Indian entertainment television channels have always had a captive audience for their tele-serials. These are predominantly complex family sagas with weeping women and conniving mothers-in-law plotting against daughters-in-law.
But now the gods are back in the 21st century to break the stranglehold of soaps on Indian TV. Tele-serials based on Hindu mythology with their many gods have stormed television gaining a loyal audience.
For proof, look no further than Mahabharat, the grand epic where women, wars and villains are in plenty, and life’s lessons are uttered through the mouths of the gods themselves.
Mahabharat, the Hindi language serial airing on Star Plus since mid-September at prime time - 8:30pm - five days a week, is having a successful run with new age techniques and fresh acting giving new blood to an ancient epic.
In 1988, at 10am every Sunday, India came to a virtual standstill when Mahabharat that was produced by BR Chopra was aired, but even a quarter of a century later, the story is not very different.
Hindu nationalist parties cashed in on the success of these Hindu epics among people. The BJP’s rath yatra, or grand tour in 1991, was in imitation of the chariot wheeled in by the god Krishna to war in the Mahabharat epic.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta is not surprised that mythology-based TV serials have struck a chord.
"The appeal of mythology also increases at a time of social stress, of rootlessness. People want to reconnect with their culture when they are in a flux, and the age old stories in the epics are comforting and help them solve their problems," he said.
Non-believers, who felt the Indian youth of the 21st century would not relish these Hindu epics on TV, have been proven wrong.
The new Mahabharat has made a conscious effort to grab the eyeballs of a younger generation growing up with the technological gizmos of the 21st century. Special effects make the war scenes truly epic.
Mahabharat is the grand old epic story of warring cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who fought a deadly war.
|Many actors playing gods on TV have attained
divine status [Star TV]
And it has found many takers, young and old. Eight-year-old Avika Diwan, a class three student in Delhi who watches the serial with her mother said, "I like Arjun, as he does a lot of archery, and Krishna also."
"These myths span a chest full of tales that are entertaining, educational and easy to understand," explained Gupta.
Avika's mother, Shweta Sood Diwan, is happy that her daughter is learning about Hindu mythology and culture. She also finds the serial appealing. "I particularly enjoy the part when Krishna comes and explains the Hindu holy text, the Gita."
This is not the only mythological show that has been a success in recent months. Devon ke Dev, Mahadev tells the story of the god Shiva, and has been a major attraction on Life OK channel.
Tele-producers say a contemporary flavour adds to the appeal of these timeless epics.
Siddharth Kumar Tewary, the producer of Mahabharat, feels he knows what makes them click with the audience. "We focused a lot on the ‘whys’ and tried to show the reasons behind every character’s dilemma in their life rather than just narrating the story."
These epics have drama, action, heroism and betrayal - many of the elements that account for a soap’s appeal.
Tewary continued, "Every episode or story in Mahabharat is relevant even today. The moral aspects, greed, ambition, love, family values, women’s role in families and in the world all come to play in these fables."
Appeal to regional audiences
Following the success of the Hindi language Hindu epics Mahabharat and Mahadev, TV producers have begun to dub them in other Indian languages as well, including Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali and Kannada.
The Star team said, "A whopping 75 million people watched it in the first week."
The moral aspects, greed, ambition, love, family values, women’s role in families all come to play in these fables
Also, unlike soaps, mythology captures not just the attention of women, but also children.
Nikhil Sinha, producer of Mahadev, said that they have audiences across the country.
"Mahadev is watched by people not only in small cities but even in metros and big cities. This show has got all possible audiences irrespective of where they are based," Sinha said.
He attributes this to the fact that the story is told in a contemporary manner.
"Contrary to popular belief, only half of the village people know mythology and are unaware of many of the stories of say Mahabharata or Ramayana. They also want to learn more about these epics," said Gupta.
Channels like Star Plus and Life OK took a gamble and went ahead with making these serials, whose budgets are far higher than those of the normal soaps.
And it has paid off. Mahabharat was made on an extravagant budget of Rs 100 crore ($1.6m). Intensive research was done on the jewellery, clothes, weapons, armour, and crowns to create a distinct period look.
Before the show was launched, the channel set up a few pop up Mahabharat museums across different cities to display the jewellery and other artifacts to raise interest.
Toy shop owners say there has been increasing interest in young kids buying bows and arrows spurred by the weaponry used in battle scenes in these serials.
For the producers, it has been a hit. Mahabharat opened with 8445 TVT (Television Viewership in Thousands) and averaged 6356, topping the ratings of the reality show Big Boss.
Television actors who play the roles of the mighty gods have a growing fan base in India.
Following the success of the Mahabharat in the 1990s, Nitish Bharadwaj, the actor who played the god Krishna, was elected to the Indian parliament.
|Toy shop owners say there is growing demand for bows and arrows following the serials [Star TV]
Deepika, the actress who played goddess Sita in the epic Ramayana, won the elections on a Hindu nationalist party ticket in the 1990s.
The current crop of tele-actors have not yet shown political ambitions, but they agree that these roles are special.
Shaheer Sheikh, who plays the warrior Arjun in Mahabharat said, "I wanted to make a mythological character real too. I wanted to portray it as human as possible, even though they are demi gods and superheroes."
"That is the challenge. As a 21st century person, it took me almost a month to get into the role," he added.
Mohit Raina, who plays the god Shiva in Mahadev, sheepishly admitted that young women "do not flirt" with him. Instead he has been accosted by women fans in malls falling at his feet "seeking divine blessings as I play Shiva on TV".
The curtains will ring down on Mahabharat in June this year, but going by how Indians love their mythologies, the gods it seems are here to stay on telly.