Honor and Illusion: Peter Brook's Mahabharata
Famous stage and film director Peter Brook's 5 hour version of the Sanskrit epic "The Mahabharata" is a remarkable production for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it breathes new life into the epic and makes even the most jaded Hindu take another look at the genius of the literary work.
Having grown up in India, the stories from the ancient Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata, are a critical part of my cultural heritage. Immersed in its folklore from a very young age, the themes, characters and situations from the epic poem are as familiar to me as, perhaps, the myths and fables of the Homeric tradition would be to a child growing up in the Western world.
But, to be honest with you, it wasn't until I viewed the expanded, 5 hour film version of the epic directed by the acclaimed British stage and film personality, Peter Brook, renowned internationally for his brilliant productions of The Lord of the Flies based on the novel by William Golding and of Shakespeare's King Lear, that I gained a renewed appreciation for the true genius behind the Sanskrit literary work.
Filmed in lushly evocative sepia tones, with an international cast of highly talented players, the film is truly refreshing and eye-opening in its interpretation and rendition of the archaic Vedic Indian culture from which the epic stems. Brutally honest and resonant in its imagery, the film truly captures the zeitgeist of Vedic India, marked by its factional, territorial power struggles and its lofty, arcane philosophical ideas. All told, the film is a powerfully nihilistic, apocalyptic vision that is profoundly relevant to our present day 21st Century world. Like the Homeric myths, it stands the test of time and reveals itself to be a profoundly modern, relevant literary work.
Believed to have been composed around 3000 years ago by the poet Vyasa, the plot centers around the factional struggles of the rival clans, the Pandava and the Kaurava. It details the years of factional strife between the clans, culminating in the devastating war of Kurukshetra. Though the story is told in the elevated, hyperbolic, metaphorical style of epic and myth, historians and scholars of ancient Sanskrit literature believe that the war was actually fought in northern India between 1000 - 800 B.C.E. between rival factions of the Kuru clan.
The main themes of the work are the importance of Dharma, the Hindu concept of honor, duty, ethics and morality, along with its associations with social order; and the deceptive, illusory and transitory nature of reality as we experience it. It skillfully weaves mythical, historical and folklore elements into a vivid tapestry that forces one to challenge one's assumptions and prejudices and, indeed, to question the nature of the very fabric of reality itself. What echoes through my mind while viewing the film is the following quote from Albert Einstein:
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
and one wonders whether Einstein was in any way influenced by Sanskrit literature or the Mahabharata in his revolutionary thinking. Indeed, it is a fact that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the supervising scientist of the Manhattan project, cited the Mahabharata upon the first successful test of the atomic bomb, which underscores the profoundly modern and apocalyptic vision of the work.
The main plot begins, like many a James Bond novel, with a high stakes gambling match-a game of dice. In the course of the match, the Pandava clan lose all their possessions, including their own liberty, to the scheming, devious Kaurava, and are ultimately forced into an extended exile in the wilderness. The image is profoundly resonant with current events, as seen in recent election results in Iran and Afghanistan, which many believe to have been rigged or contrived. This event turns out to be a critical turning point in the story, as it marks the point where a friendly rivalry between the clans devolves into a bitter, divisive enmity.
The next thirteen years recount something of a cold war and arms race between the clans, as each side forges alliances and acquires so-called "sacred weapons" in the relentless buildup towards the apocalyptic final confrontation at Kurukshetra. Again, the work reveals itself to be profoundly modern and relevant when, in one haunting sequence, Arjuna, the elite warrior of the Pandava clan, confronts the Hindu deity Shiva and asks him for the secret of Pasupata-"the ultimate weapon that can destroy the world." It is chillingly evocative of the modern quest for superiority in nuclear arms in the course of the Cold War and beyond and, perhaps, is one of the themes evoked by Oppenheimer in his famous allusion to the epic. Even as Arjuna acquires the doomsday weapon from Shiva, Karna, his rival in the Kaurava clan, sets off to acquire it for himself as well, which he does by deceiving a hermit into revealing to him the "secret formula" of Pasupata-again, echoing Einstein's groundbreaking mass-energy equivalence equation, which was the harbinger of the atomic and nuclear age.
The final apocalyptic confrontation between the two factions at Kurukshetra begins with the armies confronting each other on the battlefield and establishing the ground-rules for war in accordance with the principles of Dharma, i.e. honor, duty and ethics. This event echoes such modern-day treaties as the Treaty of Versailles and the Geneva Conventions, which establish what qualifies as acceptable conduct during wartime, as opposed to what qualifies as a war crime or a violation of human rights.
As the two armies are about to charge into war, Arjuna, the elite Pandava archer and swordsman, suddenly loses confidence and collapses to his knees. Unable to bring himself to do battle with his own kinfolk and mentors, he confesses his fears to Krishna, his closest friend, confidante and charioteer. This is followed by one of the best known sequences in the epic, the Bhagavadgita, wherein Krishna gives Arjuna an extended motivational pep talk, which essentially summarizes the core concepts of the Hindu philosophy of the Vedic Age in India. Possibly the reason this sequence is so well known is that it was first dramatized on film in the Rudolph Valentino film, The Young Rajah, in which Valentino's character, Amos Judd, claims descent from Arjuna. The central theme in Krishna's discourse to Arjuna is that all of humanity is "born into illusion" and that illusion is all-pervasive in our all-too-brief lives. Therefore, in order to seek truth, one must achieve a form of stoic detachment in one's attitude and actions. These ideas are strikingly resonant of Buddhism, which developed much later in ancient India, though without the Buddhist emphasis on pacifism and non-violence. As such, Krishna's ideology is, contextually, a profoundly martial ethic.
Motivated and ready to launch into battle, Arjuna signals his attack, and the war proceeds. What ensues is a tragic recountal of the horrors of war, made all the more moving and profound by its emphasis on the human dimension of the conflict and on the kinship ties of the primary players. Every value of Dharma that the culture holds dear-every value of honor, duty and ethical conduct-is brutally violated and overturned in the course of warfare, so much so that at one stage, Yudhishthira, the leader of the Pandava clan, wonders out loud whether they are actually defending the ideals of Dharma through their actions in the course of the war. This theme is, again, profoundly resonant and relevant to modern times, echoing the ethical challenges we face during the course of the recent U.S. military incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether the ends justify the means in the course of warfare or anything else, for that matter.
The Pandava clan emerges victorious from the war, but the film retains its bleak, nihilistic, apocalyptic vision in its recountal of the ultimate demise of each of the core characters. This culminates with the honor-bound, dutiful Yudhishthira finally arriving at the gates of Paradise in his old age, after all his brothers and Draupadi, their collective wife, have fallen into the abyss. What follows is the final dénouement in the story, which I will not reveal, but which, in effect, turns the entire story on its head and challenges one to question all one's preconceptions in life. In essence, it stunningly underscores and emphasizes the dual themes of personal honor, integrity and morality (Dharma) versus the transitory, illusory nature of the world and of reality.
The film is brilliantly and powerfully directed by Peter Brook and adapted for stage and screen by Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere and Marie-Helene Estienne. It features some truly breathtaking and profoundly moving performances by the international cast of players including Georges Corraface as Duryodhana, the villainous, but ultimately sympathetic leader of the Kaurava clan; Vittorio Mezzogiorno as Arjuna, the elite warrior of the Pandava clan; Bruce Myers as Krishna, Arjuna's friend, confidante and spiritual guide; Jeffrey Kissoon as Karna, the estranged eldest Pandava brother and friend of Duryodhana; Andrzej Seweryn as Yudhishthira, the head of the Pandava clan; Mamadou Dioume as Bhima, the Pandava strongman, and Mallika Sarabhai as the princess Draupadi, the wife of the Pandava brothers. The soundtrack is richly evocative of a distant, bygone era, with resounding instrumentals interspersed with periods of deafening silence. The subtlety in the richly textured imagery of the film, along with its superbly choreographed action sequences and innovative set design, make the film almost hypnotically memorable. Its dreamlike, mythic quality is accentuated by its use of sound, imagery and sepia-drenched color, at the hands of a truly original auteur of contemporary stage and film. All in all, this film is a truly moving and memorable viewing experience and I highly recommend it to everyone.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Uday Gunjikar is the founder and CEO of Horizon Cybermedia, a new company dedicated to the production and delivery of high quality digital media content. Horizon Cybermedia owns and operates the website http://www.explorationtheseries.com, featuring the film series Exploration with Uday Gunjikar. Uday Gunjikar also operates and regularly contributes to the affiliated weblog, Horizon CyberBlog.