An epic fail

So, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the upcoming Baahubali has made more waves than the 1958 mega-tsunami in Alaska. Its grandiose visuals aside, I found something else particularly fascinating — the rootedness of its story. In a recent interview, its director, Rajamouli, mentioned being a huge admirer of the Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and spoke of their influence on his work.This brought me to the question — why isn’t the current generation as aware of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as the previous ones? This question is also partly triggered by the rising number of people around me who seem to confuse the assassination of Vaali with the death of the evil Ajith Kumar twin in an S. J. Suryah film. Admittedly, there aren’t any surveys done on the seemingly reduced interest in Indian mythology, engaged as organisations are with undertaking surveys on other important topics — do women prefer men with chest hair? In any case, who needs surveys done on a negligible sample population when you have a fair number of anecdotes, as I do of grandparents who, these days, are being taught to use smart phones and tablets by their grandchildren? I remember that whatever assistance I provided to my grandfather concerned a different kind of tablet.

Two decades ago though, it was quite the routine for grandparents to recite to their grandchildren the Mahabharata and the Ramayana — a way of life that has all but disappeared.

So, what’s the big commotion? As Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces , a book that discusses the journey of the archetypal hero in world mythologies, succinctly put it, “Myth is more important than history.” It is through them that we make sense of our world. It is a biological need even. The reward centres of our brains are known to be activated when exposed to a great story that piques curiosity — yes, the same area that also gets activated by drugs, alcohol and gambling. That’s why a restless child turns calm as a summer sea when told one. What greater stories than our two epics which were so created (partly through centuries of oral recounting) that even while they entertain, they pass on values subliminally. Even the small story of a side character like Ekalavya inculcates belief that so long as you dedicate yourself to an ideal, you can achieve it, no matter how ill-equipped you seemingly are.

Grant Morrison, the writer of the Batman and Superman comics, observed that the Mahabharata holds universal appeal. And how many regional stories can we say that about? While I’m usually not that guy who whines himself hoarse about the decadence of India’s ‘culture’, it is hard not to feel a sense of loss when you know that youngsters today cherish the revenge of Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill , but aren’t even aware of the immeasurable sacrifices made by Shakuni to get his. The educational aspects of our epics be damned, but surely, at least for their limitless entertainment? After all, just teeny, tiny parts of Karna’s story, when adapted contemporarily, became Thalapathy .

But in a competitive age such as ours, perhaps there isn’t enough time. After all, even Tamil films are getting shorter by the day. Parents have also, for their part, seemingly found a more efficient system to keep sobbing children at bay, courtesy the smartphone. “A story? Wait, have you tried Angry Birds?” What competition is the valiance of the eagle, Jatayu, from Ramayana, when pitted against the charms of wingless avians catapulted at grunting pigs?

Perhaps, people are also becoming less efficient storytellers. “Once upon a time, there was… wait, my phone’s ringing. So, where was I? Yes, there was a king called… Hang on. Somebody has tagged me on a picture…” You get the idea. Of course, all this is not to say that what you get in the Mahabharata, you won’t get anywhere else. But as Vyasa himself said in the opening passages of the epic, “What is found here, may be found elsewhere. But what is not found here, will not be found elsewhere.” The joy of hearing a well-told story from one of the two epics is a matchless experience. No, not even a really good Dubsmash video can compare.

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