Anybody who’s read the Mahabharata or the Ramayana know that they are treasure troves of countless stories. There’s material in those epics that could spawn thousands of films… and more. And that’s why when your occasional filmmaker talks about a dearth of stories, or when I get exposed to a dreadful story, it just doesn’t make sense.
The land of Ramayana and Mahabharata… running out of stories? It seems to me that if ever you find yourself in a corner, having run out of stories, all you really need to do is grab a copy of either epic and start reading. There are small, beautiful stories in either epic that could easily be contemporised. Indian literature has taken note of this, but our films haven’t really.
Mani Ratnam has done it a couple of times to differing degrees of success. His more faithful adaptation, Thalapathi, was received much better. The film, a modern adaptation of the Karna-Duryodhana story, has plenty of references to its parent material. There’s a lot of sun imagery that serves as a reminder of Karna’s parenthood. Surya’s friend is a dreaded gangster, and his archrival is named Arjun. It couldn’t have been made more apparent. His other adaptation, Raavanan, wasn’t as loyal to its source material. It was more a reimagination. Veera, playing Ravana, isn’t really portrayed as the demon, as conventional retellings of Ramayana would have you believe.
There was a time, a few decades ago, when top heroes like Sivaji Ganesan would star mainly in films that were simply faithful retelling of the stories in our epics… like Mayabazaar, Thiruvilaiyaadal, and Karnan. Those filmmakers, of course, took none of the creative liberties accorded to the modern storyteller, who tries to imagine what such characters would be doing in today’s society. Like Dev (based on Lord Rama) in Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan who’s shown as a police officer.
A lover of mythology and films, I’ve been fascinated by these reinterpretations that make you question the very basis of the simplistic morals in some of the olden stories. Is Ravana truly evil? Is Yudhistira truly incorruptible? Is Drona right in denying Ekalavya? If our writers turned at these epics, there are great stories at every corner.
It isn’t just our epics, of course. Gayathri and Pushkar provided us a timely reminder of that last week, when they looked in the direction of an ancient Indian folktale: Vikram and Betal, and beautifully adapted its main theme, an exploration into morality and ethics, into their story. In a recent conversation we had,
Vijay Sethupathi, one of the lead actors in Vikram Vedha, expressed his astonishment that for all these decades, Tamil filmmakers had not looked to adapt this story. I was tempted to respond, “It isn’t the only one.”