Big Gora

Big Gora

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ek nae Ramayan hai!

(I had written the first couple paragraphs of this post, and was working on it, when my sister called and told me my dad had just died. I just wanted to note this for some reason.
Dad, as I said to you when I visited shortly before that: I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to travel together to India. You would love it, and I would love showing it to you.)

एक नए रामायण है! जय जय राम! [Ek nae Ramayan hae! Jay jay Ram!/There's a new Ramayan! Praise Ram!]
A few years ago, when my wife's mom was still with us, the three us watched the whole 1980s Ramanand Sagar production of the Ramayan--all 152 half-hour episodes. Twice! Mom just loved Ram. At least once per episode, she'd repeat these phrases:
"I just love Ram. He's so good!"
"Ram has such a nice smile."
"Ram loves his brother [Lakshman] so much!"
There's actually a sweet story about how we got our hands on it. In Tulsa is a friendly, packed Indian grocery we visit every couple of months: Laxmi Spices. We love chatting with the family who own it. We went there the day before my birthday for ingredients for a special Desi birthday dinner. Atop the checkout counter was...the DVD box set with this ^ cover. Wow! I'd been trying to find this elusive collection via Amazon, without success. Where in the world should I even look now?--and then boom! there it was! But, you know, I'm a humanities professor, not any sort of wealthy man, and I wasn't financially prepared to shell out $75 on top of the money I had to assume my wife had already spent on my birthday, so...alas, we'll get it another time. Bridget then managed a beautiful surprise: later in the day, after we'd driven all the way home without the discs, she sneaked back up to Tulsa alone and bought them! Fantastic birthday surprise!
So again, we watched the whole serial over a few months, then again the next summer.
Now there's another one! It was made for television, like the old one--and that shows, but I'll address Indian serial conventions in another post sometime--and aired in 2012 and 2013. It's available streaming on Netflix! I wrote in an earlier post about Amazon's new "Heera" channel; Netflix, too, has seriously been stepping up its Desi entertainment game. Just last night I even spotted the not-especially-good show Fear Files there, along with lots and lots of recent Bollywood movies.
Having watched the 1980s actors playing Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Raavan, and Hanuman for a couple hundred hours, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing those parts.

But the new actors do a beautiful job, both in contemplative still shots and in action. The new Ram is taller and manlier-looking. The new Sita has gigantic, sad, liquid eyes. The new Laxman believably expresses admiration for Ram and the hotheadedness that's never far away with him.
I'll save other observations about the new Ramayan for later posts, and there are a whole lot of interesting things to say about it, but I wanted to note one here: the new production makes Ram's 14-year exile in the forest clearly/ineluctably fated several times over. In 1980s Ramayan, pretty much only Ram's devotion to धर्म [dharm/doing the right(eous) thing] drives him out: King Dasharath made a promise, two boons, years ago to his queen Kaikeyi, so when she asks Dasharath to enthrone her son Bharat and exile Ram, Ram believes he must go in order to fulfill his father's promise and save his family's honor. Well. In the new Ramayan, it's much more freighted:
1) The palace astrologer finds that the match is dreadfully inauspicious: Ram "मांगलिक हैं" [manglik hain/was born under Mars in a way that guarantees misery in Sita's marriage to him]. (For a modern example of this continuing dread of one partner's being "manglik," see the Bollywood movie Lage Raho, Munna Bhai.) HOWEVER,--
2) There's a one-hour window during which this combination will work out fine IF they're careful not to miss this rare opportunity. The wedding is thus planned for this precise time. HOWEVER,--
3) A consortium of gods, led by Indra, wants to prevent Ram and Sita from escaping fate so simply. They send one of the gods down disguised as a dancer, who mesmerizes the wedding party so deeply that the short auspicious hour slips away unnoticed. The loophole is closed. ADDITIONALLY:
4) Before the wedding ceremony even started, Sita made a rash vow to Parvati (Shiva's consort): she (Sita) would voluntarily go through great suffering if only Ram were given sufficient strength to lift and string Shiva's bow, in the testing ceremony designed to choose Sita's groom. Parvati is distressed, knowing that the vow was unnecessary--Ram would have been fine on his own--but at Shiva's urging, grants Sita's prayer at the cost Sita specified. We all know where her suffering will begin--with Ram's removal to the forest. And FINALLY:
5) Years ago, it turns out, Dasharath made a horrible, fateful mistake. (This mistake appears in the 1980s Ramayan as well, but less highlighted.) Back before Dasharath sired Ram, he was hunting, alone, with his bow one night, and he thought he heard a deer drinking at the nearby pool. He shot into the dark--and fatally struck a young man who was collecting water for his aged, blind parents. The mother curses Dasharath: May your firstborn son be taken away from you, and then may you die a terrible painful death yourself! So Ram's forced departure, followed soon by Dasharath's demise, clearly fulfill this powerful curse. (Side note: I must look into these Indian curses...)
With all this going on, the exile doesn't seem one bit like a choice. The gods, a curse, astrology, and Ram's own wife all contribute to guaranteeing that he goes away.

Anyway: I invite you all to join me and my wife in watching this fantastic new production of the Ramayan on Netflix!