The Mahabharata Review
At the start of his introduction to the viewing notes, Jean Claude Carrière notes that The Mahabharata, one of the world’s oldest stories, is over one hundred thousand stanzas in length. Hardly the most inviting of pieces to adapt it would seem, yet he did so in the early eighties, the result being a famous nine-hour stage version directed by Peter Brook. By the close of the decade, the pair decided to return to their efforts to mount a filmed variation. This time it appeared in two forms, a five-hour version which screened on television and a three-hour cinema cut. For this DVD release we get the former, here split into three parts and spread over two discs.
Given its length any attempts at summarising The Mahabharata can hardly expect to do it justice. Certainly, spoilers aren’t exactly an issue here given the density of the plotting, but then it is perhaps best to discover these riches for yourselves. Indeed, the opening thirty minutes alone contain enough material to fuel a dozen features and as such it is best to simply say that The Mahabharata concerns the war between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, and the consequences this has on mankind.
What we are dealing with then, first and foremost, is storytelling in its most essential and fruitful form. Despite its various political and religious resonances, it was this element which attracted Carrière and Brook, and as such it is also storytelling which proves fundamental to this particular Mahabharata. Though pre-cursors are rare (if we ignore Brook’s track record for mounting adventurous cinematic adaptations of various stage and literature sources: Lord of the Flies, Marat/Sade, King Lear, etc.) this piece does recall Pasolini’s handling of Arabian Nights in its faith in the narrative form and lightness of touch despite the sheer scale. Indeed, just as Pasolini seemingly danced through the various interweaving strands, so too Brook manages to dazzle with the sheer effortlessness. Of course, much of this lies in the source itself, yet The Mahabharata in screen form never becomes muddled or bogged down in its own intricacies. The aforementioned opening exposition is a particular case in point as here Brook introduced narrator, scribe and listener, and then rifles through generations of characters and their respective genesis beginner with the narrator’s own birth. As such he becomes a figure in his own narrative and the various layers immediately build up. Yet, perhaps owing to his experiences in mounting the theatrical version, Brook weaves them together seamlessly and they never seem like hard work; the shifting perspectives simply blend in with apparent ease and the likely response is that of something approximating awe as opposed to confusion.
The reason for this would appear to be that Brook has rested everything upon the narrative. Indeed, if you were to disengage from the story then the piece simply disappears. The production design and acting styles are not of the kinds that call attention to themselves, but then they do serve the tale fully. Interestingly (and in direct opposition to the television adaptation of Angels in America, say), Brook hasn’t gone for naturalism in translating The Mahabharata to screen. Indeed, the theatrical set-up is maintained, yet manages to take on another form here. Whereas on-stage there was a certain audacity to the presence of animal and huge cast as well as the logistics of containing its various strands within a confined place, these now pale into insignificance when seen on either the big or small screen as such devices no longer strike the viewer as being in any way unusual or different.
Rather we now have a piece perfectly suited to the televisual medium as it exists somewhere between the stage and the cinema screen. (It’s worth noting that The Mahabharata was a co-production between Channel 4 Television, The Brooklyn Academy of Music and Le Centre National de la Cinématographie, and perfectly matches this melange.) Certainly, we find elements from both making themselves known, yet nothing seems out of place in this particular form. As said, everything is here to serve the story and with this in mind the terseness of the dialogue, the directness of the performances, the international nature of the performers and the simplicity of the production design all fulfil their purpose. Together they provide a sense of cohesion but also a complete lack of distraction from Brook’s and Carrière’s overall aim, and that is simply to provide an audience with, as the director has stated, “a work… which carries echoes for all mankind.”
Being made for TV, The Mahabharata comes to DVD in a ratio of 1.33:1 and with a decent presentation. Certainly, the image doesn’t especially dazzle the viewer, but it looks fine given its origins and only occasionally demonstrates signs of artefacting. There are also instances when the image is perhaps a little too soft or demonstrates signs of age courtesy of minor damage, but otherwise it remains perfectly watchable. As for the soundtrack, this fares better with a crisp two-channel mix that comes well with both music and dialogue and comes across as surprisingly forceful despite its televisual nature. Extras on the other hand are limited solely to a 24-page booklet which contains introductions from Carrière and Brook as well as viewing notes for all three parts (complete synopses and character guides) plus complete credits. That said, the two discs do provide five hours worth of entertainment and as such it would be churlish to expect any further supplementary material at this price.