Some time back the four-hour film of Peter Brook's Mahabharata was screened in Calcutta and I was asked to produce a critique. I refused.
What interests me is that epic which has inspired Indians over millennia; and that is not what I experienced through those four hours. However, John D. Smith's glowing review of Brook's eight-hour stage-adaptation in the Times Literary Supplement has made it impossible for me to keep silent any longer.
Let me begin with an excerpt from Smith: "It is magnificent but is it the Mahabharata? The answer is a resounding Yes. This is not Peter Brook's Mahabharata: this is the Indian epic Mahabharata, lovingly cast by Brook into a form which non-Indian audiences can share." Actually, to an Indian who is immersed in this greatest of all epics, the answer is a resounding "No!" Brook's film is not a portrayal of a titanic clash between the forces of good and evil, which is the stuff of the epic. Nor is it even the depiction of the fratricidal struggle for Empire that sucks into its vortex armies from outside India's borders, spanning far more than the land between the two rivers Ganga and Yamuna. It is not even a picture of a battle of princes. The crores of Indians do not hold dear to their hearts the story of the warring progeny of some rustic landlord, which is that we see in Brook's celluloid version.
The grandeur of Indraprastha, that marvellous assembly hall created out of a wilderness, which is the spark igniting Duryodhana's smouldering envy into a terrifying conflagration, is totally absent. And with it disappears the raison d'etre of Duryodhana's deliberate denigration of Draupadi in public to avenge her publicly scorning his floundering about in the Indraprastha assembly hall. Gone is the gripping tragedy of Karna's existential predicament: the agony of unknown parentage: the nobility of sacrificing loyalty to one's brothers and even one's own life at the altar of friendship; the riveting story of a self-made hero, devoid of any supra-human help, who voluntarily divests himself of whatever special protection he had been born with, to face the enemy purely on the basis of what he is as a self-made man. And that enemy is a son born of Karna's mother a truth known to Karna but not to his brother. Therein lies the angst at the heart of this story, completely missed out by Brook.
Or take the simplistic manner adopted by Brook to resolve one of the most traumatic situations in the epic: why is it that Bhishma, the eldest Kuru and the embodiment of rectitude, watches unprotestingly while a queen and daughter-in-law of the dynasty is sought to be disrobed in public? Bhishma's only reply to the blazing queries hurled at him by the anguished Draupadi is, "The ways of Dharma are too subtle." It is the investigation of the different types of Dharma that forms one of the major threads knitting the epic together: Bhishma's ancient dharma against the wider, new dharma of Krishna's lokasamgraha and yogakshema; Dhritarashtra's dharma towards his sons against the ancient tradition of Bharata who adopted the Brahmin Bharadvaja as his successor instead of giving the kingdom to incompetent sons; the dharma of Yudhishthira that permits him to stake brothers and wife at dice and not protest when she is abused and again when she is molested by Kichaka and Jayadratha; the dharma of Kunti who has sons by four persons and insists on her daughter-in-law going one better, yet takes to the forest with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari when her sons have won the kingdom; the dharma of the wives of the Pandavas, who do not accompany their husbands into exile and leave Draupadi to do so; the dharma of Arjuna who would rather accept the challenge of the Trigarta monarch and be drawn away form the battlefield than protect Yudhishthira whom Drona has sworn to capture Arjuna, that most puzzling of characters, who insists on exiling himself from Draupadi and has no hesitation in taking three wives in that interregnum; the dharma of the five brothers, not one of whom turns back to pause beside their common wife when she falls down, dying.
Instead, Peter Brook offers us a ridiculous scene of Yudhishthira climbing up a swaying rope ladder, presumably to Heaven! Brook even manages to leave out the most poignant part of the questions put by the Dharma-Crane to Yudhisthira over the corpses of his brothers: What is the most amazing thing in the world? The answer is possibly one of the finest insights into the contradictions that make up the stuff of human existence that at every moment we are surrounded by evidence of death and yet we behave as if we will live forever!
Brook's panache for juxtaposing the grand and the ridiculous is unsurpassed. Amid the roaring of chariot-wheels on the field of Kurukshetra he suddenly produces the gaunt figure of Bhishma atop a charpoy carried on the shoulders of bearers, poking a lance here and there. That charpoy, covered with arrows, has to be taken to depict the shara-sayya which has stirred the hearts of millions of Indians over millennia! Brook has this failing of mixing up the cinematic and the theatrical modes, leading to a confused audience-response. His tinkering with the text for this purpose is nothing new.
His version of King Lear takes similar liberties with the text to show Lear and his entourage riding on and on through icy wastelands.
It is Brook's Krishna which is the most disappointing representation. His idea of conveying Krishna's presence is to show him suddenly in a very awkward imitation of the tribhanga posture, something that is wholly foreign to the epic and is typical only of the Bhagavata Purana. Instead of the discus, there is sometimes the flute, of which there is no evidence in the epic. Moreover, how does one get reconciled to a Krishna who is balding, with sunken cheeks, who suddenly tells Bhishma that whatever is about to happen in the Kuru court during the dice game must happen and he must not interrupt it at any cost? Bhishma meekly nods and therefore keeps silent at Draupadi's anguished cry for justice and protection of her honour.
This is a wholly gratuitous and uncalled-for tampering with the text. John D. Smith has high praise for Brook's handling of the Book of Virata, as "an interlude or pantomime". Pantomime it assuredly is not. What is there of pantomime in the abject roles that five princes and their queen have to perform as gambler, cook, transvestite, cowherd, groom and maidservant? The attempted rape of Draupadi is no part of pantomime. What this Book certainly does constitute is a foreshadowing of the Great War that is to follow. Uttara, like Arjuna later, grows faint at the sight of the Kuru army. Arjuna, like Krishna later, forces him to fight and, as in the Great War, all the Kuru champions are laid low and the Pandavas take regal seats in the court with their queen. It is Uttara's sister who bears in her womb Parikshit, the future king. To see this Book as a pantomime is to miss the point completely.
Smith's comment that the central narrative conveys a "clearly readable" message that the epic "is a highly fatalistic account of destruction visited on men by gods", reveals a typical occidental mental make-up at work, incapable of comprehending the Indian situation.
Whatever else it might be, the Mahabharata certainly does not depict the Pandavas as "pressed by the will of the gods into ever- worsening moral and physical conflicts, culminating in a cataclysmic war of annihilation." That, indeed, is what the Iliad is about and the Nibelungenlied. The very reason why the Mahabharata is still so gripping to Indians is precisely because it repeatedly bring home to us the truth: In tragic life, God wot, No villain need be; passions spin the plot, We are betrayed by what is false within. Smith's idea, "But whatever he does, he will not avert the destruction the gods have called for", belongs wholly to the realm of Greek tragedy and is not part of the ethos of Vyasa's epic where it is the individual who shapes his destiny.
It is Bhishma who, with deliberate intent, sacrifices kingdom and progeny for his father's pleasure, and thus carves out a unique niche in myth and legend. It is Yudhisthira who decides, twice over, to accept the challenge to play dice despite the pleas of his brethren and accepts the consequences. It is Kunti who having known from Yudhishthira and the twins that Arjuna has won Draupadi greets the returning trio of Bhima, Arjuna and Panchali with the order to share her equally. Again, it is Draupadi who accepts this; it is not forced upon her. In all this, Krishna has nothing to do; contrary to what Smith would like to put across in writing, "the gods have sent one of their number, Krishna, to oversee events".
It is the arrogance of the Pandavas in the tournament that turns Karna into an enemy (even Yudhishthira the meek and righteous never protests against the mocking of Karna). It is Yudhishthira's peculiar dharma that leads to the release of Jayadratha after he has molested Draupadi, which becomes the cause of Abhimanyu' death. Krishna does not and cannot prevent any of there events, each of which is critical in the shaping of the plot. What Krishna does do is to set up Yudhishthira as the Emperor through the killing of the tyrant Jarasandha and his follower Shishupala and performance of the "rajasuya" sacrifice. This is something that Brook overlooks although this is what excites the jealousy of Duryodhana and precipitates the dice-game.
One is further disappointed in the film by the depiction on Ghatotkacha and his mother Hidimba as some horrendous African cannibals, and Shiva as a Japanese kung-fu master, worsting Arjuna in martial arts.
One of the most irritating scenes is one where Duryodhana uses black magic to find out where Arjuna is practicing austerities. There is absolutely no justification for importing such mumbo-jumbo, possibly done to capitalise on the orientalist picture of India as the land of the rope-trick, or whatever.
Smith is way is way off the mark when he claims: "Unlike the Ramayana the Mahabharata acknowledges its central god's identity with Vishnu from the start." This is simply not the case. What he cites as proof (5.22) is by no means part of the Ur-epic. Such western ad-hoc criticism is the result of inadequate acquaintance with what remains the most thorough study of Krishna till today: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya's Krishna Charitra (1886). Thanks to the M.P. Birla foundation, it is now available to the English reading public. There Bankim has painstakingly collated all the available evidence on Krishna, sifted it and come up with the picture of Krishna in the Mahabharata that has nothing to do with the subsequent interpolation of Vaishnava cults identifying him with Vishnu.
It is, perhaps, symptomatic of the lack of sensitivity of the Occidental mind to the Indian ethos that Smith's glowing tribute to Brook has not a word to speak about the most outstanding performance in the film: that of Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi. She brings to her role that fire and grace which befits one described by Vyasa as born of the sacrificial Agni. One of the finest scenes in the film is that in which Mallika-Draupadi, at once revolted by Bhima's demonic killing of Duhshasana and impelled by the memory of his molestation, approaches the gory corpse and in a single movement of ineffable grace kneels and casts her unbound tresses over the bloody entrails.
Mallika herself felt cramped and dissatisfied with Brook's unwillingness to explore the agony of Draupadi, five-husbanded yet with no husband, nathavati anathavat. This impelled her to create her own production Shakti, in which she portrays on stage the plight of Draupadi through dance and recitation. At the other end of the spectrum lies the marvellous exploration of the psyche of Draupadi in Saoli Mitra's one-woman stage-production Naathaboti anaathabot in Bengali.
After experiencing such productions, one realises how distant from the Indian experience are theatrical tours-de-force like Brook's. It is more a showing-off of his brilliance as a director in assembling an international cast than a sensitive depiction of the heart and soul of India through the most traumatic of epics in its merciless exposure of human frailty and heroism. Brook successfully creates an abiding impression in the film through his remarkably evocative and haunting use of the figure of Amba. Casting her in the tradition of the avenging Erinyes of Greek mythology, he has the ageless Amba relentlessly searching for a means to hunt down Bhishma and appearing out of mist and fog in the Pandava/Kaurava camps.
What strikes a jarring note is her encounter with the Pandavas during their exile. In the epic there is no such encounter, Amba having immolated herself long before their birth. However, the ominously haunting figure of Amba undergoes a fascinating transformation in the final scene of the shooting down of Bhishma. Brook portrays here a woman unable to shoot the deadly arrows, wracked by an intense love-hate for Bhishma. She stares in anguish, willing it and yet agonising over it, as Arjuna from behind her mercilessly pierces the non-combating Bhishma through and through. This indeed remains a signal contribution to the Mahabharata corpus of interpretations.
It is worth noting that in Brook's vision there is no sex change undergone by Amba into Shikhandin. Somehow, she lives on unaging, kept young perhaps by the sheer fury of her insensate, all-consuming desire for vengeance, while Bhishma turns into the oldest of the Kurus.
Another peculiar departure from the text lies in Brook transposing the Hidimba-Bhima encounter from the post-Varanavata exile period to the post-dice- game exile of 13 years. Hidimba was the first Pandava bride and Ghatotkacha the first son. To have Bhima wed her after they have married Draupadi makes no sense, for it is the bachelor Bhima who gives in to her advances, and it is Kunti, seeking allies undercover, who eagerly seizes this alliance fortuitously coming their way. This would not hold psychologically true for them in the Book of Exile.
The absence of Vidura is another glaring lacuna. On the other hand, there are brilliant insights such as Gandhari's cryptic reply, as the forest-fire nears, to Dhritarashtra's query as to why she bandaged her eyes. She asks, "Why did you not stop me? Why did you never ask me to remove it?" He does not reply and they walk towards the flames. At the end, it is good to look back and realise that the epic is, in a way, the autobiography of Vyasa, written in the third person by himself. It is he who watches and chronicles the annihilation of his own progeny.
The final question that rings out, echoing across the centuries, is the despairing cry voiced by Vyasa, a question to which no answer is given:
I raise my arms and I shout --- but no one listens! From dharma comes success and pleasure: why is dharma not practiced?
(The P. Lal Transcreation)
If we are to speak of "fatalism" with Smith, the only sign of this can be said to lie in a peculiar weakness of character passed on from generation to generation in the Puru dynasty: This weakness is akin to that tragic flaw which Shakespeare speaks of in Hamlet as destroying all the goodness in a man. It is heralded by Nahusha, the first human elected as king of the gods in place of Indra, whose craving for Indra's wife Shachi drives him to perdition. His son Yayati becomes a classic symbol of the tragedy of lust, which consumes without satisfying. It blinds his descendant Shantanu so much that he allows the Crown Prince to give up the kingdom. Shantanu's son Vichitravirya dies of over-indulgence in the some passion. His wives, tainted with it, are unable to accept Vyasa in a pure frame of being, and give birth to defective sons. Even Pandu dies of lust.
Vyasa himself is the product of the sage Parashara forcing himself upon the fisher-maid Satyavati mid-stream in the Yamuna. It is the supreme irony of the epic that the person who becomes the de facto ruler at the end is not any Pandava, but Yuyutsu, son of Dhritarashtra by a maid! No wonder Vyasa cries out in despair at the end at man's deliberate rejection of salvation and the remorseless working out of the tragic flaw ingrained deep within, driving him on to destruction. Unfortunately, as far as Brook is concerned, none of this exists.