Of Rama and epic shift in iconography

In Valmiki Ramayana, Rama is a human—a man of exceptional virtues and conduct, a maryada purushottam.
'Adipurush' poster.
'Adipurush' poster.

Ramayana is so large that it is impossible for anybody to understand,” said Adipurush director Om Raut. One agrees with him. Therefore, it is even harder to understand the shifts in iconographies of the characters in the film.

In Valmiki Ramayana, Rama is a human—a man of exceptional virtues and conduct, a maryada purushottam. In Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, he is portrayed as God, an avatar of Vishnu, countenance reflecting inner peace. The Rama we see in temple murals and the Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama comics too is serene, exuding compassion yet possessing physical strength. Actors in popular culture too submitted to soft features—be it Prem Adib who played Rama in eight films between 1942 and 1958 (including the 1943 film Ram Rajya, the only film that Mahatma Gandhi ever watched), Arun Govil in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana (1986), or Salim Ghouse in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj (1989).  

So, why is the shift from ‘composed to combative’ on book covers or hoardings a matter of furrowed brows? And why are people debating angrily about Adipurush rather than ignoring it if they didn’t like the film? In 1985, Coca-Cola announced that it was changing the formula of the world’s most popular soft drink, marking the first such change in 99 years. This led to widespread protests by Coke lovers in America who started hoarding crates of their ‘old’ Coke. This change by Coca-Cola was termed the ‘marketing blunder of the century’.

Prabhas as Rama in a moustache is another such blunder. When not one version of Rama (or Krishna) ever has been mustachioed, the question to Raut is, why? Narratives also show Laxmana to be volatile and excitable—maybe deliberately devised by Valmiki to contrast Rama’s oceanic calmness. In essence, they both are two facets of the same personality. But Laxmana appears to have been obliterated from campaigns and advertisements. Have they transferred his aggression to Rama? What about Bharata? No lure of political power could sway his loyalty for 14 years. That Adipurush failed to unpack these characters is symptomatic of ‘uni-dimensioning’ of Rama.

For all his physical might, Hanuman was always childlike. As film historian Kaushik Bhaumik says, “Tying him down to order means that we would need to re-write our childhoods because any prankster child was referred to as Hanuman.” Adipurush’s writer Manoj Muntashir Shukla claims that kathavachaks (storytellers) narrate Ramayana to audiences using colloquial language. But then Hanuman mouthing ‘jalegi tere baap ki’—before the dialogues were changed—is as offensive to popular sentiments as it 
is an embarrassment for political groups that leverage mythological characters in their campaigns. 

It’s said a work of art reflects its creator. Raut said, “If they say they understand Ramayana, they are either fools or are lying.” Interesting statement, not for what he tried to convey, but for his choice of words. I think we have the answer. 

Balaji Vittal

Film commentator and author

Twitter @vittalbalaji

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