Time travel: Mahabharat actors reveal memorable facts about the cult show

Mahabharat — Ant Ya Aarambh is an 11 episode animated series that was released on November 13, 2020 on SonyLIV. It takes a critical look at the role of Pandavas, putting them under scrutiny, instead of the Kauravas. 2013 had seen two retellings of the epic, one in the form of an animated film in theatres and the other as a TV series on Star Plus. But it is always the 1988 TV series Mahabharat, created by BR Chopra, which comes to our minds when we think of the epic.

During the lockdown, Doordarshan brought back many of their old shows on TV, including the original Mahabharat, which garnered record ratings. I, too, re-watched the entire series and was transported back to the days when Harish Bhimani’s voice as Samay (Time) would give us the background before each episode, with a narration that was akin to what we refer to as ‘meditation music’ nowadays. Grand sets greeted me with impressive costumes and long, wisdom filled dialogues. And, of course, the battle scenes with numerous arrows that filled our screens. Thirty-two years after it was first aired, I spoke to some of the show’s most memorable characters.

Harish Bhimani had been a newscaster at Bombay Doordarshan for seven years, which is why people recognised it was him voicing Time (samay). “People had stopped calling me by my name, they would call me Samay. A journalist friend of mine would call his wife and jokingly say, ‘I’m sorry, tell them I can’t talk to them now, because I don’t have Harish Bhimani (Time)’, and this friend had also named his son Samay,” says Bhimani.

Bhimani explains that the character of Samay became an icon “because it was written extremely well and also because it wasn’t just comment, it was commentary.”

Gufi Paintal, who played the role of the wicked uncle Shakuni, was also the production designer, associate director and casting director for the show. It took him 10 months for the entire casting process and it was quite a tough time, with 3500-4000 people auditioning for the various roles. Due to Shakuni’s crooked character, and Paintal’s successful portrayal, there were both people who hated and loved him. There were times when some of his fans threatened him that if he didn’t end the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas in the upcoming week’s episode, they break his other leg too (Shakuni’s character walked with a limp).

The legendary Kurukshetra battle scenes were filmed very close to Jaipur. “It had become difficult to find a place without any lamppost or electric poles because there weren’t supposed to be any electrical connections at that time, since this was 5000 years ago. We located a village 40 km away to shoot the scenes, and lakhs of people would come to see us, as a pilgrimage. There was nothing but barren land then, which later on became a township. The close ups with dialogues were shot back in Mumbai, only the long shots were taken here,” says Paintal.

But what did Paintal think of the 2013 Mahabharat TV series? “Technically, they are very sound, but unfortunately the writing is very weak. People have an image of certain characters from calendars and Mahabharat and Ramayan have been going on for generations in the theatre. So in trying to make the serial modern, they lost the authenticity of the tale. You cannot modernize history right? Woh humara ateet hai.”

“We had scholars and historians who were involved in the writing of the serial. For the new series, if they get a 25-year-old to write, then obviously there would be a lot of difference in your end product. Also we had plenty of time, we started planning from 1984 and the show made a debute on October 2, 1988. At any given time we had a bank of 20 episodes which had already been shot. Nowadays they shoot today and the episode is released tomorrow. We had veterans making content at that time while in the current scenario there are youngsters who ask, ‘Can we have a meeting with Munshi Premchand?’,” laughs Paintal.

The yodhas (warriors) were one of the other highlights of the series. “People put their children on my lap and asked me to bless them. A lot of children were named Arjun and Karan since they were great warriors,” says Pankaj Dheer, who portrayed Karan. “Nobody had any idea it would be a hit. This is all predestined. Who knew a movie like Mughal-e-Azam would be such a landmark film? Who knew Sholay would run for five years or DDLJ would still be running in Maratha Mandir? That is the beauty of art, you do a sincere job, and then the people decide its fate. The Mona Lisa painting is still loved today and people still go and see it in France,” says Dheer.

The magnum opus required actors to wear heavy costumes. And Dheer has tales to tell of that as well. “The kavach (armour), which I used to wear, was made of iron. It used to literally burn my chest while we shot in the sun...it was like a steaming iron. I used to put a cloth in between to safeguard myself. Even the mukut (crown) we wore would be around 2.5 kilos and it would feel as if we were wearing pressure cookers on our heads,” he says.

Taking us back in time, Dheer recounts a ‘life or death’ moment during the filming. “I was in a rath (chariot) and the saarthi (charioteer) was an actual horse rider. We had to make it go fast, and during that the middle portion broke and the horses ran off in one direction and the other half with me started going the other way. The guy who was sitting in the middle fell down and came under the wheel, which went over his rib cage, smashing it. The half which I was in was going towards a valley. I said to myself if I have to survive and live, I have to jump, since there's no way I can control this. So with my dhoti, mukut and everything on I jumped out of the rath, while the rath went down the valley. It was a sort of second life for me.”

Kiran Juneja, who played the role of Ganga, was part of the very first episode of Mahabharat. But that was not the original role she was first approached for. “It’s a very peculiar story. I was in touch with Chopra ji for a film, which had not started at that stage. Then I started shooting for Buniyaad. After about a month, I got a call from him saying he had a great role for me as Gandhari in Mahabharat, but I told him it wasn’t possible for me to shoot for two serials. He called again saying he had another small role for which people would always remember me. And I shot for the role as Ganga. Later, I got another call where he said they wanted to bring my character back at times because people loved it. Of course, when we did shoot those scenes where I return to meet my son Bheeshma (Mukesh Khanna), I hadn’t aged but my son had!” says Juneja. Her character was respected so much that old people would come and touch her feet, embarrassing her in the process.

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