A newly launched film magazine in Mumbai wanted to hit the stands with a bang. It wanted some unusual story that would make it the talking point in media circles. In this quest, the enterprising editor discovered that some films were becoming jubilee hits outstripping the creative works of famed actors, scriptwriters and composers based in this hub of the film industry. It was a time when the best talent from pre-partition Lahore had gravitated here, and Urdu poets and veteran actors of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association had all joined them. Great musicians had also chipped in, contributing their melodies and composed riveting background music. All the same, there seemed to be another genre of films that had been running for months and years across the vast countryside, what are called the ‘jubilee hits’ that defied all logic.
The veteran correspondent assigned the job of solving this mystery knew almost all the great actors of the Hindi film world, distributors and financiers. He made some discreet inquiries towards solving this puzzle. What he discovered was quite a revelation. He found out, and he was also told as well, that the average film goer was not interested in tragic metaphysical themes, or existential problems, but they were glued to those stories they could identify with, they and their families, that would tug at their collective heart strings. These movies, sprawling undivided family sagas, were appropriately titled Sautela Bhai,Bhabhi ki Choodiyan and Dil ek Mandir.
He also came to understand, and this was another surprise, that most of these films were not made in Mumbai, the traditional hub of the industry, but in an unlikely place in the south, Hyderabad. That fabled city of Nizams had a flourishing Telugu film industry, but producing Hindi films there seemed even more intriguing. It was also revealed that these were being funded by tobacco tycoons. The plot was getting thicker.
These enterprising tobacco cultivators from Guntur in the coastal Andhra Pradesh region were some of the richest in the entire country and the surplus money from bumper harvest was invariably diverted into making these films. These tycoons also built palatial houses in Guntur, with swimming pools in front and ornate winding staircases from the drawing rooms and marble statues in the gardens. All this opulence was primarily meant for film shoots. It was how these movies came to be made in that city. Since most of the tobacco that was grown was exported to the then Soviet Union, which used to make bulk purchases, these bungalows were also used for the hospitality that was lavished on state-owned purchase missions from that country when they came to clinch the deals.
The producers were also clever; instead of hiring famous actors of the time like Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, they opted for actors with modest talents and ambitions. Rajendra Kumar was one of the favourites of these money-spinners and he later came to be known as ‘Jubilee Kumar’ because of the number of jubilee hits he had acted in.
But even these factors did not fully explain why the films made there came to be such great hits. One of the producers ultimately revealed the secret; it was because of the script. Without it, neither the Guntur swimming pool nor the lavish hospitality of the tobacco tycoons would have worked the magic. The allure of the script was irresistible. The veteran journalist also soon figured out that these scripts were being written not in Hyderabad or Bombay but, of all places, in Madras, where the anti-Hindi sentiments had been quite strong even long after the language agitations had died down.
He also came to know that these scripts were written by just two persons in Madras. He took a flight to Madras and headed towards the suburb where these two people were put up at a lodge, located in a suburb called Thousand Lights, a bustling business area with a beautiful mosque in the centre with thousand lights; hence the name.
He tracked down the lodge. These were basically one-room rented lodges where visitors to the city usually stayed for the day and returned after transacting business. Finally, he found the two men, in vests and lungis, sitting on the floor of their bare room and scribbling away in Tamil on foolscap paper and smoking bidis and sipping tea brought from the shop below. They also had a stalk of small bananas which they gobbled at intervals. That was their lunch and dinner.
After introducing himself – the duo was familiar with the Bombay scribes and the film world – he asked the question he had been asking all along. How do you script a jubilee hit? What is the secret, or is there a formula?
One of writers, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, took a long puff at the bidi, and paused and shot at the scribe a question. “Which is the best seller in India?” He was all the more intrigued and could not unravel the puzzle. The writer then said probably he belonged to the urban new generation and from the big city and convent educated and that was why he might not have guessed it. He said the all-time bestseller in the country is, hold your breath, the Ramayana. Coming from a diehard atheist and one who had revolted against the imposition of the hegemony of the North Indian Aryan gods and the epics and their language, this was even more startling. He paused dramatically and started to explain. The simple linear story that Valmiki composed, and Kamban retold, contains all the ingredients that can pull at the heart strings of everyone in the family across the world. It has, among others, a complicated family saga, a scheming mother- in-law, four siblings from three wives, a carrier of tales, (this was before the investigative journalism had come up as also round the clock television news) there are the supernatural elements and there are animals and birds that can talk and scheme and tug at the heart-strings, like the squirrel and dancing baby elephants.
You name it the epic has all the plots you can conceive of. No wonder in whatever form it has been presented it has always been a sure-fire crowd puller, as puppet shows in Bali or dance drama in Thailand or month-long travelling theatre in towns like Rampur, the story has a universality that seems to defy logic.
The Ramayana story has travelled beyond the shores and changed its plots and absorbed the indigenous elements and kept on innovating. The poet AK Ramanujam probably erred on the wrong side; there were not three hundred variations of the epic but probably 30,000. Just as Hanuman who looked for the ring for identification that he had lost while crossing the Rama Sethu, found, when he looked into the seabed, 10,000 rings. If you search for literal meanings in epics that are all the time evolving and adding karma you are in for such miscalculations, you will run in circles.
When Buddhism spread to Japan the epic also travelled piggy back with some variations in the script. Here there is no Hanuman and, in another variant written in the 14th century it is the youngest son who has been exiled. In a third variant Rama is a flute player who escapes with his abducted wife Sita while her captor Ravana was away hunting. There are deep convergences between the two protagonist characters of Ravana and Ram elsewhere.
In China the earliest reference to the epic is found in a Buddhist text. But unlike in Japan here Hanuman makes an appearance in a sixteenth century novel as a popular fictional monkey king character. The epic spread to Tibet from there as another variant. It is Bharata who accompanies Rama into exile and not Lakshmana. When it comes to Malaysia there is another version in the relationship between Ravana (Maharaja Wana) and Sita (Sita Dewi) who becomes the biological father and daughter. In the Thai variation the abduction of Sita is presented sympathetically as an act of love and his fall is depicted with sadness. In Cambodia and Laos and Myanmar and the Philippines the epic undergoes as many variations as you can conjure up.
Receiving the life time award for his contribution to the Hindi industry while later, poet and script writer Jawed Akhtar said in his acceptance speech that while he appreciated all the technological innovations and colour and sound effects that had been introduced in the films now and they were more slick and technologically perfect, he suggested that they should give some more stress to the script. That seemed to be somewhat lacking in modern productions.
According to a familiar American theory, there are only two plots for novels and films: One, a stranger comes to town and the other, you embark on a journey to a strange country. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, the coloured woman comes to a tense town that is in the thick of racial violence; and in Franz Kafka’s Castle the hero has not left for the castle but is in the long process of venturing out.
The two script writers at Thousand Lights were CN Annadurai and Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the duo spearheaded the Dravidian movement in the late fifties that decimated the Congress Party from Tamil Nadu in 1967 after the anti-Hindi agitation.
Father Camille Bulcke, a Belgian Jesuit Priest, who came to India in the forties of the last century was among those who were so fascinated by Tulsidas’ version, the Ramcharit Manas, that he learnt the language and wrote his doctoral thesis on the epic at Allahabad University in Hindi. That was the first time the university in this ‘Paris of the East’ was accepting a doctoral thesis written in the vernacular language. He was later honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1974 for his services to the Hindi language.
This Christian padre, a familiar figure on his cycle, was respected as a kathavachak (epic narrator) in the vast Bihar countryside for extolling the virtues of Sunderkand. He was equally fascinated by the lyrical poetry of Tulsidas’s epic in Awadhi, written in a devotional style and always spoke of the multiple ways in which the story of Rama has been imagined and recited across times and cultures. He had also pointed out the diverse versions of the epic in Tibetan, Odyia, Bengali, Kashmiri Buddhist and Jain and its many South Indian variants.
But all good things do not last. Sometime in the late seventies Bombay got its voice and rhythm back, with the release of the blockbuster, Sholay, a violent and action-packed film with brutal murders and riveting dialogue. The cynical psychopath, Gabar Singh, with his sneer and monologue, became the all-time money spinner. His query, ‘Kitne admi the…’ was the most quoted line, played out during wedding receptions and welcoming political leaders, and even Harvard scholars deconstructed its significance and number crunchers worked out its hidden messages. The crack film writer team was also invited to that prestigious US campus in honour of this artistic production.
The mild Ram acted by the wooden faced Rajinder Kumar, or the earlier tragic heroes of films like Devadas, Dilip Kumar, or the tragi-comic Raj Kapoor were replaced by the angry young men like Amitabh Bachchan with this avatar. The film initially ran into censorship troubles and only intervention from the highest quarters made its release possible. Throughout most of the eighties it spawned a whole set of violent gangster movies set against the volcanic rock face of the arid Deccan plateau that were patterned on this cult film.
It must be just a coincidence that the mid-eighties were also a time of turbulence, reminding one ominously of Orwell’s 1984, and the film unwittingly reflected that. By the end of that decade though that toughness and cynicism seemed to have lost steam and fizzled out. It would seem that humans are unable to sustain such anger and hatred for a long time and nature always pines for the more enduring gentle and compassionate responses.
It was thus in the late 1980s during the Rajiv Gandhi regime that the locks of the temple in Ayodhya got opened and Ramanand Sagar’s television serial on the Ramayana began to hit the screens of drawing rooms across the country.
This created such a craze that train drivers would halt at railway stations till the serial show was over, and the roads in most cities would be empty as though a curfew was clamped when these were being screened during the weekends. It was reportedly popular even in Lahore where people used to watch it stealthily. Rama’s exile for almost a decade had ended.
But that didn’t last with the rath rolling across the country and led to the demolition at Ayodhya. Rama and his consort again went into exile to the Dandakaranya forest that had already been transformed by development and the whole topography had changed. There were squirrels there alright and they had the three stripes on their back alright but where were the sal or mahua trees that were the favourite of Sita. And where were the baby elephants this consort of the exiled prince could play with and watch their pranks?
It is not surprising that the Ramayana serials are now being telecast again, after two decades, to a new generation of viewers, cloistered inside homes due to the pandemic that has caused a lockdown, who have overgrown the slow pace of that era of movies and are familiar with the digital world of slick action and faster pace. The recasting of the Ramayana, in the faded colour of a technology that had become obsolete, has come in for much ridicule and even abuse and it is being mocked as a pushback towards a backward-looking agenda.
And yet the spell of Rama seems to follow a cycle, always making a comeback.