Covid-19 plus Ramayan: Adding insult to injury


Amarnath Sandipamu & Deepu Myneni 

(Round Table India is doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)

Anu Ramdas: It is well known that pandemics can and do facilitate totalitarian regimes to accelerate their ideologies when society is under the threat of the disease. We wanted to document the conversation that Amar initiated on Facebook regarding the timing of retelecasting the Ramayan serial during the Covid19 lockdown. Amar, Deepu and Kuffir give a layered reading of the myths and their mass dissemination. Enjoy!

amaretal ramayana

Amarnath Sandipamu: The Govt's proposal or idea to retelecast Ramayan serial is not a smart or even an intelligent one.

Kuffir: … Darwin says that it is not the most powerful or the most intelligent species which survive, but those which adapt. So, brahmins are like that.

Amar: Like you said, I agree that it is not a very intelligent move or a very strategic move, when they’re doing it. I see it more like a natural reflex.

Anu: I agree with what I Amar is saying, that it seemed more like a natural reflex. They don’t have to think, this is what they would do.

Amar: It actually kind of alarmed me at various levels, because my childhood has been a lot about watching television. To the level that, I would bunk school and watch these daily serials like Swabhimaan and Shanti.

My mother somehow got this into my head that you should basically learn three languages to survive. So when I was consuming television, which was Doordarshan primarily, all kinds of programming happened in my childhood on Sundays and other days. My vivid memories are that the entire street, galli, mohalla was watching this one television [program], you could hear the echo of Ramayan's beginning--title card se lekar last tak. We did not have a television until I was in Class 8, or maybe we had a black & white tv earlier. So, there is whole togetherness about the community when you watch one channel, all at a time. I understand very clearly, what telecasting of one channel seen by everybody at a time can do to a community. Sunday was also about...there was this serial that came which was called Bible Ki Kahaniya. I’m sure there were others also, like Tipu Sultan was there, Ghalib was there. I vividly remember Bible Ki Kahaniya, even though we did not watch it so much. So, there was all kinds of programming.

When something like this happens at this time (pandemic lockdown), it's a very, very interesting time. Like the brahmin’s reflex says that, chalo sab ghar pe baithe hai abhi, to ek kaam karte hein, Doordarshan pe Ramayan chod dete hai. Because, there is this IT cell or a thinktank around which understands culture, which takes all these decisions. They will say, this is the best time to air Ramayan, because it will easily penetrate if you say that it's all about nostalgia, all about patriotism, all about family, it will make everybody sitting at home to watch it. I can clearly understand how it can be sold to the nation right now. Another thing that is crucial is, already everybody is talking like this is the end of the world, like Judgment day is going to come, sab kuch khatam hone wala hai. That is also another right fever that people are in. And you just give them this, they will consume it.

So, the timing in that way, is coincidentally, very, very interesting. And this is the time when the whole family is there, like three generations of the family, post-independence, that will sit together all over the country. Like millennials, my generation, and parents' generation. The eldest patriarch in the family will now say, chalo dekho yeh bhagwan hai, yeh value system hai, yeh moral hai karke, he will kind of legitimize it. And the second generation will lap it up, aur millennial ke liye yeh hoga ki, arre haan finally we have something tangible, we can feel it, our parents are telling it, we can feel it. For me, it’s almost like a cinematic script that is happening. And all this is very coincidental, I am not saying that this was studied and all that.

I saw this Ramayana thing [in the news] and I laughed at it, arre sale kameene yeh kar rahe hai, ok, cute. I was scrolling down and after about 20 minutes, or something, I see National Film Archive FB page people are putting up these two posters, Ramayan and Mahabharat. The post says that, “Ramayan and Mahabharat, which have always inspired the filmmakers…” if you see the timeline, wahan pe wo hua and aadhe ghante, ek ghante me yeh ho gaya. These are two state institutions. You can understand that, someone is giving orders just on a phone call. Because I worked with the Indian Navy, for a film, for a month in Kochi and I knew how the chain of command works. You just have to give one command, Ramayan chod do, and jitne saare aapke departments honge, sabme wo chala jaayega, sab log kar denge… one command will lead to all this effect.

Because I saw the danger, yeh dheere dheere karke, they will make sure that, the whole Ramayan imagery, the song, the bhajan thing, the whole vibe will penetrate all kinds of media. Overnight, you will see it on Twitter, you will see it on Television, on the web, YouTube recommendations, hashtags everywhere. So, I could clearly understand ki, yeh bada masterstroke hai. Again, itna dimaag wala kaam nahin hai

Anu: It's not the question of smartness, it’s what they thought as the default. They never think of themselves as not being smart. They don't compare with anyone else. They just thought of it and did it. Like you say, it's a chain of command, diktat, and the whole thing follows. Going back to your earlier description of your childhood, which is also most of our childhoods, kind of overlaps with the TV coming in, same thing. Since these two epics came, there were so many. Why did they choose these two?

Deepu Myneni: My guess is this is DD, this is the central government. What else can they possibly imagine as the ideal thing to be putting on DD? They are in the typical Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan mindset, so the Hindi Ramayan is obviously what they are going to telecast. It’s not like they’re going to telecast local movies or anything. Anyhow, another hope that I have, which is partially the reality also, that thankfully DD is not the only channel anymore, and most people are now hopefully connected to dish. So, right now, we are rooting for Extra Jabardast or something else, to mask this, to stop people from actually watching Ramayan. But I have seen a couple of people, acquaintances of mine, who are naturally like we’re going to the good old days of the 90s. I mean, they’re all saying Shaktimaan, but after that they’re also going to watch Ramayan, Mahabharat, all those also. In fact, I don’t find them all that different. Most of the things that are going to come on DD are going to ultimately keep promoting the same image that Ramayana promotes, except that Ramayana gives you this extra imagery, it kind of cements that this is the mythology for the whole country.

Amar: Rather, what I’m thinking is, it is a very conscious decision. They know that, if it is Ramayan, people will watch it anyway if we throw a Shatkimaan around it. It’s like they know it, and they did it. The choice of Shaktimaan and Circus is also very interesting to me. Because Shaktimaan takes care of second generation, I never saw Shatimaan. This Circus thing will take care of the Muslim population, because Shah Rukh Khan will come and tweet about it. I can almost put out a curation for them, saying that this will come. I know they will do ‘Hum Aapke Hai Kaun’. They will do ‘Baghban’, Amitabh Bachchan talks about the joint family unit and all that in that. So the curation will very clearly happen based on what we want to show. What we want to show is basically the Manu value system. What I’m saying is, it’s a very, very conscious decision. That’s the way I look at it.

Anu: It is also a numbing process. Numb the people, do not let them think. Doing this at a crisis time, when all the other countries, their mass channels are occupied with science and technology dissemination regarding the pandemic. That kind of information is being mass produced. Here, asking them to switch onto these very badly made epics. These serials have terrible production values. It was bad even then.

Kuffir: The fact is that these (Ramayan, Mahabharat) were not 90s serials, they were 80s serials. 90s started with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, that is another Ramayan story, and that is continuing. The current trend is a series of movies by Akshay Kumar. And here we have to understand, it’s not a Hindu movie, which is a very amorphous term. Here, India is the religion, not Hinduism or whatever. And Manu is an excuse. We have a new series of movies, which are made by Anupam Kher, made by Akshay Kumar, Vivek Agnihotri, John Abraham is also participating..in making these movies, lots of them. They mix nation and religion. Or nation is religion. Because Hindu religion is insubstantial, they mix both. In the south, Sai Kumar makes those movies, Arjun makes those movies, all these people have been there for the last 20-30 years. Shankar makes those movies, Mani Ratnam makes those movies. They don't need these Ramayan, Mahabharat. People don’t even watch television much today, they watch either the OTT channels, Netflix or Amazon. In Telugu also they are coming up with streaming channels. And it is basically, a mobile phone watching generation now, na? Doordarshan, people have forgotten about it. Now, these serials are going to, only in some ways, touch a few people who are nostalgic, have some kind of loyalty towards this content. ETV telecasts good old Telugu movies sometimes, made in black and white, made much more sensibly, but nobody watches them. I am the only one at home who sometimes watches them and people laugh at me.

As Amar said in his update, they were all infused with ideology. All movies are ideology. It is brahminic ideology. What form does it take? Manu’s scriptures play a part. In the sense, these caste divisions are important, patriarchy is important, and the joint family is idealised, as he said. But these systems can’t hold, no? There are no joint families ...

Amar: That’s where the movie form comes. What the film form does is, it takes the skeleton of your value system or social framework, and you flesh it with your values. 

Kuffir: There is no value system, I am saying. We know from our childhood that lots of villagers laugh at Ramayan and Mahabharat. They use it only to make certain moral or ethical points, sometimes. They don't take these people as heroes. Nobody takes them as, I am going to worship Ram, I am going to worship Karan, I am going to worship Drona...

Of course, you have a point there. But what I am saying is that it has been supplanted by newer modes of movies. Like we see Akshay Kumar movies, John Abraham movies, Ajay Devgan movies, what is that? Panipat and Tanhaji, where a lower caste warrior is made into a brahmin. All the heroes in those movies are lower castes. Basically, shepherds and peasants. They've been made into proper brahmins. As you said, the hybridization does take place, but people want the form also to not resemble the old, content might be the same. That Ramayana, Mahabharata were taken from the Parsi theatre format and it was also adapted in Telugu a lot. In the 80s, we felt Ramayan, Mahabharat serials were very ridiculous, most of the actors looked like goons. They didn't even pay any attention to language or tone or modulation, 99% of them were non-actors, B-grade, C-grade actors. Mukesh Khanna, who tried for nearly 10 years to be a hero, he failed in so many movies. Raj Babbar, he was failing in movies, I mean, the names I can remember, all these were non-actors. B. R. Chopra and Ramanand Sagar they were failing as film directors. Because of their clout they got to bag these kinds of contracts. It was a crony kind of capitalism, back then.

So, Ramayan, Mahabharat, will always be taking new shapes, but these people are painting it in the old shape, projecting it in the old shape. Because, as you said, they have a lack of ideas. They thought this command, as you said, will again work the same as earlier. Push the same buttons and you’ll get the same results. But those were electromechanical times. Electronic typewriters were just coming in. Even the PCs, we used to talk of RAM and hard drive in KBs back then. 85-86 I remember that distinctly. For Word or any other MS Office functions, you had to know several dozen commands.

Anu: So what you're saying is this re-telecasting is not going to have the same impact? Or it will have a different kind of impact?

Kuffir: That function is being performed by mainstream movies. Mainstream movies back then used to kind of laugh at these people.

As Amar said, right, from the very first movie, these were the forms they had access to, these epics were the texts they had access to. For the music and all other dramatic aspects, they appropriated Bahujan art forms.

I agree with Amar to a large extent. Only thing I am saying is, perhaps, this won’t play the same part as it did then, building up to Babri Masjid, because, there is substantially much more content along the same lines, except in what we call modern forms. The protagonists wear pants and shirts these days, not dhoties

Anu: But why are these two epics so badly made? Why are the costumes so blingy?

Deepu: That’s the talent level, I guess. I find two things, one is this whole response, as well as the quality of those two serials, as you said. They both kind of show the nature of the ruling class, in that they’re mediocre or less than mediocre, but they don’t realize it. Right now, they are very effective media-wise, like they have this chain of command and they know how to promote things online and all that. At the same time, through that decision they are showing how ineffective they are both in scientific temperament and administration. Also their nature, that they don't have the feeling of fraternity or, you know the feeling of, “our people are in danger, what should we do about it?”. That is not even their first priority because they see society as these castes, and a huge chunk doesn’t really matter. They’re like, everyone just sit at home and get back into this nostalgic mode. Most of the people who are going to willingly watch it are these middle class, upper middle class people of the savarna batch. They have a sense of some kind of, it’s like a warm, happy memory, so mostly it’s going to be those guys who’re literally going to watch it and tweet about it and all that.

Second thing was that, the new generation I don’t feel will be as fascinated. Simply, number one, because of the difference in quality. This is kind of like, I don’t know if you know the movie, Free Willy, the story about this killer whale that a boy frees from this whale circus or something. My father remembers when the scene came in which the boy freed the whale and it flies over the boy, and I was so excited, I jumped in the theatre and kissed my dad. It’s one of the most joyous moments of his life and till date he tries to recreate that experience with kids in our apartment [complex]. He’s like “come, come I’ll show you this movie” and then he plays that scene, the kids are like "what is this?" Even I recently watched it and I realized that it is a very badly done CGI whale which jumps over the rocks. None of these kids are impressed. My dad keeps getting disappointed each time he tries the trick.

So, it’s both my evaluation and hope also, that the younger generation may not really be as influenced. But also, some people are trying to make it, at least in the Internet circles, there are people who’re trying to make it cool, like it’s OK, it’s still our culture. This is Indian culture, no need to be ashamed, we don’t have to be ashamed that our level was not as good as Hollywood and all that. We just need to glorify our history. There is a huge savarna batch online, who are kind of my age or little less, they are this edgy crowd, they just want to further glorify it.

And as Kuffir da said, we have plenty of recent media, everyone has already copied it. Whatever DD has shown the nation back then, the savarna network around the country has already adopted fully in various formats, and it is now available in much better graphics. And also not always overt because it’s more effective when you promote the same values, but with slightly different stories. Like Rajamouli, who keeps telling “my actual inspiration is from Mahabharat, only one Mahabharat, my inspiration is from that”. That's how I see the scene.

Amar: I just want to respond to both Kuffir and Deepu, and Deepu’s comment on the number of people who are going to watch.I'm very clear that this is not about numbers. This is not about how well it is going to engage the audiences, making them sit at home and watch it. No, it will not. And, I’m saying that is not the problem. My problem is, what it does is, as a tornado effect what it dies is, it will basically make everybody re-own up the imagery, re-own up the whole vibe, re-own up the whole music. For example, imagine all the kinds of millennial generation new jobs, what are the new jobs that the millennial generations are going to embrace? Take video games, one of my friends, she wanted to become a video game designer. Imagine what these kids will do tomorrow, when they feel this imagery, music and vibe very closer to home, they will go and put it in their games. Tomorrow, what will happen is you will have video games made around this environment. You should not be surprised, tomorrow there will be video games like GTX etc, you will get something like ‘Ramayan, The Next Gen’. Similarly, imagine the fashion designers, now they are all pumped up, “this is ours, this is us, so we have to be proud,” they will go out and put it in their designs, on their clothes and all that. Similarly, all your music video guys, they will start doing music around bhajans. What I'm saying is, it is not as much about how people are going to be engaged, but it is as much about how the larger Hindu majority will re-own it up and kind of inject it into the millennial generations. Which is why I am saying, it was have a dangerous effect, it will show across all kinds of media. So yeah, my thing was not about numbers. 

Kuffir: That is a legitimate fear. But I am saying that has already happened, there are attempts at games around these characters ...

Amar: It will happen more emphatically ...

Kuffir: It has already spawned a lot of these things. But it is as I said, a legitimate fear. This is a strategy among those who have imbibed the hindutva ideology, it is actually Indian ideology, somebody has already named a book after it. To justify an absurd union of disparate regions, they have to come up with some metaphysical narratives. It's already spawned lots of senas on the ground.

For the Mahabharat to be translated into Telugu, it took centuries. The ones who could write or translate were very few, and why Mahabharata? It is a commissioned work, it was a state commissioned work some nine ceturies ago, 2-3 kings or emperors actually commissioned the translations. They knew, all the local traditions are in this language (Telugu), and they tilt towards Buddhism or Jainism. They had to say, we burned all those scriptures, we burned Basava's vacanas and everything. ‘We will produce afresh a new version of Telugu, which is more convenient for Brahmins.’ So, they translated Mahabharata, but they never translated Bhagavad Gita. Until the last century, it was never translated, because it was not part of the original scripture at all, if there was any original scripture. All of this is updated every year. Even now, new interpolations are being added, they will come up with hazaar other characters.

So it is a very legitimate [fear] that it will bring people closer to all those heinous aspects of those texts.  Attention spans are less than five minutes these days, so someone watching for even 2 minutes [thinks] ok, this is ours … their excuse for a heritage. They will try to legitimize it for others and themselves, by coming up, as Amar said, with all kinds of stuff based on these themes...

Amar: I wanted to finish up on how it is problematic. Just when the Bahujan voices are coming, in terms of Youtube channels, in terms of RTI, in terms of small budget digital films that have been made, podcasts and across all kinds of media, just when the whole mythological fever, the epic, Hindu kind of conditioning is wearing off, that is when this is happening. Which is why it becomes problematic.

Anu: I think the Bahujan always had their counter-narratives, or their epics, but the [brahminical] hegemonic ways of storytelling overshadowed those stories. Similarly, in the digital era, that is repeating.

Kuffir: Anu, I want to make the point that these brahminic stories were never probably hegemonic until the British came around, until this freedom struggle happened, and until independence, until the new Indian state union happened.

Anu: But local kings commissioned it, that is hegemonic, isn’t it?

Kuffir: We have to understand the relationship between the state and the ruled in olden times. The ruled never ever came across physically their rulers, or in any other way met the kings or emperors. Nobody ever met Akbar and said these are my memories of what Akbar did. Nobody ever met Krishnadeva Raya, nobody ever met Rudramadevi or whoever. No commoner. They were not supposed to be. The ruler's narratives were basically for people who collaborated with them, primarily.

Anu: Do all three of you think that the pushback from the Bahujan is going to be stronger or more creative? Because they've already had a whole decade of critical takedown of these epics?

Deepu: Right now, I guess most of us are looking to online media platforms. Till now, the challenge has been the unequal share of resources. When the medium was requiring a lot of resources, a lot of cash, it was clearly more difficult to produce content at an equal pace as people who are in power. Now, with the online mediums and internet, and also devices that are getting cheaper and cheaper, technologically speaking, so you’re kind of able to produce the same things produced by huge production houses, but at an exponentially lower cost than, say, even 5 years ago. Technologically, I think that is a huge advantage. How many will actually take it up and what will be the pace of it, I can’t exactly predict, but it may happen.

Also, I’m not sure that will necessarily happen as a response to this move. I feel like it is more likely to happen through more recent productions. That’s why I was discussing this Rajamouli's RRR movie trailer. Because, tomorrow that is what people want to talk about, those are the songs that are going to ring around, that’s what people are going to think of... I mean, that movie is about Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitaramaraju, and I’m sure it is going to influence people’s views about Adivasis and how they’re Hindu and part of the great hindu tradition and all that. That is going to be a bigger influence once it releases. Recently, I’ve been thinking of what is the strategy to counter that. One way is to actually ride the wave of its popularity and come up with content, because that is what people are going to be curious about, they’d want to know more about these historical figures. That’s where you catch the audience.

By productions, I also mean critical productions. Whether it is interviews, podcasts, discussions, or movies and short films that actually show you a different view.

Kuffir: Ramayan, Mahabharat were more roundly criticized back then, than they are now, the serials themselves. In the 80s, they found it objectionable. Even though the critics were upper caste usually, they found it objectionable. The 'soft hindutva' term was first coined back then, that Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were trying soft hindutva. Now we have come to the situation where we have to play on their ground. It is a very difficult situation, actually speaking. It was much better back then. They were also laughed at in the movies itself. In Telugu movies also 'pitasri, matasri' became jocular terms. I agree with a lot of what Amar is saying, but the content is already produced.

What Deepu said about Komaram Bheem, Alluri Sitaramaraju, I forgot that it is also about Komaram Bheem, I forgot that it was also about Alluri Sitaramaraju. It’s not just about making the Adivasis hindu, it is about making the Adivasis Indians. It is with these very secular intentions that they make these movies and strategies. Advani himself is half an atheist, almost. Many of these ideologues were from some kind of Left background, earlier. Many of the people who are ideologues of the Sangh, Swapan Dasgupta, Chandan Mitra, Sudheendra Kulkarni, all these people. They were within the Left in a way, when they started. I think Rajamouli is much more dangerous. As Amar was saying they will spawn a lot of texts and all, Rajamouli is also an offshoot of the Ramayana, Mahabharata. As I said, also of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and all that.

Amar: I want to respond to what you said, that the Bahujan always had the voices. What I’m saying is not that they did not have a voice earlier. My concern is more about the network and celebration. When I see pop culture, basically, the community should come together to participate in the discourse and celebrate through all kinds of forms - singing, dancing, making movies, all kinds of things. When I said it is just starting, that is what I meant. That is starting, and then you have this [epics telecasting], yeh poora abhi aake bulldoze ho jayega. It is not as much about the power of Ramayanam itself, but the whole chaos, the whole noise of it. It kind of spoils our celebration, and also the networks, disrupts more possibilities of people connecting through YouTube channels or RTI or podcasts, and all kinds of other platforms.

Now, coming to the pushback, I somehow see this as a very great opportunity, a great time to articulate a lot of things. At least for me, as a filmmaker, it was very difficult to articulate what a mass film was, earlier. If I tell my mom “Mom, why are you watching this, this is so poisonous, this is so this, this is so that, don’t watch it,” she’ll say “I'm just enjoying it” My family cannot relate to my films. I can relate to their films, because that is where I came from, but I understand how problematic they are, how they can affect the social fabric.

For me, it is the right time to articulate what a mass film is, and actually show how it is problematic. This is the right time to question the brahmin, is what I feel, because all kinds of media, everything is going to change post-Corona, especially cinema. Nobody will run to a celebrity for an autograph now, at least for the next two years. Things like that will happen. People may not come to the cinema halls for the next, at least one year. Lot of things will move to the web. Now all the film families have to crack the revenue model around survival. How to basically roll their investments into other things and all that.

This is a great opportunity for the Bahujan artists, intellectuals, scholars, everything. Since everybody is able to clearly see, it is no more one community's problem, one state's problem, one nation's problem, nothing. For the first time perhaps, something like a universal problem is coming to all of us

If people can actually reject it … earlier it was impossible to reject a mainstream film. You were tired, and over the weekend, you have a family, and should go and consume a culture, cinema is an immediate cultural product. abhi woh nahin hai. So there might be a space where you can actually reject..reject kya, matlab people wouldn’t anyway go [to the cinema halls]. We can articulate and also create more innovative forms of films and songs can be made. People should get into a mode of celebration, like a community celebration, do their own stuff. Jaise hum baithke baat kar rahe hein. Agar yeh thoda badh gaya toh.. That's why I see it as a great opportunity, perhaps the best in the whole history of cinema.

To be continued.


Deepu Myneni is a videomaker and photographer based in Hyderabad..

Amarnath Sandipamu is an independent filmmaker-writer. He blogs and shares details on his work at amarnathsandipamu.wordpress.com

Anu Ramdas and Kuffir are founder editors of Round Table India.

This interview was transcribed by Sundeep Pattem.



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