1989, 5 1/2 hours
It may seem odd to be re-familiarising oneself on a sacred epic through a European trans-creation in a foreign language when one is born into the language of the original. This is the stuff of one's upbringing mingled with the anglican sprinklings which is the educational fare of many of us here. One of the reasons would be length and availability since the alternative is B.R.Chopra's TV series which adds up to seventy hours. Brook's film has come in for indignant disapproval from Pradip Bhattacharya for it's compression, a few deviations from the text and most of all a failure to treat it as a larger than life epic--for not treating it as reverentially as he would have liked. To quote:
Brook's film is not a portrayal of a titanic clash between the forces of good and evil, which is the stuff of the epic. Nor is it even the depiction of the fratricidal struggle for Empire that sucks into its vortex armies from outside India's borders, spanning far more than the land between the two rivers Ganga and Yamuna. It is not even a picture of a battle of princes. The crores of Indians do not hold dear to their hearts the story of the warring progeny of some rustic landlord, which is that we see in Brook's celluloid version.
Brook's version may not be as titanic as the reviewer would like but it is titanic enough. After all, isn't Mahabharata meant to depict the war which goes on in our souls and it to portray it on the lines of say Oliver Stone's Alexander would reduce it to a juvenile and noisy spectacle? On the other hand he does portray it as a powerful human drama of good and evil and one can relate to the conflicts in the hearts of the characters. Brook has been sensitive and respectful and aware that the epic touches on the religious sensibilities of a subcontinent and it's diaspora. As Bhattacharya says, it is a scripture rich in philosophical and ethical insights and the director has projected much of it understandably and without distortion. Brook's movie may be lacking in length and breadth, or costly expansive sets on the lines of Holly or Bollywood blockbusters, but it is not lacking in depth or maturity. The battle scenes, for example, have been of necessity been shown symbolically. But haven't we had more than enough of special effects and fake grandiosity? Surely the essence lies beyond sound and fury? Literature, philosophy and faith are not bound by linguistic, political or racial boundaries.
The international and multiracial cast speaking in a multitude of accents is one of the attractions which lifts it far above a costume drama, enabling it to focus on the universal human truths which this great masterpiece (if one may be allowed to use the word for something which is beyond the literary) reveals. All the players seem to be seasoned stage actors and they make up for whatever lack of props or stage effects there might be. A Cecil de Mille or Cameron type of film might have been more titanic but I believe Peter Brook has created a leaner and more meaningful movie which comes close to the guts of the original, more than the B R Chopra serial which scores in pomp and show and theatricality. After all., great books are a universal resource, and the movie has an international flavour.
He has certainly brought the Mahabharata alive for me again.