Epics and mythology have dominated the cultural ethos of India for centuries, with numerous poets, philosophers, filmmakers and artistes drawing inspiration from them to weave their own brands of magic. Little wonder, then, that television too has gone back to the same source time and again, with different experimentations and formats designed to woo varied audiences.
While none of the remakes of the two epics have produced the same impact (barring NDTV Imagine's Ramayan, which did fairly well), there have been a plethora of historical shows which have regularly clocked above average ratings for the respective channels. Chanakya on Doordarshan (1991), Jhansi Ki Rani on Zee TV (2009), Chandragupta Maurya on Imagine TV (2011) and Veer Shivaji on Colors (2011) are such shows that have worked well through the years.
However, there have been exceptions, too. Chittod Ki Rani Padmini on Sony (2009) and Meera on NDTV Imagine (2009) were wiped out within six months of their launch.
Against this, there are the mythological successes such as Shri Krishna on Doordarshan (1993), Jai Hanuman (1997) and Saibaba on Star Plus (2005), Jai Jai Jai Bajrangbali on Sahara One (2011) and Mahadev on Life OK (2011).
In an attempt to recreate the Ramayan magic, Zee TV launched Ramayan: Sabke Jeevan Ka Aadhar produced by Sagar Arts in August, 2012. Not to be left behind, Star Plus plans to launch a fresh version of the Mahabharata soon.
There's more of history, too: the upcoming Maharana Pratap on Sony Entertainment Television and Jodha Akbar, launched recently on Zee TV.
While discussing the formula of success for costume dramas (both mythological and historical) with industry insiders, we tried to map a few key pointers which could make them work.
For the producer or creator of a mythological or historical show, there's no substitute for conviction. The initial investment in the costume, sets and jewellery is very high and on an average, a historical or mythological show costs about 15-20 lakh per episode at the production level, and thus a little more for a channel. Compared to the high cost, the profits are only realised after a run of about 100-150 episodes. To be able to sustain this kind of investment without quick returns, one has to be really inspired by the story.
Industry veterans suggest that there is a sharp change in the way the industry works. Ironically, while plenty of money is being pumped into historical and mythological shows now, the productions lack research and involvement of a wide range of professionals. Even the creators admit that while once there was a practice of bringing historians, archaeologists, art-historians and great painters on-board to present well researched work, due to lack of time and manpower, such detailed work is no longer possible. While recreating history, however, one needs to be very careful about the facts. For the record, Chanakya required about five years of research, while the production house for Chandragupta Maurya and Veer Shivaji worked on the script for about three years.
Unlike western mythology, say Greek mythological gods like Zeus, Thor and others who are no longer worshipped, Indian mythological characters continue to enjoy religious significance. Hence, while attempting a remake of the stories, one has to maintain the devotional element that is in sync with popular belief. Historical shows, on the other hand, lend themselves to a higher degree of re-interpretation. While everyone has heard the stories, a little deviation or imaginative re-telling is allowed for portrayal of emotions. One, thus, enjoys a wider bracket of creative liberty.
While casting is one of the most important aspects of any TV programme, for mythological/ historical shows, it's very crucial to get the perfect faces. Sometimes, even the most popular TV actors have not been able to pull off a mythological series (remember BR Chopra's Ramayana that was telecast on Zee TV in 2002? The show had Smriti Irani, of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi fame, as Sita). For years, Calendar images, Amar Chitra Katha and religious publications have built up certain stereotypes. Media experts suggest that the best trick to get the casting right is to search for the closest looking person to this imagery, citing the example of Mohit Raina who plays Mahadev on Life OK. Arun Govil's casting as Ram could also have been based on the same trick, they say; however, he was the first one to play the role and was, thus, able to set it up, to some extent.
Historical characters, on the other hand, have many different images, mostly influenced by movies. New faces are usually selected for these roles, so that there is no baggage attached to the image. An expert mentions that a great mismatch these days lies in the age, and adds that this is probably because the advertisers are targeting the youth. He states, "Sita, Kaushalya and even Kaushalya's mother will all possibly be played by the actors in the same age-bracket (20-24 years), in today's Ramayana!"
These shows, for obvious reasons, must be dealt with very carefully. While maintaining the grandeur and keeping the look and feel of the era, they must ensure that there aren't any controversies. Hurting the sentiments of any group could result in a hit to both, the brand and the business.
Some experts also believe that these days, not much attention is paid to the content. People talk in numbers (episode numbers, advertising revenues, TVRs and duration), which disturb the flow of the story.
Chanakya was made for pre-defined 47 episodes and Ramayan was for 78 episodes. But, in this race of numbers, the concept of weekly programming on Hindi GECs is fading away. Mahadev, the most recent example of a successful mythology on Hindi GECs, is the best example of this. The show has been running on Life OK for about 18 months and has completed close to 450 episodes - and is still going on. Could one call this dragging?
No, suggests an expert, who reasons that while books are about start-middle-end of a story, television doesn't follow that format. Television is about continuous stories - as much as audiences want. As long as the stories are factually correct, it's good that different aspects of Mahadev's life are being brought up.
Additional Interviews: Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi, creator of Chanakya and owner of Wisdomtrees productions
Sameer Nair, former CEO of Star India and NDTV Imagine
Prem Sagar, Sagar Arts
Abhimanyu Singh, Contiloe Productions