“Human beings are difficult,” he goes on. “We’re difficult to ourselves; we’re difficult to each other and we are mysteries to ourselves; we are mysteries to each other … Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?”
Amit Chaudhuri, Why television writing has become the new home of verbal complexity
A few months ago, I looked up Big Bang theory after a gap over three years and was unpleasantly surprised – The geeks have mutated into sad stereotypes, science references have made way for silly discussions on relationships, Sheldon has lost almost all the quirks which once made him unique and the subject of scholarly articles like this one – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/07/amit-chaudhuri-praise-difficult-language, Raj is made to link up with an older charwoman(!) and the humour completely lost in the transition from a well-written sitcom to an average soap. Reminded me of one of the best lines ever written in a self-help book – ‘Burn the Television’.
I rediscovered the joy of television for a while, thanks to a long, lingering spell of viral flu and found myself hooked to two particular serials on YouTube on the weekends.
The first was Upanyas, an old serial that I vaguely remembered from childhood. I was too young to watch it when it was first broadcast on Doordarshan many years ago. Watching it for the first time, I was delighted to find that it had a metafictional premise. A woman vacationing in a hill station meets her favourite novelist who is semi-retired and requests him to resume writing. The episodes then take parallel tracks, one following the author as he proceeds to create his story, and the other depicting the story which mirrors the author’s life and the characters around him. The author’s own story is far more interesting than the world that he writes into being.
Mohan Vatsal is by no means the perfect author or even a perfect man. There are hints of a shady past linked to his multiple divorces, which comes out when his partner attempts suicide. His condescending attitude towards everyone including his reader and artistic arrogance which comes out through his reflections on the world around him make him a very complex character, though one who is self-assured of his powers of creation. When the reader Yashodhara points out that his novel was less of a plotted story and more a group of incidents loosely connected together, he acknowledges that he had been inspired to write it that way.
The character of the Vatsal’s partner Prabhavati is reminiscent of Mohini in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Party. Both women fall in love with artists on account of their art and later find themselves unwanted, alone, bereft of their identity, perhaps hinting that relationships between authors and readers are best when they stay on either side of the page. A victim of domestic violence, Prabhavati seeks solace from her troubled marriage in Vatsal’s books and gets into a relationship with him. Short flashbacks reveal her own artistic temperament with flashes of inspiration that are comparable, even superior to Vatsal’s imagination. When he becomes uncomfortable with her creative expressions, she is happy to remain in his shadow, cooking and keeping house for him until he tires of her presence, and she grows frustrated and insecure as their relationship does not have a future. Vatsal admits to himself that Prabhavati’s dependence strengthens him as he feeds off her need for him. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Prabhavati makes a dignified exit from Vatsal’s life. In a poignant scene, she tells the writer that she was leaving for a place where all her needs would be met – food, clothing and most importantly, books to read.
A number of literary references and philosophical reflections are woven into the dialogue. To cite just two examples, Vatsal talks about the joys of intertextuality, his admiration of Tolstoy and how he hopes to write a character like Kino from Steinbeck’s The Pearl into one of his novels someday. His character Chalakha writes to her cousin that the ego needs unhappiness to reinforce itself for absolute joy dissolves the sense of the self, which seems to reflect this quote by Greene:
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
The serial is set in a period when time was richer: when people took pleasure in unhurried walks, wrote long letters by hand to each other, and had endless leisurely conversations about life and art.
Just as I thought that it was a pity that no one makes such fine programs anymore, a cousin sent me a link to a relatively recent serial called Upanishad Ganga, a 52 part series which presented the wisdom of the Upanishads in one hour long fictionalised episodes.
I was not surprised to discover that the program had been broadcast by Doordarshan, which remains the gold standard for quality television content in the minds of millions of Indian viewers. Dramatizing stories from the Upanishads which are considered to be the essence of Indian philosophy in the form of short capsules is a huge challenge and the producers have been successful in their vision. The concepts, the settings, the costumes, the actors and above all, the screenplay blend together beautifully. Employing the structure of stories within a story, the series is portrayed as stage dramas presented by a group of artists who question the relevance of Sanskrit and the scriptures in present times. The episodes raise profound philosophical questions, suggest possible answers and leave the watching seeker both enriched and inspired.