Wednesday, September 7, 2011

An Epoch of Epic Remakes

In Bali, male dancers perform the Kecak traditional dance
and intonate a "monkey" chant, all without background music,
as they reenact a famous battle scene from the Ramayana.
Growing up, I’d been exposed to more than a few film and TV versions of India’s two greatest epics, the 2,000-year-old Sanskrit poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata. I have to admit, I largely ignored them. They were poorly acted, melodramatic, much too focused on the glitz and glamour of the royal kingdoms they featured than on the values or true essence of these legendary stories. They were also really long India’s version of soap operas. Oh, and they were usually in Hindi, a language I only understand in bits and pieces.

Then in the 1980s, I saw the most breathtaking and unique adaptation of the Mahabharata on PBS, both artistic and literary in scope and vision. That it was a French-British production was part of that broad scope, that the cast was comprised of such diverse multicultural and multiracial actors (Italian, French, Japanese, black, Jewish, and many others) was utterly refreshing and intriguing, and that it was in English and on American public television was, well, just plain accessible. I watched the nine-part series closely, riveted by this very modern take on one of India’s oldest stories.

Here, for example, is the pivotal scene from the Mahabharata, the portion that forms the Bhavagad Gita, quite possibly Hinduism’s most important text.

British director Peter Brooks says he intentionally chose an international cast to show the universality of the Indian epic, how it represents the story of all mankind. But remarkably, this beautiful serial inspired much controversy, and for all kinds of odd reasons: because it focused more on the philosophy and literary essence of the story than on the divine aspects, that it featured few Indian actors, that the costumes and set design were too spare, too stripped down, for this era’s Bollywood-inspired palates.

Another popular and critically acclaimed but also controversial retelling of an Indian epic is Sita Sings the Blues, from American filmmaker Nina Paley. Okay, I haven’t seen this film in its entirety, but it’s based on a supremely interesting aspect of another famous epic.

The Ramayana tells the story of King Rama, or Ram, who spends 14 years finding and rescuing his wife Sita from Ravana, the demon king of Lanka (Sri Lanka). The story is usually told from Ram’s point of view; he’s the hero, the good guy, and the one you’re rooting for. Last year, Bollywood released a big-budget, blockbuster movie, Raavan, told from the point of view of the villain. And three years ago, Nina Paley came out with her extremely offbeat, animated, docu-comic film that explores both the fate of Rama’s wife after her exile (Ram ultimately rejects her because she'd lived in the home of another man during her capture, albeit against her will) and Paley’s own real-life divorce. Dubbing it “the greatest break-up story ever told,” Paley used the recordings of Annette Hanshaw, a 1920s' American jazz singer, to give voice to Sita in the film, which happened to bring about renewed popularity in Hanshaw’s music. Here’s a snippet: 

Paley’s retelling of the story won dozens of international awards but also earned major backlash from pockets of Hindu extremists who say the film is offensive and derogatory against all Hindus. 

What’s curious to me about these controversies is that, one, Hinduism has deep literary and philosophical traditions that most people who observe and practice the religion would agree go way beyond just the divine aspects of their texts. It’s a belief system that isn’t about absolutes but that invites discussion, interpretation, and meditation about the 
complexity of truth, morality, and other large issues.

And two, while the Ramayana, in particular, is an important tome, it was rewritten many times over the ages before seeping into the traditions of so many other cultures, where it evolved further. 

·         The Cambodian version, known as Reamker, adapts the Hindu ideas to Buddhist themes, considers the main characters more as mortals than as gods, and is a mainstay of the national royal ballet’s repertoire.
·         In Indonesia, the first half of the Old Javanese Kakawin Ramayana more or less corresponds to the most accepted Indian (Sanskrit) version by poet-sage Valmiki, but the second half is completely different, including, among other things, the Javanese indigenous deity dhayana and his misshapen sons, known as “clown servants.” The epic is also often depicted in Indonesia through all kinds of media, including wayang, or shadow puppetry.
·         In Laos, the Phra Lak Phra Lam, and in Malaysia, the Hikayat Seri Rama, have lost their association with Hinduism altogether and tell the story of Rama as a previous lifetime of the Buddha.
·         Thailand’s national epic, the Ramakian (or “Glory of Rama”), more or less retains the same story as the Indian one but within a Thai context (names, clothes, weapons, and so on).
·         Other cultures—from Japan, Burma, and the Philippines, to the Muslims of Kashmir and Kerala—tell their own unique versions.

Maybe there is something to the idea that these ancient epics are relevant to all mankind?

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