Confusing? Sure, but go with the flow


March 25, 1991|By Michael Hill

Admit it. It's not everyday that you can have a chance to view a dramatization of an ancient epic that mixes history and mythology as it explains how the world as we know it came into being.

No, we're not talking about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II."

We're talking about "The Mahabharata," which might not have any mutated turtles, but does have a guy running around wearing a nifty elephant's head.

Later on, there's another couple dressed something like mud people. The guy gets involved in a fight that might be the mythological origin of professional wrestling. It ends when his back gets broken in some lethal modification of the body slam, a monster super crunch hold for sure. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

As most readers undoubtedly already know, the Mahabharata is the multi-thousand page epic poem that chronicles the beginning of the world in India. You've probably read it two or three times. But those who haven't should know it's 15 times as long as the Bible, which was obviously written with our westernized short attention spans in mind.

In any case, it fascinated Britisher Peter Brook who was first told the story of the Mahabharata by a Sanskrit scholar, hearing it the way Indians do. Clearly, this was before the invention of television when Brook had a few years of empty evenings.

Brook, a stage director by trade, collaborated with well-known screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere to come up with a screenplay of "The Mahabharata." That took about 10 years. It was eventually filmed in Paris with an international cast.

The resulting six hours can be seen on the PBS Great Performances series in three two-hour episodes, beginning tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, continuing tomorrow and Wednesday nights at that time.

Though you have to leave it to Sanskrit scholars to determine how true "The Mahabharata" is to its text, it's certainly an interesting show. The production looks nice. The problem is that, unless you were told the Mahabharata as a child, or unless you really have read it two or three times, you're going to spend a lot of these six hours not having the slightest idea what's going on.

Just knowing the basic set-up can be a help. Essentially, this is a story of a war between two sets of cousins. There are the sons of Dhritharashtra, the blind king. The others are the sons of his brother, Pandu, who should have been king but left the throne when he was cursed with an inability to have kids.

But, then, how could Pandu have these sons? It's a long, long story. Suffice it to say that, as in the Old Testament, there's a lot of begatting in here, and a lot of talk about the act essential to begatting.

Pandu's sons, the good team, want the throne back. They are called the Pandavas which is easy enough to keep straight. But Dhritharashtra's kids are, for some reason, called the Kauravas. They're the bad team, the Oakland Raiders of Indian mythology.

Even knowing the names doesn't help that much because both teams look so much alike. Not that they look like Indians; there seem to be precious few natives of that country in the cast. Mostly they look like thirtysomething English actors with ponytails.

Toward the end of tonight's part one, the Pandavas lose most of their clothes in a dice game. That's nice because for a while it's like playground basketball, the shirts versus the skins. But then they get dressed and you're lost once again. Maybe if they had worn different colored uniforms with numbers on them.

To further complicate matters, other characters kind of appear here and there, often spouting their supernatural origins as if you knew exactly what they were talking about.

Like this fellow Krishna who's sort of like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Eventually, in a conversation with one of the Pandavas, he delivers the Bhagavad Gita, which is just a small part of the Mahabharata. Krishna never does explain those guys selling books in airports.

Then there's the poet who's dictating the whole thing. In a nice post-modern touch, he occasionally enters the fray, not only fathering the two principal rivals to the throne, but also admonishing others to stick to the text. And there's this elusive concept of Dharma, a kind of cosmic balance that all are striving to attain.

Bottom line is that putting mythology on film is always dicey business. These figures belong in the realm of the imagination and lose something in the translation to two dimensions. But, if you do watch this, don't try to keep things straight. Just go with the flow. You'll be confused, but you'll pick up plenty of good stuff along the way. Maybe enough to add some Dharma to your Karma.

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