A Shakespearean Mahabharata with Peter Brook
While I give credit to Peter Brook for managing the difficult task of compressing the essentials of the Mahabharata into a five hour movie, the movie-drama left me desiring a lot more. For a Westerner to make a play out of the Mahabharata was always going to be difficult, and though Brook undoubtedly put in a lot of effort into it, it was far from perfect.
Peter Brook's idea of starring international artists impressed me. Brook's idea was to give the impression that he was not telling the story of just a couple of kingdoms of India, but the story of the entire world. Indeed, the anthropological distribution of India must have been a lot diverse before the 400-800 year span during which the Mahabharata was composed. India must have had a lot of different tribes - Huns, Sakas, Kushanas etc., each with different a physique and a different facial feature. However, having an international cast does have its challenges - some of which Brook made no attempts at overcoming. The least he could have done was to give his actors a short course on Sanskrit pronounciation. In fact, the pronounciation of Indian names was so bad, that at one point of the play, that even the person who wrote the official sub-titles for the DVD wasn't able to understand it - the actor was uttering Bramha's name, while the sub-title read Rama.
We can forgive Peter Brook on the grounds that the primary spectators he was targetting were all Westerners, more used to Brook's Shakespearean productions. Indeed, it hardly seemed like an Indian tale, rather like an attempt at creating a Shakespearean drama. Soliloquis, short and long, filled the play. Amba's apparition to Bhishma reminded one of the Apparition of his father seen by Hamlet. At times, the costume was reminiscent of the Greek tragedies. And indeed, in crafting Karna's character, Brook may have attempted a half-hearted Shakespearan tragedy. While all of the above may be pardonable, what, in my view is unpardonable, was that Brook tried to so much make a Shakespearean play out of the Mahabharata that he even inserted Shakespeare like crude humour into his play. This is something I find completely unjustifiable - Shakespeare had to insert crude humour into his plays for the benefit of the groundlings of the Globe and Blackfrairs, but Brook's receivers are likely to be more educated.
There is some fresh breath in this play, that is a welcome break from the stale air of most of the Indian productions of Mahabharata. The costumes are more simple, less gaudy and more realistic. Most of the battle was dramatized without resort to the bitter-tasting computer graphics. Karna's tragedy is very well highlighted - something many reproductions of the Mahabharata failed to do (especially CR's Mahabharata).
While it is common for directors to take liberty with Shakespeare's plays, whether pardonable or not, hacking and hewing what Shakespeare wrote, bending the plot a little here and there, cutting a few lines there, a scene here, a soliloquy there; such twisting and turning of an epic like the Mahabharata may not be acceptable and may be seen as a cardinal sin. After all, aren't you trying to tell an ancient tale to a Western audience who has never heard it? And if this is the case, then is it not your duty to be factually correct? I was shocked to see that in his play it was Vyasa, and not Vidura (in fact Vidura hadn't been introduced at all - obviously, Brook didn't want to confuse his Western audience with too many characters, and made do with whatever characters he already had), and this is unforgivable.
Another shortcoming of this play was that it failed to depict that the Mahabharata was not just a war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, but it was a war in which the entire Indian nation took part - right from Afghanistan (Gandhara) to Manipur and Burma. I feel that depicting this aspect was very important, as this was something that could have touched a chord in the hearts of the Western audience Brook was targeting, since his audience would have experienced something similar during the first and second world wars. In fact, this book wouldn't be called the Mahabharata (or Great India) if the entire Indian sub-continent hadn't taken part in it. Mahabharata not only tells (allegorically) the political history of India, but also tells the social and economic history, and while Brook covered a part of the political history, covering the socio-economic history in a five hour production was near impossible and he can't be blamed for not covering it.
I liked the way the play ended profoundly referring to the final illusion. Most Indian productions would have saffronized this, but not being trained earlier, allowed Brook to interpret this in a broader sense.
You have known neither paradise nor hell. Here there is no happiness, no punishment, no family, no enemies. Rise in tranquility. This is the last illusion.
Brook's exploitation of the Rabindra Sangeet style of music is also interesting and adds a charm to the production.
There weren't many Indian actors in the production - in fact only one who had a major role - Mallika Sarabhai played Draupadi. Her performance was marked with a couple of brilliant scenes, but the rest of it was mediocre. There were good performances from the characters of Krishna, Duryodhana, Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Gandhari, and Karna (aided by fluent soliloquies, the best of all).
At the end, I'd like to say that it was not a bad attempt, but Brook's Shakespearean legacy let him down. He could have done a lot better, had he not tried to invent a Shakeaspearan drama out of the Mahabharata.