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The Ramayanam (known in popular culture without the m) is an epic quasi religious moralistic commentary on politics, diplomacy, household, virtue and duty, compiled into a poem of twenty four thousand verses (or ‘shlokas’). It is impossible to compare the works of Valmiki with those of his contemporaries; perhaps the best likeness to be made is to liken it to The Iliad, another adventure-based epic, though considerably shorter.

The epic in all its hues and variations has spellbound the Indian movie script writer and television script writer alike. Its influence on Indian cinema and cinematography can be observed through the use of devices like side story, back story and story within a story. Even today, some prime time soap operas feature characters from the epic, which is so revered that most deem it sacrosanct and ergo stay true to the original.

But what is the original? A large corpus recited a millennium ago, the Ramayana has undergone considerable change based on both time and region. It would be safer to say that the epic is a collection of homogenous entities than a single text in and of itself. Various regions explain origins and motives differently, and in South East Asia, even the protagonists’ names have been adapted to suit regional tastes (Ram and Sita are named Phreah Ream and Neang Seda in Cambodia respectively). Other variations have religious undertones—Ram is an incarnation of the Buddha and his kingdom is in Benares in the Buddhist version; Lakshman kills Ravan and they both go to Hell in the Jain version; whereas, in the Sikh version, Ram and Sita are thought of as allegories of the inner soul and intellect respectively. The devout Hanuman is made lascivious in Thailand. Cambodian audiences clap and cheer for Sovanna Maccha, a mermaid with a vague reference in some subcontinental versions.

With so much diversity, one might think it would be hard for movie script writers in India and abroad to create an adaption that would be acceptable to everyone who grew up with their own versions on the epic. Quite the contrary. A Japanese animated feature film in 1992 ( ދP; translated to ‘Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama’ ), created as part of the fortieth anniversary of Indo-Japanese diplomatic ties, found instant success among Indian and non-Indian audiences, even winning the Best Animation Film of the Year at the 2000 Santa Clarita International Film Festival.

It might seem daunting for a movie script writer initially to tackle such a large body of text and condense it into a comprehensible 120- or 180 minutes of screen time, especially when it is packed with sentiment, religious connotations and a fierce desire by some to maintain a kind of single, mainstream narrative that may not be what other communities might have grown up with. “Great gifts are not given easily, and I waited years before I had you,” says a dialogue from the Ramayana about patience and perseveranceArticle Search, almost as if in response to such misgivings.

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Anand Sivakumaran is a renowned author, screenwriter, show runner, content creator, a motivational writer & speaker.

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