When about two hours through this massive production Krishna, the Hindu god-become-man whom some might want to compare, fairly or unfairly, to Jesus, screams out, "When will they stop talking?," audience members may be reciting, for religious or other reasons, a hearty "Amen." Peter Brook, a director not exactly known for his restraint, despite sometimes arguing for minimalism, adapted the Indian folktale cum religious text "Mahabharata" initially as an over six hour theatrical extravaganza. Not being able to find anyone willing to fund a film-television version at that extended length, he and writer Jean-Claude Carriere whittled their text down to a relatively short three hour running length, which may be about an hour or so too long for some viewers. Others who are willing to be swept up into the pageantry and outright theatricality of this production may find an appealing, if not exactly authentic, window into a foreign culture and one of its founding texts that provides a lot of interesting moments, if never an overwhelming sense of insight.
"Mahabharata" the word is a compound structure combining "Maha," meaning great, with "Bharata," which is variously translated as "humankind" or, somewhat chauvinistically, "Indian," since its long ago author(s) (sometimes identified as a sort of Indian Homer named Vyasa, who also appears in the work itself as the narrator) evidently believed that all humans originally came from India. This massive poem chronicled the beginnings of the Indian Bharata dynasty, the formative clan of mankind, as well as the various Hindu gods and goddesses who worked alongside them. Brook follows this trope fairly literally, with his film starting with Vyesa narrating the story to Ganesha, the Elephant headed god (in a slightly unfortunate piece of costuming in this version which may elicit an unintended laugh or two).
This story is too involved and sprawling to be summarized effectively, but suffice it to say it's a multi-generational saga pitting good against evil. What repeatedly struck me, as someone passingly if not overly familiar with Hindu culture, but solidly raised in the Western Judeo-Christian norm, was how many overlaps there are in tropes between The Mahabharata and various western religious texts and characters. In various episodes in this vast work you get a woman placing a holy baby boy in a basket to avoid his demise, where he floats down a river and is ultimately saved and raised as a member of a royal family. In another segment, you get a clan of five brothers arguing over one's favor (in this case a wife rather than a multi-colored jacket). I think there's probably something very deep about these synchronicities that reaches back into the furthest depths of man's burgeoning attempts to explain his origins and the dichotomous world in which he finds himself.
As a film, The Mahabharata is at once intriguing as well as off-putting, both stemming from its highly intellectualized format. This is filmed theater, with various characters addressing the audience directly, explicating their motivations, and then moving back into the third-person drama at hand. It's like a weird ancient version of O'Neill's "Strange Interlude" at times, and it must be taken on its face (maskless, for the most part, unlike O'Neill's attempt to recreate this ancient artifice) or else any attempt to really "feel" the narrative is going to fall by the wayside. There are also so many characters in this film that it's hard to keep track of them at times, despite the omnipresent narration.
On the plus side, this is a visually splendid production, albeit being mostly stagebound. Brook, who is probably best remembered for his stage and film versions of Marat/Sade, has an artist's eye in framing this parade of larger than life characters, and he offers a colorful array of visions to always keep the eye entertained. Similarly, the soundtrack is filled with lovely Indian drones and chanting, lending an exotic air to the proceedings. While a lot of this film is talk, talk, talk, there are some exciting action sequences, notably the final showdown that caps the long drama of internecine warfare.
The Mahabharata may be a film that thinks too hard for its own good, but it also delivers a strangely mesmeric experience if you give yourself in to it. It's stagy and portentous, like a lot of western Biblical films, but it's also unusual and intellectually challenging if never very emotionally engaging. It's the sort of filmic treatise that depends as much on its viewer's state of mind as anything it itself presents to the viewer. As such, it's a sort of perfect mirror of any individual audience member's personal feelings on big religious and moral issues. What you see is what you get in a more literal sense than you might be prepared for with The Mahabharata.
This filmed for television enterprise arrives with an enhanced 1.66:1 image (which displayed as a 1.78:1 image on my system) that for the most part is fine, with a nice panoply of well saturated colors. The film is quite dark a lot of the time, but contrast and black levels are very good. There are one or two moments of weird anomalous overt graininess and what looks to almost be elements blown up from 16mm, notably at about 1:18 into the feature. I'm not sure if perhaps part of the master was destroyed and these brief moments needed to be interpolated to recreate the original. Otherwise, things look very good if not overwhelmingly excellent.
The DD 2.0 is quite good, with some evocative utilization of ethnic music and all dialogue very clear. There's not a lot of directionality here, but this is really a sort of static pageant a lot of the time, so it's not necessary. No subtitles are available.
A really excellent, near hour long making of featurette is included, which I actually recommend most viewers start with. It gives background and context about the religious text itself, as well as giving an overall summary of the various plot elements which may help some viewers less familiar with this huge canvas.
The Mahabharata is not going to be everyone's cup of lassi, but for those with an interest in other cultures and their founding folk religious texts, this is an interesting, if mostly unemotionally involving, production. With a larger than life canvas on which to paint, director Peter Brook presents an overtly theatrical experience that will win you over if you let its very particular methods touch you. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet