Hanuman returns yet again—this time, in a video game. Meanwhile, Star TV and INX Network are working on the Mahabharat. Next month, actors from six countries will gather in Madhya Pradesh to perform the Ramayan in their own distinctive styles.
Mythology has not only endured, it is being given new life and new forms in India. An entire generation remembers the deserted roads of Sunday mornings in the late 1980s, when the conch blew on Doordarshan, back then the sole, state-run television channel, and the Mahabharat unfolded, suspending normal life.
Today, religious entertainment has evolved into an industry of its own. In the process, traditional stories are being retold from different perspectives, or even being modernized.
And so, six-year-olds will be able to play the role of Hanuman on Sony’s portable Playstation and hurry to bring life-saving drugs from the Himalayas to revive Ram’s unconscious brother Lakshman during the battle with the demon king, Ravana.
But, despite the heroics and weapons of the Ramayan, the push for religious entertainment is partly driven by parents in search of cleaner programming.
Hetal Bhuva, business development director of Aurona Technologies, a subsidiary of Pyramid Saimira Group, says the game is the first venture of the London-based gaming company in India. It made a conscious decision to come up with a non-violent adventure game that the audience can connect with, he said.
“Hanuman was a natural choice. He is already a super-hero that everyone knows. He flies around, he is powerful, and in the game, as Hanuman, the player will constantly be making choices between good and evil. This game will also teach values to children and teenagers,” Bhuva said.
Similar philosophies targeting the entire family are behind the serials and remakes of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat.
A blessing for TV : Ramayan has catapulted NDTV Imagine to the third position in prime time.
Two months ago, New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV) launched its entertainment channel, NDTV Imagine, with a remake of the Ramayan on prime time; the channel initially launched for free and converted into a pay channel earlier last week. Billed to be one of the most expensive television serials in India, although officials refuse to disclose the amount, it has quickly become the channel’s marquee show.
The show opened with a first episode TRP (television rating point, which reflects the percentage of people watching a particular programme at a given time) of 1.8, which is among the highest rating for any episode on newly launched channels, and catapulted the channel to the third position in prime time. Three months after the launch, the show has an average rating of 5.2.
NDTV Imagine was right in realizing that it was time to revive the genre, said Atul Phadnis, CEO at Media E2E, a multi-platform company that offers guidance for TV and video content.
At the turn of the century, TV channels were flooded with mythological content, Phadnis said. “It was ridiculous,” he says. “There were two Ganesha serials clashing and the overdose drove away audiences. So, ad revenue dipped and affected budgets. The quality of shows became worse, driving away more people. So, the genre collapsed.”
Now, a generation has passed and grown without seeing those serials. “So, it is a good time to bring in modern programming capability to give the shows a new avatar,” Phadnis says.
In the coming months, Pyramid Saimira, a conglomerate of theatre, movie, gaming, realty and restaurant subsidiaries, will do just that. The company will unveil plans for a Rs250 crore Ramayan, the largest Indian movie ever. The movie, directed by Raj Kumar Santoshi and a production crew imported from Hollywood, will take three years to make.
Two television channels, 9X, an entertainment channel owned by INX Media Pvt. Ltd, and Star Plus that is owned by Star Group Ltd, are readying to compete with each other over the Mahabharat.
An industry official, aware of the 9X development, says Balaji Telefilms Ltd, Ekta Kapoor’s company that has directed family serials such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, is directing the 9X venture. “If her track record is anything to go by, she will pull out all stops to make it the biggest show on television,” this person says.
Balaji Telefilms declined to comment.
The network hopes to launch the serial on 15 August and unveil it as “an epic gift to the nation.”
Meanwhile, Star Plus’ Mahabharat is likely to launch later this year and has Chandra Prakash Dwivedi as director. Dwivedi, who was actor, director and producer of Chanakya—a serial based on the life of India’s well-known economist and politician by the same name, who lived in 300BC—says his Mahabharat will be rooted in realism.
“Chanakya was a realistic serial and they (the network) thought I would be the right person to direct this venture,” Dwivedi said. He is also directing a serial based on stories from the Upanishads, a compilation of religious texts that is considered to be a vault of Hindu philosophy.
While all these will be Indian versions for television, the culture department of Madhya Pradesh is organizing a Ramayan festival with actors of six countries—Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Laos—performing the Ramayan in their own unique costumes and styles. Kapil Tiwari, director of Adivasi Lok Niwas, says the festival, which is scheduled for next month, “is an effort to bring all those who cherish the story of Ram and Sita together.”