Friday, March 2, 2018

Agnivarsha: Girish Karnad's twisted version of a Mahabharata story part-1

Time teaches you a lot. It gives you an understanding to view, from a different angle, things that you once appreciated. Age gives you maturity enough to appreciate both good and bad aspects of things you liked when you were only a child.
Agnivarsha -- film by Arjun Sajnani, based on play by Girish Karnad

I was a fan of the 2002 film Agni Varsha, which was based on a play by Girish Karnad and was directed by Arjun Sajnani. When I first watched the film, I was fascinated by the fact that the film was based on a story from the Mahabharata.  However, at that time, I was not that well versed with the stories of Mahabharata and my vision about this epic was clouded by the various representations in the form of TV series, novels, films, etc. Later, when I actually read the epic and its various translations, I came to know that there are lot of discrepancies in many representations. In the name of creative freedom, a lot of liberty has been taken which actually misrepresents and, in a horrifying way, insults some great characterization. The play and the film Agni Varsha was one of these many examples. Despite having a great cinematography and performances by lead actors like Jackie Shroff, Raveena Tandon, Milind Soman, Sonali Kulkarni Nagarjun and Mohan Aghashe; the film does commit a serious error in representing a great story. Though this is a deviation from facts as mentioned in the epic but what is alarming is the reason for this deviation, which now seem so obvious to me.

It is important to highlight these inaccuracies and faulty representations. There is little to no understanding of the values of these scriptures among a large set of masses today. Epics like Mahabharata are not just mere stories whose essence can be understood in one reading of a novel or watching a film/ TV serial based on it. The reason being, each creative representation has a bias of the creator himself and it mirrors his or her own understanding of the story. Unfortunately a large section of the creative fraternity in our country comprises of people who were and are still inspired by a different set of ideology, mostly inspired by the Marxist and socialist thought process. Adding to the unfortunate set of reasons is the fact that our scriptures, Vedas are often misunderstood and misrepresented. We also had a shameful history of awful treatment of fellow human beings whom we assigned to scheduled caste and tribes based on faulty understanding of the Vedas. Caste discrimination and discriminatory treatment of women, was and still, to some extent, is a reality. Because of these reasons, the anti-scriptures mentality inspired more and more artists to create their own versions of some great stories as they viewed those stories with the lens of their own ideology. When these representations are lauded for their creative presentations among the masses who are already less informed about the values of the great epics, it not only strengthens the degradation of our ancient history but also forms a negative opinion about our great heritage. Agnivarsha film and play is a perfect example of the above.

To summarise, the plot of both the film and the play revolves around the story of sage named Raibhya and his family. In the film, Raibhya's elder son Paravasu is conducting a great sacrifice for the king. This has surprisingly made Raibhya jealous of his own son. Things get more complicated when Yavakri, the son of Raibhya's elder brother, returns after his failed attempts at penances. Yavakri seduces Paravasu's wife Vishakha which enrages Raibhya. Raibhya sends a brahmaraksh, a demon, to kill Yavakri. After Yavakri's death, Paravasu returns home one night and kills his own father Raibhya, citing the reason that his father deliberately created chaos by committing Yavakri's murder. He asks his younger brother Aravasu to perform all the funeral rites of his father and do the required prayashchit on his behalf. When poor Aravasu returns to his brother at his sacrifice after performing everything that he asked him to do, the older brother throws him out of the sacrifice calling him killer of a brahmana. Dejected and grief stricken, Aravasu joins party of bards and comes back to the sacrifice to stage a play. The representation of the story in the play compels the elder brother to realize his mistake. Paravasu immolates himself in the fire and Gods, pleased with the younger brother, shower rain on the kingdom fighting with drought for many years.

Now in this series of posts, I will highlight many discrepancies and deviation from the original story. I believe a lot of hatred towards the varna system and anti-brahmanic sentiments played key role in shaping up the story of both AgniVarsha play and film.

Let's follow the chronological order of the story as per the epic and highlight the errornous representation in the film (and also the play on which the film is based on). The story is part of Mahabharat Vana Parva, specifically Tirth Yatra parva, in which the Pandavas take shelter in the Ashram of sage Raibhya and sage Lomaharsha narrates the story:

  1. Yavakrit's penance - Actual story: Yavakrit was the son of sage Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj and Raibhya were friends but Bharadwaj used to live a hermit kind of life and Raibhya was a revered sage. Yavakrit was jealous of the popularity of sage Raibhya and his sons. He decided to perform severe penances to please the Gods so that he and his father both can have the knowledge of Supreme Vedas. The King of Gods Indra once visited Yavakrit and and told him that one cannot simply acquire the knowledge of Vedas by performing penances. He told him that he needs to study the Vedas under the supervision of a guru to understand the power and significance of this ancient knowledge. Yavakrit disregarded Indra's advice and continued his penances. To teach him a lesson Lord Indra took form of an old brahmin and again came to Yavakrit. Yavakrit was performing penances on the bank of river Ganga. Indra came there and he started picking up some sand and pouring it into the river. Yavakrit ask him what he was doing to which Indra replied that he is trying to build a bridge on the river with sand. Yavakrit laughed and said that this is impossible and will take forever, to which Indra replied so is your penance.
    He asked Yavakrit to study under guidance of a guru who will act as a bridge for him to cross the knowledge river. Still adamant, Yavakrit continued with his penance and finally the Gods gave him and his father the knowledge of Vedas without blessings of any guru. 
Yavakrit's story - Agnivarsha film: Agni Varsha film shows that Yavakrit (whose name was 'Yavakri' in the film for unknown reasons) was performing penances to get universal knowledge. The film showed that Bharadwaj and Raibhya were brothers and Bharadwaj was already dead, while he was pretty much alive as per Mahabharata. Yavakrit was furious because his uncle Raibhya (who was shown as vile and evil by nature in the film) was given more respect than his own father. He wanted to learn "Universal Knowledge" through penance. Indra visits him and tells him the futility of the exercise.

The major deviation from the story as shown in the film is, it never showed why Indra calls Yavakrit's efforts useless. In Mahabharata, Indra tells Yavakrit that Vedas can only be learned from a proper brahmin teacher. Vedic knowledge and gaining associated powers could only be accomplished by following the life of a student. Yavakrit wanted to get all the knowledge and power through penance only and not follow the karma of a student. This important point was excluded in the film. Also the film shows that Yavakrit getting fed up of the penance gives up finally and comes back thinking that he has won over Gods. He says that he had learnt some cheap tricks and mantras. In Mahabharata, he and his father both are granted the knowledge of Veda.

The film has many more such deviations which are important to highlight because no matter how good the film is, it misrepresents the basic value of the story.
I will highlight more such points from this film in subsequent posts.

Click here to read next post on this series, Part - 2

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