PRINT November 1989


Voice: What for each of us is inevitable?
Yudhishthira: Happpiness.

“OUR YOUTH IS OVER,” declares Yudhishthira, as, with reluctance, he accepts Krishna’s request that he become the King of Kings. And as the eldest of the Pandavas brothers assumes his adult responsibility, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata switches from the calm, legendary tone befitting the childhood of humankind to the chaotic roar of passion, desire, power hunger, and trickery that inevitably accompanies the development of an articulated society. The Mahabharata is a vast cosmogony that pits humans and gods in a worldly conflict between two Indian dynasties, and in a spiritual one between good and evil. In this epic Sanskrit poem we find the source of myths, legends, customs, religious beliefs, and divine figures proper not only to India (historically considered the cradle of humankind, and the root of all Indo-European languages) but also to many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. It is easy, in fact, to retrace through the tale the emergence of the archetypal figures and themes of Greek and Latin literature, as well as of the Old and New Testament.

The English director Brook and the French writer Jean-Claude Carrière first condensed the 100,000 stanzas of the original book (transcribed in the fifth or sixth century B.C.) into a nine-hour stage performance. Their colossal enterprise, begun in 1975, required nine years of research and writing, and almost another year of rehearsal with a multilingual and multiracial cast, before premiering at the 1985 Avignon Festival in a performance that began at sunset and ended at sunrise, its stage a vast quarry. The English version, translated by Brook himself, made its debut in 1987 at the Los Angeles Festival before moving to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in New York. Now two more versions have been created: a six-hour TV movie and a 171-minute film for the screen, which had its world premier in September, at the 1989 Venice Film Festival.

This fascinating story of humankind’s birth, fall, and rebirth is prefigured at the very beginning of Brook’s movie in the luminescent refractions of a crystal ball, a transparent microcosm of multiple colors and diverse shapes. The ball is a symbol of the full circle of unique, paradigmatic lives that will emerge from the poem, the tale of Vyasa, an old illiterate poet assisted by a half-divine scribe, the elephant-headed Ganesha. The poet, unexpectedly entering his own fiction, like a Pirandello character, will interact with his protagonists all through the movie, while weaving the threads of his story with sympathy and wisdom.

Vyasa’s tale starts in that “golden age when men were close to gods,” when supernatural forces were assisting men and women in their first evolution. Gods appear in the shape of the sun, or as rolling balls of fire in the blowing wind, to give women strong, skillful, enlightened children who will rule the primordial society. The five peace-loving brothers of the Pandavas dynasty grow up in the family palace with their cousins, the Kauravas. But the Kauravas, the hundred sons of a blind king—a quiet, compassionate, but “defective” man, the weak link of the family—have been born as a cold ball of iron, born to destroy. As the first, simple family structures grow larger and more complex, the need for order becomes the struggle for power. Brothers turn against brothers, families are divided by anger and revenge, and the gods are asked to bring peace by taking sides among the factions.

Oriental religious disciplines inform the core of the Mahabharata. When the five Pandavas brothers are banished to the wilderness for a 13-year exile, they practice meditation, and later, when their strongest warrior, Arjuna, is paralyzed by compassion and doubt before battle, he must listen in trancelike attention to the counsel of Krishna: Act, but don’t reflect on the fruits of the act. Forget desire; seek detachment. Renunciation is not enough. You must not withdraw into solitude. You must not stay without action, for we are here to serve the world. . . . You must learn to see with the same eye a mound of earth and a heap of gold, a cow and a sage, a dog and the man who eats the dog. The mind is greater than the senses. Above the mind there is pure intelligence, freed from thought. Beyond pure intelligence there is being—universal being. What will dissolve Arjuna’s illusions and disperse his doubts, what will enable him to perform the selfless act, is ultimately the wisdom of yoga, the truth found in the deepest fibers of his spirit. But this delivery of wisdom to Arjuna, in what can be considered the hinge of the second part of the movie (paralleling the delivery of the kingdom to his brother Yudhishthira in the first part), is imparted visually in a secretive way. The action is stopped, blocked; all armies stand poised in a long—how long?—moment of waiting while a single man receives knowledge. But we, the viewers, are not allowed to share it: no short way is offered us on our path toward wisdom. We must make our individual journey alone. So we don’t see what Arjuna sees—Krishna’s “universal form”—and hear only part of the dialogue between him and the god. We know of their talk only what Vyasa’s intermittent narration offers. One of the essential themes in the movie, in fact, is how the sharing of knowledge and the withholding of knowledge mystically converge. (The Pandavas’ mother, Kunti, receives a secret mantra that empowers her to invoke a god and bear his child, yet maintains a long silence about the birth of her first son, Karna. He and Arjuna, the enemy brothers, receive knowledge of the most powerful weapon—the power of the mind?—but Karna will forget what he has learned, and will therefore die.)

A complicated plot can be condensed in an apparently simple moral: the makers of a society must expect to face contradiction, conflict, and terror. In order to overcome them, strength must always be accompanied by profound spiritual discipline; only then will truthful action follow. The gods are at our side only if we maintain a pure soul. And through painful rites of passage, the falling away of illusions, and also through spiritual insight, all the poem’s characters are fated to learn that “victory and defeat are all the same.”

Throughout the film, the astonishingly beautiful faces of the actors and actresses take on, in recurrent close-ups, the sculptural fixity of ancient icons. Kunti (Myriam Goldschmidt) has the round body of a goddess of fertility and the doleful features of a Madonna; the veiled queen Gandhari (Helene Patarot), the tragic aspect of a Fortune goddess; Arjuna (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), the flat intensity of a Mesopotamian bas-relief; Yudhishthira (Andrzej Seweryn), the serenity of classical Greek heroes; Duryodhana (Georges Corraface), the chiseled ferocity of a Persian warrior; Krishna (Bruce Myers), the inward-seeming, detached glance and smile of early-medieval Indian sculpted figures. The simplified refinement of courtly life in Indian miniatures is also evoked in the rich costumes and spare settings, primarily in white, ocher, red, and brown colors. Landscapes, reconstructed in the studio (with the exception, I would guess, of the sun and moon images), are unpretentiously represented with naturalistic touches (with fire—symbol of life, destruction, or enlightenment—the most recurrent motif). And the special effects deployed to evoke supernatural but somehow believable appearances seem closer to the realm of the fairy tale than to Hollywood’s computer-generated magic tricks. Interiors, lit by the warm glow of candles, are minimally articulated by carpets, garlands of red and orange flowers, and small altars where characters perform their private rituals. Brook, in fact, never attempts to overwhelm the viewer with splendid architecture, never denies the fiction of a stage set (indeed, he candidly quotes his own previous theatrical version of the Mahabharata), but trusts the abstracting powers of color and shape to celebrate the pristine beauty of the world’s origins.

More than anything else, the focus is on the smallest—but symbolically charged—detail: the hands of the five brothers and their only wife, for example, or the slow trajectory of a single flying lance. And in the fatal dice game in which Yudhishthira gambles away his family’s kingdom, immeasurable treasures, jewels, thousands of slaves, chariots, and forests and other lands flash before our eyes and disappear, as handfuls of tiny shells are scattered on the game table, and lost. In a scene vibrating with an obsessive rhythmic drum beat, the greatest and the smallest possessions assume the same visual power.

Paying homage to India’s epic and sacred poem, Brook “appropriates” the cultural heritage of a foreign tradition. The operation is of course a risky one, yet perhaps a necessary one too, and in any case it is inevitable that artists should be drawn to works of knowledge and power, whatever their source. (Guy de Maupassant’s 1880 short story “Boule de suif” has been transposed into Japanese, in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Virgin from Oyuki, 1935, and into the western, in John Ford’s Stagecoach, 1939; Mizoguchi has likewise explored Ibsen, and Akira Kurosawa has dealt with Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Gorky. Satyajit Ray’s latest film, Ganashatru, is a version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.) And Brook avoids the risk of a Eurocentric rereading of the story: first by using a multiracial cast of actors, who, with their distinctive features and accents, literally and metaphorically embody the many and diverse populations that will be born out of the Indian original race; second, by dealing with this cultural complexity through a bare, simple visual style that evades the ideological inflections of spectacle. Brook’s film is the expression of a positive curiosity, touched with an irony and lightness that invite a passionate enjoyment of the beauty and authentic power of the Mahabharata: a tale that can be shared by all men and women because it speaks of all times. As Vyasa announces at the beginning of the movie, “It’s the poetical history of mankind. If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” A better, more aware and joyful one, maybe.

Ida Panicelli