Friday, August 19, 2011
The Mahabharata (1989)
Country: UK/France/USA and others
The story is based on a two-thousand-year-old Indian epic poem that runs to 100,000 verses, making it four times longer than the Bible and seven times longer than the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. Boiled down, it can be seen as a simple tale of rivalry between warring members of the same family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, but it's so much more than that, taking in religion, philosophy, spiritualism, war, love, life and death. Brook and long-time writing collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere originally produced a nine-hour stage production of the epic in the early Eighties, before "re-imagining" it as a five-hour TV drama.
The epic tells the tale of two sets of cousins, the Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu, the king of Hastinapura, and the Kauravas, the one hundred sons of Pandu's brother, Dhritarashtra. The eldest brother of each set of cousins claims the throne of Hastinapura for himself and a struggle arises between them. At first the kingdom is divided, but, as a result of a gambling match, the eldest of the Pandavas, Yuddhishtira, loses his half, and he and his brothers are forced into exile for thirteen years. They are to be given back their kingdom upon their return from exile, but when the eldest of the Kauravas, Duryodhana, refuses to do so the two sets of cousins gather their armies and go to war.
There are 16 main characters, each with their own story, and the non-linear narrative is weighed down by a labyrinth of subplots, digressions and a bewildering array of voices and perspectives. This can be confusing, but it also frees the film from the normal constraints of 90-minute filmmaking. Vyasa, the narrator, not only retells the story but also appears in it himself, often going back in time to emerge as an old man in his own family's story. There are also some nice touches of the surreal and the fantastic. Vyasa narrates his story to a young boy in the company of the demi-god Ganesha, a half-man, half-elephant deity who quietly transcribes the story like a dutiful secretary. As with other epics, such as the Odyssey and the Iliad, the gods and goddesses play a central role in events - one woman is impregnated by the sun, another by the wind.