The Ramayana at the time of Covid Lockdown

Image Credit: Business Today

Jyotirmoy Prodhani

It all happened so unexpectedly. There was no reason for the Doordarshan to go for a full repeat telecast of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as a daily soap twice a day. Evidently, there was not much audience left. The serials have already exhausted their share of audience and given the production quality, they would be little hesitant and should also feel a bit shy to re-run this in the cutting edge era of today when television production is a completely different ball game altogether. But this time round the situation is entirely different, which perhaps will never happen again or might not at least ever happen in the coming few hundred years or so. People are inside their homes not only because the government wants them to be in, but because that is the simplest trick to avoid being dangerously sick. Many have criticised DD’s choice of lockdown content. Given the political context, there are reasons to argue that the state-owned TV channel has been put in service to capitalise on the situation on behalf of the ruling political dispensation. But this is also true that DD had produced their best contents during those pre private channels, pre DTH era of television, which can best be described as the antenna era of television, the era when it was routine to turn the antenna towards to right direction to catch the best signals. The most sophisticated TV sets were considered those black &white Crown or Weston TV sets that had sliding doors in front to push behind in order to open the screen. However, following the extraordinary success of the Ramayana re-run, the DD is virtually dusting off their entire library from Chanakyato Circus for a re-telecast (which can also be described as the ‘Covid-casting’). And DD, after decades, is busy again. One must admit that DD had all the reasons to re-telecast the most famous and popular TV programmes they had ever made at this particular time when they have a huge audience practically sitting inside home 24X7.

Keeping politics aside, the re-telecast of the Ramayana has other significance too. It was a big bet for the DD to get some of their audience back, if not for anything else but at least it has some nostalgic value; or to create a new generation of viewers who would, otherwise, watch anything but DD. In fact, DD is, practically, a long forgotten channel. The bouquet of DD channels still exists not because they are having a great viewership but because the government has a sizeable budget for the channels to keep running. During the UPA era, in order to bring back the audience, there was a policy that the DD would telecast the programmes of ‘national importance’ which, thankfully, included the ODI cricket matches played by India as programmes of ‘national importance’ too and, therefore, the private broadcasters with the TV rights in hand, bought against humongous amount, were compelled to grudgingly share the feed with DD. But the government channel had soon realised that mere getting the telecast right by force was not enough, it required some other innovations and investments too. Without HD resolution, a very impressive panel of commentators and experts, the viewers would go for more glitzy private sports channels rather than getting meekly hooked to DD. Besides the advertisement run in the DD telecast of the matches were almost obscenely crowded; when all channels would run ads between every over, the DD would run the ads after every delivery and keep a very tight window open to watch the last action of the bowler releasing the ball and the batsman taking his shots, and before the ball even reaches the gloves of the wicket keeper the ads begin. It was this atrocious.

Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, which was India’s satellite television era’s first generation product, produced in the late 80s, not only apparently looks incongruous as a TV product in the current context but also in terms of technical quality it is so naïve and practically out of date. In those days for the young audience as well as the old ones the stiff chariots without a semblance of movement flying in the sky, the two arrows coming from either side towards each other and vanishing against some loud patterns of flickering lights were ultimate television experiences. People would laugh at such stunts in today`s time. The overall treatment of the production is like that of a Ramlila in any average village than a decent cinematic production in the real sense of the term. Earlier we did not notice, but now it is obvious to make out, that most of the settings of the royal palaces of Lanka and Ayodhyaare made of hard card board cut outs loosely fitted, that the windows are mostly against the crude paintings of landscapes to give the impression of distant mountains and trees etc., that there is a kind of a modern painting used as the wall décor in Mandodari’s bed room and also most of the actors, barring a very few, acted as if they were casually performing their dress rehearsals. It had hardly anything to qualify for a commercial TV release in the twenty-first century. But despite all this, if we go by various portals, the DD Ramayana is the biggest lockdown hit.

Earlier, on those Sundays, during the Ramayana time, most places including the big cities and villages would remain mostly deserted, were actually on virtual lockdown. And now during this period of real lockdown, despite having endless options to surf over with the remote in hands, the old Ramayana days are effectively back. I remember how we would gather at our uncle’s on every Sunday morning along with friends and the full families from the neighbourhood to watch the show.  Reportedly, among all the channels, the DD Ramayana at present is enjoying the highest TRP. It has brought the family viewing of TV back again. Quite significantly, this has become one of the most popular programmes for the children too.

Interestingly, even during the commercial breaks, they are showing the old ad films of the products including Amul, Nirma and also Donear suiting though I am not sure whether this textile brand is still in the market or not. Since the old DD serials became new hits, including the Mahabharata, Alif Laila and also Buniyad, for the first time the other private channels are now, literally, running for their money. They are truly facing tough competition from their most unlikely contender, Doordarshan. Many of them are also re-running their versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to catch up with the invincible rise of DD. Star TV is re-running their 2015 Siyake Ram which is a gaudily opulent production with the huge settings like gigantic and magnificent Baroque structures from Rome, with the ambience more corporate than mythic, with the costumes of the characters almost offensively medievalist, full of shine and glitter and with the typical saas-bahu syndrome of tactlessly emphasising too much on some moral clichés. But evidently people prefer the old Ramlila version of DD’s Ramayana to the swanky, VFX generated modular extravaganza of Star TV’s Siyake Ram. The Star TV Ramayana is more shiny and grand yet, the DD Ramayana reflects a kind of honesty and innocence what the sleek and plush Ramayana of Star TV with the characters, with well-muscled and chiselled body, comes nowhere near ArunGovil’s calm rendition of Rama and Arvind Trivedi’s very dramatic and almost theatrical enactment of Ravana. This time the DD Ramayana remains the winner between the two.

At least I have observed my own kids, who are in their primary and high school levels, would eagerly look at the clock to verify the Ramayana timing of the DD. I am sure it must be the scenario in many other households too. It is quite a paradox though that the small kids and the youngsters in their early teens are growing up just the way their parents did, with almost the similar amount of excitement and emotions, watching the same thing on television, on the same channel that their parents did exactly some three decades ago. Now I am eagerly waiting for the repeat telecast of Bharat EkKhoj. Will they?

The author teaches at NEHU, Shillong, and is a writer commentator on current and cultural issues.

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