The Mahabharata


Reviewed by: Gary Duncan

With a title like The Mahabharata , which means The Great History of Mankind in Sanskrit, you know you're going to be in for a bit of a marathon, so it's hardly surprising that this sweeping drama comes in at a bottom-numbing 312 minutes. What is surprising is that it doesn't feel that long. A little pruning here and there wouldn't have gone amiss, but director and co-writer Peter Brook still manages to pull it off and hold your attention to the end.

The story is based on a two-thousand-year-old Indian epic poem that runs to 100,000 verses, making it four times longer than the Bible and seven times longer than the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. Boiled down, it can be seen as a simple tale of rivalry between warring members of the same family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, but it's so much more than that, taking in religion, philosophy, spiritualism, war, love, life and death. Brook and long-time writing collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere originally produced a nine-hour stage production of the epic in the early Eighties, before "re-imagining" it as a five-hour TV drama, a three-hour cinema release and this two-disk, five-hour DVD version.

All very worthy and well-intentioned, but is it any good? That depends on whether or not you like five-hour Indian epics. Call me a masochist but I did enjoy the DVD cut, though it does have to be viewed in bite-size chunks, which is fine because the DVD version is broken down into three feature-length "chapters". Only those of a strong constitution would be advised to watch the whole lot in one go.

Brook and Carriere deserve credit for distilling the original into something manageable, even at five hours plus, but the rambling plot could have been streamlined further. There are 16 main characters, each with their own story, and the non-linear narrative is weighed down by a labyrinth of subplots, digressions and a bewildering array of voices and perspectives. This can be confusing, but it also frees the film from the normal constraints of 90-minute filmmaking. Vyasa (Robert Langdon Lloyd), the narrator, not only retells the story but also appears in it himself, often going back in time to emerge as an old man in his own family's story.

Brook has a lot to say, but he takes his time. The story is what matters and everything else is secondary to it. The sets are simple and theatrical and the climactic battle scenes stagy and tame compared to the visceral excitement of films such as Troy and The Lord Of The Rings.

But this is a film about humanity and to that end Brook uses a diverse cast of international actors and actresses. Mercifully there is no attempt to speak the local tongue - English actors have English accents, French actors have French accents, African actors have African accents, and so on. It's a mish-mash, but it works.

There are also some nice touches of the surreal and the fantastic. Vyasa narrates his story to a young boy in the company of the demi-god Ganesha, a half-man, half-elephant deity who quietly transcribes the story like a dutiful secretary. As with other epics, such as the Odyssey and the Iliad, the gods and goddesses play a central role in events - one woman is impregnated by the sun, another by the wind.

This is definitely not a film for the casual viewer who just wants to tune in and chill out for an hour or two. It requires an open mind and a fair amount of stamina, not to mention a comfy chair. But it does deserve to be seen.

Reviewed on: 15 Jul 2005
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Marathon drama based on an Indian epic poem about rivalries in a family.
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Director: Peter Brook

Writer: Jean-Claude Carriere, Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne

Starring: Erika Alexander, Maurice Benichou, Amba Bihler, Ryszard Cieslak, Georges Corraface, Robert Langdon Lloyd

Year: 1989

Runtime: 312 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK/France


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