I was watching wasn’t exactly devotional. I laughed out loud, both enjoying it and marveling at how the edges of commercialism are pushed.

A quick visit to the series’ Facebook page has the gushings of this generation of fans, that this is the best Ramayana ever, the one they’ll remember forever and ever.

I’m sure that’s true for the audience of now. I also know that, sucker that I am for anything beautiful and artistic as this production is, that I will be on alert for when, eventually, the dvd’s will be released.

But I’m glad I saw it right in the middle of my revisiting that first, landmark Sagar series. Between that one, and the later 2008 version also produced by the Sagar clan, a standard was set in a way that I, and legions of others, will cherish…”forever and ever.”

 

 

 

 

 

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