India's top content creators explain why these epics will always captivate Indians, even if the production quality seems shoddy. Because TV is a storyteller's medium.
What was television viewing like in the late 1980s, or early 90s? Well, it was fuzzy imagery at best on an 18-inch (often) black and white screen. The public broadcaster telecasted all audiovisual entertainment. From then till now, TV has travelled quite a bit, and is now a Rs 79,000-crore industry. There is plenty of content available on hundreds of channels spread across 180 million television homes. There is no fuzzy imagery, the storytelling has become far more sophisticated, the cinematography has improved, and the viewers are now watching shows on a high definition screen.
In such an environment, the retelecast of late Ramanand Sagar's 'Ramayan', which first aired on Doordarshan (DD) in 1987, recently broke all viewership records. After the lockdown was announced in March, DD decided to retelecast 'Ramayan'. In the second half of January, DD’s national viewership was around nine million, while in late March, it was around 545 million. One might argue that the rerun was consumed mostly by DD Freedish viewers in rural India. As it turns out, the top pay TV programme in urban India last week was 'Mahabharat', which was commissioned by Star Plus in 2013.
"We have always believed that while movies are a director’s medium, TV is a storytellers medium, and a good story will triumph production any day"Gaurav Banerjee, Star India
So, how does one explain the enduring magic of 'Ramayan' and 'Mahabharat' on Indian TV? "Anything deep-rooted in our culture is timeless, be it these two tales, as well as the story of Radha Krishna," says Gaurav Banerjee, president and head - Hindi GEC, Star India, adding, "We have grown up with them as part of our subconscious, and seeing them come alive on TV with the right visuals, music and ethics makes the entire experience rich and rewarding. It’s much more than just nostalgia. In difficult times, people always turn to a higher power and seek answers. We sensed that the timing was just right for a fulfilling experience, and was the first to launch the 'Mythology Band’ in weekday prime time with ‘Mahabharat’, ‘Siya Ke Ram’ and ‘Mahadev’.”
Manisha Sharma, chief content officer, Hindi Mass Entertainment, Viacom18, too, believes people find immense value in epics like ‘Ramayan’ and ‘Mahabharat’ as they provide comfort and calmness. "For decades, mythological stories have told us about our culture, the lives and valour of the heroes, and taught us life lessons. These values and teachings are deemed sacrosanct, and have been passed across generations. The combination of purpose, nostalgia and the great narrative keeps bringing people back to watch these shows, and take away something meaningful from it every time. The shows are also backed by a strong storyline and impressive character outlines that make for a great entertainment proposition."
"Ramayan and Mahabharat have laid the foundation of our television ecosystem and continue to hold prominence in our daily lives"Manisha Sharma, Viacom18
Sharma believes that mythological shows have always been a hit with the audience. "Ramayan and Mahabharat have laid the foundation of our television ecosystem and continue to hold prominence in our daily lives. The shows provide a wide scope, in terms of the narrative, characters and entertaining plots that strike a chord with the audience. Given the versatility of the genre, mythological content will definitely be on a rise in the future as well."
Banerjee is of the opinion that genre is not the right way to categorise content. "The most important thing is understanding the sentiment and the mood of the nation, and catering to the mass sentiment. Post lockdown, there will again be a shift in this mood, and we need to prepare for that as well.”
‘Ramayan’ ended its run on DD recently, and is now airing on Star Plus. Meanwhile, Colors has acquired the right to broadcast DD's 'Mahabharat'. Is there any merit in broadcasters commissioning newer adaptations of the epics? "There is always merit in retelling the epics, but a new and interesting angle has to be added," says Banerjee, adding, "We believe that familiar content, with an unexpected twist, always gets viewer attention. The last time we retold ‘Ramayan’, it was from Sita Ma’s perspective, which gave it a freshness, keeping the core of the story pure and unadulterated."
Sharma asserts that the epics come with a rich legacy and can be retold through various lenses. "They are the most fulfilling form of storytelling and a great business proposition. As broadcasters, we do see merit in commissioning new shows based on ‘Ramayan’, ‘Mahabharat’ and the likes, and we have done that in the past as well. With ‘Ram Siya Ke Luv Kush’, we narrated ‘Ramayan’ from Luv and Kush’s point of view, and how they played an instrumental role in reuniting their parents," she adds.
"It is not that each time you make a mythological show, it will be a hit"Siddharth Kumar Tewary, Swastik Productions
While most Indians are familiar with the story of 'Ramayan' and 'Mahabharat', creating them for television needs years of research, says Siddharth Kumar Tewary, founder and creative director of Swastik Productions that made 'Mahabharat' for Star Plus, ‘Ram Siya Ke Luv Kush' for Colors, and has many other mythological titles in its showreel. "It is not that each time you make them, it will be a hit. Whenever we are making it, we know that we are doing it for a new set of audience, a new generation, which might be aware of the epic, but is yet to watch it as a show," says Tewary.
He adds that the epics can, and will, be made many more times, "It is a way of letting the world know who we are, and where we came from. If someone wants to tell the story again, which will be more relatable to the current generation, they must go deep and do that," adds Tewary.
Mythological shows are an expensive proposition. An episode of a regular daily soap costs around Rs 7-15 lakh, while in the case of visual effects-heavy hour of 'Ramayan' or 'Mahabharat', it would be at least Rs 40 lakh. If people are happily watching a show made way back in 1987, what does it tell us about the production value and the quality crisis debate? "We have always believed that while movies are a director’s medium, TV is a storytellers medium, and a good story will triumph production any day," says Banerjee.
"As it is rightly said, content is king. While look and experience matters, a good content precedes over everything. The audience adjusts their expectations as they are well versed with the production limitations of classics vis-a-vis present-day content," Sharma concludes.