This review contains some plot spoilers.
The Mahabharata was put together between 400 BC and AD 400, making it one of the oldest poems in existence. At some 100,000 Sanskrit verse couplets, it’s also one of the longest. Although the poem was attributed to one Sage Vyasa, it’s an epic that grew in the telling over some 800 years, incorporating many stories within its huge canvas. As these stories include many tales of the supernatural and of gods an imaginary creatures, The Mahabharata – as well as its religious status in the Hindu religion – is an important source text for fantastic literature worldwide. It has attracted the attention of adaptors before, notably Peter Brook, who staged a six-hour version (released in cinemas at three hours, restored to full length for home viewing).
At its basis, The Mahabharata is a story of warfare between two families. King Pandu’s five sons, known as the Pandavas, are each fathered by a different god as Pandu himself is under a vow of celibacy due to a curse. Meanwhile, Pandu’s blind elder brother Dhritarashtra has fathered a hundred sons, who are led by Duryodhana (Puneet Esaar). The two families become rivals, leading to a war and much bloodshed.
Another major character is Krishna Vasudeva (Nitish Bharadwaj), who is a cousin to both families and an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Krishna’s speech to Arjun, one of the Pandavas, just before battle forms the basis of the Bhagavad Gita (which translates as “The Song of the Blessed One”). This speech, given in its entirety in this serial, brings together many of the ethical and spiritual themes of the entire poem. The Bhagavad Gita, which may have been a later addition to The Mahabharata, is often made available separately and is a key text of the Hindu religion.
The remaining major character – human one, that is – is Bhishma (Mukesh Khanna), the patriarch of both families. The epic is structured around him, in that close to the beginning he swears a vow to be forever childless and celibate, an oath which has considerable consequences as the story unfolds. His death brings The Mahabharata to a close.
The final major character is Time (voiced by Harish Bhimani), who sees all things and narrates the story, introducing each episode and backtracking, filling in plotlines and explaining as needs be.
Mahabharat was an adaptation of the complete text for Indian television, in ninety-four episodes of approximately forty-five minutes each. Arrow have released two versions on DVD in Britain, a condensed version of fifteen and a quarter hours on five discs and the complete version on sixteen. The short version no doubt omits many subplots, which causes Time to backtrack in places and occasionally the complex plot and network of character relationships may be hard to grasp for a beginner. But the central plot-arc is easy enough to grasp. At base, Mahabharat is powerful, elemental storytelling – the poem it derives from is, as I’ve said, a major taproot for later stories – and for most of its way, the TV serial has a vicelike grip. The characters are mainly archetypes, but they are still recognisable as people. They may not be rounded (psychological depth in characterisation was a much later concern) but, as was said of Dickens’s characters, they may be flat but they vibrate enough to be given life, and the cast all act with sincerity. The costumes and set designs are bright and colourful, all silvers, yellows, reds and golds. Shooting on video often gives a flat look, almost as if a cut-out is moving against a background, but for such mythological subject matter that’s certainly appropriate.
Mahabharat will no doubt be more meaningful, as a spiritual message, as part of the culture, to those of a Hindu background. Others will more likely watch it as a compelling epic story with deeper themes there for those who wish to look for them. Of course there’ll be a tendency for some to view this as gaudy Indian kitsch (with special effects that look cheap even by 80s TV standards), but that would be disappointing as this serial was clearly made with conviction.
For this review I have watched the shorter version in its entirety and was given three of the longer version’s discs (numbers 1, 2 and 16) of the longer one to review. (Links above to affiliated retailers are for the complete version.) The shorter version has around three hours per disc, with opening credit sequences at the beginning of the third and fifth discs and a set of end credits at the end of the first disc. The complete version has six episodes per disc (four on the final disc), with one opening credit sequence at the beginning and a set of final credits available as an extra. Both versions are encoded for all regions.
Both available versions have been declared exempt from BBFC classification, which seems odd as they are not documentaries – though arguably you could file them under non-fiction in the Religion section. You have to wonder if the cost of certifying even fifteen hours of foreign-language material might have made the DVD release economically unviable. The material I saw I’d guess would be 12-worthy, from some vivid if unrealistic battlefield gore and in particular a disturbing scene which implies but does not show the killing of a baby from being thrown against a wall. Parents of younger children should approach this series with caution.
The full version is NTSC format, with a full-frame transfer. As this is a TV series from the pre-widescreen era, that would be the correct ratio and anamorphic enhancement would be neither necessary nor desirable. This certainly isn’t a reference-quality image, given the inevitable limitations of the source material: colours lack vibrancy and the image is deliberately lacking in depth of field. The fine lines and sharp edges of costumes and sets suffer from a lot of aliasing. There is also quite a bit of artefacting, with the Time sequences at the beginning of each episode particularly affected. The image is certainly watchable (I used a 28” widescreen TV set in 4:3 mode and a 17” PC monitor) though it will probably look worse on less forgiving equipment.
The soundtrack is the original Hindi-language mono. As you’d expect from an 80s TV show, it’s quite acceptable without being stunning, and has a bias towards the treble end rather than the bass. The music and dialogue sound fine, which is what matters. There are subtitle options in three languages.
Along with a text synopsis of each episode, the extras comprise half-hour behind-the-scenes featurettes. These comprise backstage footage, interviews with cast and crew and others. However it should be noted that most of the interviewees are speaking in Hindi (some in English) and no subtitles are provided. This, and the lack of any narration, limits these featurettes’ usefulness to people like me who have no Hindi. The featurettes are in 4:3 with quite a lot of artefacting present. For the record, the featurette on Disc 1 runs 30:30; on Disc 2, 24:03; and on Disc 16, 43:11. The final disc also contains brief promo material for a couple of other productions from the same studio: Vishnu Mahapuran and the 45-episode Mahabharat-Katha.
The only extra in the short version is a leaflet including a character list, a brief synopsis and an essay by James L. Fitzgerald (Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee).
Mahabharat is a highly enjoyable serial of which many people will have fond memories from its BBC broadcast at the time. It’s well-presented in its entirety in a 16-disc box set through the extras are of limited interest and use to non-Hindi speakers.