Bring up screen versions of Mahabharat and the first reference is always to BR Chopra’s 1988 TV series, which became essential Sunday-morning viewing for most of the country in the late 1980s. Crores were spent on production of the epic TV series, an unheard-of sum at the time. Actor Firoz Khan became labelled so indelibly as Arjun that the Muslim actor even changed his name to that of the Hindu epic character. It took Indian television more than two decades to emerge from the shadow of Chopra’s epic production, with another rendition hitting small screens only this year. Hedging its bets, Bollywood stayed away from it altogether.
Any new version of the Mahabharat, then, piques one’s interest — lack of publicity notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, director Amaan Khan’s animated version is a tepid retelling, released strategically during vacation time so that it might keep the kids occupied for an afternoon — provided there’s enough popcorn to go around. Touted as India’s ‘most expensive animated film’, it was created on a budget of Rs. 50 crore. Yet the face-mapping and background rendering are more FIFA 2001 video game than state-of-the-art Pixar or Disney.
The face-mapping does bring in a stellar cast. It’s amusing to see a muscular Amitabh Bachchan as Bheeshm, a Singham-style handlebar moustache-sporting Ajay Devgn as Arjun, and Sunny Deol as Bheem (tubewell replaced with mace, the casting is spot-on). But though the faces are accurate, the animation limits the characters’ ability to emote. While most sport consistently stoic expressions, Draupadi’s is the most unfortunate — she looks like a version of Vidya Balan after a bad lip job.
Good animation needn’t necessarily be about the computer-graphics imagery. Films such as Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir were deeply moving without being cutting-edge. Mahabharat, sadly, lacks more than technical prowess; it lacks imagination. It is an over-simplified, children’s-book version of the epic tale. Abridged, the vast storyline feels hurried and abrupt in its running time of 125 minutes.
One can only hope for a better version of the epic someday. One on the scale and grandeur of The Lord of the Rings series, with Amitabh Bachchan still playing Bheeshm.