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Ramanand Sagar's 'Ramayan' Returns: The Classic Trumps All Hyper-Hindu Versions

For the past three-and-a-half decades, Sagar’s 'Ramayan' has been the definitive screen version of the ancient epic.

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Om Raut’s Adipurush had everything going for it. The lead actor, Prabhas, is a megastar and few today can parallel his mass appeal across the Hindi-speaking belt or what is acknowledged by credible historians as the original Ram Rajya. That he was cast to play Hindu god Ram in a re-telling of Valmiki’s epic, Ramayan, was nothing short of a stroke of genius, most would agree. The film was then mounted on a Rs. 700 Crore budget to give it the kind of sets and VFX that a film of this kind needs, making it the most expensive Hindi film ever.

For the past three-and-a-half decades, Sagar’s 'Ramayan' has been the definitive screen version of the ancient epic.

A still from Adipurush trailer.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube screengrab)

And if all of that’s not enough, the film came with endorsements from those guardians of our culture, politicians from the ruling dispensation. All of this should have been enough to make it the stuff of legends, the kind of film that people would talk to their grandkids about someday in the same breath that our grandparents speak of Mughal-E-Azam. Except, none of this happened. And while one can keep talking about the poor acting, the shoddy graphics and the ridiculously sadak-chhaap (street jargon) dialogues, there are deeper reasons for the rejection of this fantastical version of the epic. Most of these have to do with mass perceptions that were first created by the eponymous television show that first aired way back in the late 1980s.

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For the past three-and-a-half decades, Ramanand Sagar’s 'Ramayan' has been the definitive screen version of the ancient epic, and there are reasons for that. The classic is back on TV and has been airing on Shemaroo TV from 3 July.

First and foremost, what Sagar did best was deviating as little as possible from the original source material. While there had been big screen adaptions starting as early as 1931 when V Shantaram and Keshavrao Dhaiber made the silent film Chandrasena, this was the very first time a screen version of the Ramayan was being beamed into millions of households across the country.

And familiarity was the one thing that the veteran filmmaker could count on to mount his show on. No gimmicks, no over-the-top action and no superhero-esque figures—Sagar’s rendition told the story the way that it was handed down for the past two and a half millennia. 

Most of all, what Sagar got right was his Gandhian approach to shaping his characters. Be it Ram’s (Arun Govil) beatific smile or Sita’s (Deepika Chikhalia) understated regality, these characters epitomised the idea of the Ram Rajya that Gandhi spoke about—a utopian society built upon the pillars of morality, virtue and justice.

For the past three-and-a-half decades, Sagar’s 'Ramayan' has been the definitive screen version of the ancient epic.

A still from Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Ram is always depicted as calm and practically devoid of baser instincts like rage and pride. He is the dutiful son who quietly goes into exile to keep his father’s word but he also takes up arms when he needs to, to rescue his wife Sita after she gets kidnapped by Raavan, the king of Lanka.

No angry warrior depictions for either Ram or Hanuman as seen on the back of cars these days; the reasons here for resorting to violence are clearly depicted as a last resort, much like it is in the original. It is these ideals that made Gandhi a worldwide figure that just couldn’t be ignored in the first half of the 20th century.

For the past three-and-a-half decades, Sagar’s 'Ramayan' has been the definitive screen version of the ancient epic.

A still from Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

It’s these very ideals that became synonymous with the idea of eastern spirituality, one that had people flocking here from the world over in the 1970s looking for the best versions of themselves. And it’s these very ideals that Sagar showcased though his characters, silencing critics who were up in arms calling it religious propaganda. 

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Ramayan became one of the world’s most-watched television serials within weeks of it first airing, bringing together an entire country on Sunday mornings. Fan mails poured in to the makers and actors from Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs alike. This wasn’t about religion—given its foundations, it was never going to be.

This was the closest India would ever get to proudly owning a piece of culture together, regardless of religious persuasion. Sir William Mark Tully, who was BBC’s India Bureau Chief during those years once wrote, “My feeling is that Sagar’s Ramayana has succeeded because, in spite of whatever faults it might have, it is very Indian, and people are looking for that.”

For the past three-and-a-half decades, Sagar’s 'Ramayan' has been the definitive screen version of the ancient epic.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

And while there was renewed criticism from some quarters around the show descending into hyper-religious territory in its latter years, you’ll find scant mention of it anywhere because its impact had transcended all of that by then; so much so that the re-airing of the series in 2020 during the first COVID lockdown had 77 million people tuning in to DD National, making it the most-watched entertainment program globally.

It’s safe to say that Sagar’s Ramayan connected with India’s masses on an emotional level like no other piece of content ever has.

For the thousands of stories one has heard of devout Hindu ladies worshipping their television sets on Sunday mornings, there are hundreds of anecdotes of equally effusive non-Hindu fans. In her book 'Telly-Guillotined', Amrita Shah talks about a Christian lady writing to one of the characters, ‘May our Lord Jesus and Mother Mary Bless you and keep you well,’ and a gushing Muslim fan writing in a letter to Ramanand Sagar, ‘Your name will shine and shine like the morning star in the horizon.’

Sagar’s Ramayan had become a cultural phenomenon that was more than just a piece of content. For most of the actors, this became the role of a lifetime, one they carried over into their real lives and just couldn’t get away from. The impact of the show, on- and off-screen, is unparalleled in the Indian entertainment space. So, when Shemaroo TV announced a few days back that they would be bringing back Sagar’s Ramayan to television screens, can you really blame them for seeing an opportunity and grabbing it? It is, after all, the ultimate palate cleanser for the hordes of disappointed fans who did go to watch Adipurush.

(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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