India's Marathon Epic
Transcending time and place, `The Mahabharata' is long - very long - on plot, but short on character development. FILM: REVIEW
NEW YORK — BEFORE it became a movie, ``The Mahabharata'' was the theater event of the last decade: a nine-hour extravaganza based on an ancient Indian epic of enormous length and scope. Adapted for the stage by director Peter Brook and writer Jean-Claude Carri`ere, it had its first performances in a French rock quarry, then toured Europe and visited the United States about three years ago. Since it was greeted with excitement wherever it went, talk about a film version didn't take long to develop. Never one to do things halfway, Mr. Brook has assembled two editions of ``The Mahabharata'' on film - one about six hours long, intended mainly for television, and one just under three hours long. The shorter edition is now on-screen in the United States, traveling to one city at a time in ``special event'' showings.
As a literary work, ``The Mahabharata'' is profoundly Indian, written in Sanskrit more than 2,000 years ago and said to be the basis of Hindu culture. Yet the movie, like the play before it, is a very international production - directed by Brook, an Englishman, from a screenplay he wrote with Carri`ere and Marie-Hel`ene Estienne, both French authors. The main performers come from Brook's theater group, the International Center of Theater Research, which is based in Paris but has members from 36 different countries.
The story of ``The Mahabharata'' also transcends any particular place or time. The portions included in the film represent just a tiny fraction of the entire Hindu poem, which - the movie's distributor helpfully informs us - is 10 to 15 times as long as the Bible, or eight times longer than the ``Iliad'' and the ``Odyssey'' put together.
Not surprisingly, this enormous epic has a long and complicated plot even in its condensed motion-picture form. It's narrated by two individuals: a storyteller who also takes part in the action, and a scribe who has an elephant's head on a human body. Their tale, on the most basic level, is about two rival families struggling for control of the known world over a very long period of time.
I first saw ``The Mahabharata'' onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, all nine hours of it in one marathon session. I was very impressed by its ambition and scale, but I can't say it moved me the way a true masterpiece does. In some important ways, ``The Mahabharata'' is very similar to Indian music: Just as an Indian raga is all melody, with little in the way of harmony or modulation, ``The Mahabharata'' is all story - moving endlessly from one incident to another, but rarely pausing to develop themes or characters in depth.
This is an ancient and valid form of narrative art, with precedents (such as ``The Thousand Nights and a Night,'' perhaps the most famous example) stretching back for centuries. But it requires that a modern Western audience adjust its expectations in radical ways, especially with regard to the expanded use of time and the comparative lack of a familiar psychological dimension.
Every individual spectator will have to decide whether ``The Mahabharata'' offers aesthetic and intellectual dividends great enough to reward this effort. For me, the answer is only a partial yes.
The movie, like the play, has moments of great beauty and drama. Yet it often failed to engage me as its episodes succeeded one another like grains of sand through an ancient Indian hourglass.
The film version is certainly more compact than its stage counterpart, however, and portions of it are strikingly effective as they express the story's mixture of human and supernatural elements with their own combination of vivid performances and elaborate studio settings. I'll add that all the moments I remember most clearly from the theatrical production are included in the three-hour film version - which has passages of rich and compelling artistry, even if it doesn't have the high level of multicultural excitement for which one might have hoped.