An essay on Peter Brook’s adaptation of ‘The Mahabharata’.

I recently watched the screen adaptation of The Mahabharata, and was deeply impressed by it. As many of you may well know, I have been studying Vedic literature for many years now, and put off watching this film as I thought it was an impossible task to undertake. Impossible, it still certainly is. Brook only displays the bare bones of the primary storyline; maybe 5% of this vast text is addressed in the film (despite the film being over 6 hours long), but it is done with such grace, such style and such humbleness that I had to applaud it. I thought it would make a good subject for an essay. I apologise that it goes on a bit. Further reading and bibliography can be found at the bottom.

Cinema has since its earliest days been looking to religious texts and scripture for stories and inspiration. Adaptation of these stories is certainly nothing new; passion plays, dramas, paintings and many other forms of artistic interpretation of religion have existed and developed with human society for centuries. Religious texts have been the foundation of civilization, with personal and regional versions and adaptations playing a key part in the progression of understanding of their meaning since the very beginning. From Harry T. Morey’s 1912 film, ‘Adam and Eve’, to Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004), religion has provided a consistently interesting and often controversial subject matter for directors to work with.

Perhaps the most important decision which filmmakers must make when approaching the idea of ‘filming religion’ is whether to create a sense of hyper-reality and absolute faithfulness to the original (as we can see in ‘The Passion of the Christ’, arguably the most graphically violent and gory film ever made on account of its director being a devout Catholic, with his own specific agenda in depicting the last days of Christ to the modern world), or to create a film which carries the tone of the text, encouraging a polysemic reaction. This decision is most likely to be made depending on what the religious beliefs and stance of the auteur actually is, and where their agenda lies. Do they see their source material as an ancient work of artistic literature, or as divine instruction? Are they creating art, or on a crusade?

This essay will look at Peter Brook’s 1989 film ‘The Mahabharata’[1] (that he began as a theatrical piece in a Parisian theatre) to see how this particular text, an ancient Indian poem, was translated, cut and adapted for a western audience at the end of the twentieth century. I shall examine what limitations he faced, how he attempted to create a sense of relevance for his audience, and how the finished text was received.


The first known written versions of The Mahabharata (trans. ‘The Great History of Mankind’)[2] are dated at around the fifth or sixth century BC, and are composed of many versions of the ancient stories of early Indian history and mythology, with great variation depending on the place of origin, interpretation and utilisation by the people who spoke and wrote it. The Sadhus (holy men) of northern India claim the poem was first dictated around eight thousand years ago, in the Vedic ‘first age of man’[3], and that the events described in the epic are based entirely on historical events. Contemporary western scholars dispute the accuracy of the text as historical record, preferring to view the text as a collection of stories passed down through the rich oral tradition in Indian culture, in which can be found allegories and direct preaching of the political, social, moral and religious norms and values found in Indian culture, even to this very day.

The Mahabharata is undoubtedly the zenith of Sanskrit literature; the form it takes most commonly now found its definitive structure and plot in the third or fourth century AD, and in which we find the primary tale of the impending battle between the five virtuous Pandava brothers (with Krishna – ‘The Ultimate Personality of Godhead’[4] on their side) and the cunning, greedy Kaurava brothers, of which there are one hundred. Yet the characterization in the poem is consistently deep and complex, each member in the cast of thousands has their own story, loaded with symbolism; we find gods and demigods whose histories are inconceivably vast and abstract; each stanza (of which there are a staggering one hundred thousand, making it the longest poem in existence) seems to possess layers of subtext interwoven with subtlety and sophistication.

It would have been virtually impossible for a director to produce a concise and accurate dramatisation of The Mahabharata, an undeniable fact which resulted in Peter Brook splitting his condensed retelling (when the production was in its earliest incarnation as a theatrical piece) into three plays each lasting about three hours. The film is cut down somewhat further, running for five hours and twelve minutes, still in three separate episodes; ‘The Game of Dice’, ‘The Exile in The Forest’ and ‘The War’. It could be said that asking a contemporary western audience to devote their attention to five or more hours of unbroken film would be ultimately alienating and presumptious, that one must not ignore the limits of an audience’s dedication. This resulted in Brook deciding to concentrate on only the sixteen main characters, and to take the viewer through the key themes and events of the text using this reduced cast. Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere explains some of the sacrifices made and artistic license taken: “In order to adapt The Mahabharata, to transform an immense epic poem into a film, or three films, we had to create new scenes from our imaginations, and bring together characters who never meet in the poem itself”[5] The producers of the dramatisation of The Mahabharata decided that the essence of the poem was not in its density or detail, but in “…the shape and sense of the story”[6] for which an effort was made to display a deep respect for.

Perhaps the most famous and enduring section of the poem is the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ (trans. ‘Song of God’)[7], in which Krishna teaches his close friend Arjuna (considered by many to be the leading character and hero of the epic) the secrets of life and death. One of the world’s most widely recognised spiritual texts, the Bhagavad Gita makes up a relatively small but vital part of The Mahabharata and clearly could not be alongside other verses cut from the film. The popular translation by founder of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, covers over 600 pages, and yet Brook dedicates only six minutes to this piece in his film. However, the techniques he uses to put across the key message and themes of Bhagavad Gita are interesting and seemingly reverential. Switching between the narration we have heard intermittently throughout the film and soliloquy by Krishna (played by Bruce Myers), we are taken very quickly through the various stages of the Gita, from Krishna’s chastisement of Arjuna, to his teaching of birth and rebirth. Krishna momentarily becomes narrator, speaking of himself in the third person and addressing the audience directly by saying “He spoke for a long time…a very long time”[8] suggesting at the complexity and legnth of this section of the text without going into it, almost apologising for the constraints the medium of film has placed upon him.

In Prabhupada’s translation, the key moment in Bhagavad Gita comes in chapter two, verse twelve: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”[9] This is the moment when Krishna reveals to Arjuna what is referred to as his ‘Universal Form’; that is, an ever-shifting, multi-faceted being showing the infinite bodies, faces and incarnations of God. The description of this moment in the original text provides the reader with an almost inconceivable mental image, and it was perhaps very wise of Brook not to attempt to take a literal translation of this moment to the screen. Instead, the audience sees Krishna alone against a background of blue sky, standing in a holy pose and speaking whilst looking distantly into space. This acts to remind the audience that Krishna, who has a very human, almost fatigued portrayal throughout the film, is also a divine being. Carriere explains that the portrayal of Krishna for a contemporary western audience was a difficult one; “Our aim is a certain dramatic truth. This is why we have chosen to keep the two faces of Krishna that are in the original poem, and to emphasize their opposing and paradoxical nature.”[10]

Despite such efforts for respect, reverence and ‘dramatic truth’, Peter Brook’s ‘The Mahabharata’ was condemned as much as it was praised, criticised primarily for not ‘delivering what it promises’ and staying too confined in a westernised dramatic paradigm. “Brook’s Mahabharata appears as a typical work of Orientalist aethetics, and not as a representation of the unknown Orient…This is to be seen in the imposition of a Shakespearean aura (War of the Roses) and of tragic perception of fate, principally foreign to the Indian original”[11] Brook has repeatedly defended his decisions to put the epic poem into a form more familiar for audiences of Western theatre, claiming that he was only doing what the original storytellers did by adapting the subject matter to make it relevant and recognisable to the audience, in the same way orators in one Indian region would have a slightly different way of telling the story to those in a different region. He claims the text has “a life of it’s own”, that “The Mahabharata itself…opened an eye and said, ‘This is the moment when I want to known outside India, to be really known in the West.'”[12] However, even the historian David Williams, who has written extensively on glorifying Brook’s film cannot help but find certain fault’s with it’s execution: “Sadly, Brook seems unwilling to confront the dangers concomitant with applying a culturally non-specific, essentialist, humanist aesthetic to such material. He has don himself a great disservice by never satisfactorily accounting in public for his production’s relationship with Hindu culture in India.”[13]

Perhaps unsuprisingly, Brook’s adapatation was met with disappointment and indifference by much of it’s Hindu audience, with Indian scholar Pradip Bhattacharya claiming that Brook’s interpretation was not a portrayal of a titanic clash between the forces of good and evil, which is the stuff of the epic… [but] the story of the warring progeny of some rustic landlord” [14]However, devotees of Krishna in Britain and many followers of the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith value it highly as a contemporary retelling of the foundations of their faith, with viewings of particular sections of the film commonplace in temples around the UK and other parts of Europe.

Perhaps one of the reasons for its success in Britain and Europe amongst religious devotees and the general public alike is Brook’s celebrated use of a widely international cast. The main characters in the film are played by actors from countries as diverse as Switzerland, Senegal, Wales, Trinidad, Burkina Faso, Vietnam and India amongst many others. The intention of the director was to present the Mahabharata as a ‘universal’ story to a contemporary audience, taking full advantage of the translation of the title as ‘The Great History of Mankind‘ (not ‘Hindus‘ or ‘The Bharata Dynasty‘ as has been suggested by other scholars) and of Western Europe’s celebration of multiculturalism in such vibrant, cosmopolitan cities as London. This added dimension of impressive multiculturalism greatly enhances the humanistic aspects of the text. It somehow manages to positively stilt the dialogue somewhat, due to the wide range of accents heard, and by doing so add gravity and attention to what is actually being said. “The Mahabharata…showed the fuzziness and awkwardness of performers from different cultures, nationalities, and languages. Despite their differences (there was) a deep intergration of the whole.”[15]

Language, dialogue, and most importantly; translation, was vital for the success of an adaptation of the ancient epic into a piece of cinema for 20th century Europe. “It was impossible to tell (the Mahabharata) in modern, familiar or even slangy language. The polish of classical or neoclassical language was, of course, equally impossible. So (the screenwriters) settled on a simple, precise, restrained language which gave…the means to oppose or juxtapose words which ordinarily are never used together”[16]. Many Sanskrit words and verses from the original text are used without translation or explanation in the film. This is partly to remind the audience exactly when are where the film is set; ie. an ancient and long-dead, Indian language gives at least an ambience of time and place even if the audience are ignorant to the historical or geographical specifics; and partly because certain words in Sanskrit are untranslatable to English without sounding weak or insufficient. One particularly ‘slippery’[17] concept/word is “dharma” meaning something akin to duty or destiny, as well as what Prabhupada describes as “one’s eternal natural occupation”[18]. To not use this Sanskrit word in the film could have been seen as patronising to the viewer and not fitting with the tightness of the rest of the dialogue. Instead, Brook allows the context in which it is spoken explain its meaning, and provide some spoken anchorage to the piece.

Overall, Brook’s Mahabharata is a deeply humanistic retelling of the spiritual text, befitting an audience in a country as international and artistically open-minded as the UK or France. There is little sense of preaching, or even of the divine; Brook gives the ‘ultimate personality of Godhead’, Krishna himself, many flaws – reflecting the flaws of his creation plunged into battle. I feel as though the film created by Brook/Carriere is a successful adaptation for a contemporary audience, insofar as it presents the main story and characters with grace and respect, and offers an insightful, and thoroughly modern introduction to the vastness of this ancient poem, taking its content and meaning out of India and placing it all around us.

[1] Brook, Peter (dir.) The Mahabharata British Film Institute 1989

[2] Trans. and Ed. Van Buitenen, J.A.B. The Mahabharata University of Chicago Press 1984 p.17

[3] Prabhupada, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami. Srimad Bhagavatam Canto I Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 1998 p.43

[4] Prabhupada, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami. Bhagavad Gita As It Is Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 1982 p.3

[5] Jean-Claude Carriere quoted in Williams, David. Peter Brook and The Mahbharata: Critical Perspectives New York, Routledge, Chapman and Hall inc. 1991 p. 56

[6] Jean Claude Carriere quoted in the inlay leaflet for the BFI’s DVD of The Mahabharata (dir. Brook, Peter) 2005 edition

[7] His Holiness Narayana Maharaja. Facts For Life: Further Teachings on The Bhagavad Gita Bhaktivedanta Book Trust 2001

[8] The Mahabharata (dir. Peter Brook)

[9] Bhagavad Gita – As It Is p.47

[10] Peter Brook and The Mahbharata: Critical Perspectives p. 57

[11] Wirth, Andrzej. Interculturalism and Iconophilia in the New Theatre. Performing Arts Journal 1989

[12] Peter Brook quoted in inlay booklet for DVD of The Mahabharata

[13] Peter Brook and The Mahbharata: Critical Perspectives p.24

[14] Bhattacharya, Pradip. Negative Criticism 06/04/08

[15] Kitazawa, Masakuni. Myth, Performance and Politics The MIT press 1992 p.172

[16] Peter Brook and The Mahbharata: Critical Perspectives p.124

[17] Peter Brook and The Mahbharata: Critical Perspectives p.125

[18] Bhagavad Gita – As It Is  Glossary Definition

About Benjamin Norris

Published writer of short stories, long stories, poems. Well received art critic and cultural commentator for Berlin magazines. Collaborator with operatic societies. Co-writer of fictional historic psycholinguistic journals. Lecturer of architecture and art history at a Budapest University. View all posts by Benjamin Norris

10 responses to “An essay on Peter Brook’s adaptation of ‘The Mahabharata’.

  • S M Rana

    I’ve just finished seeing the 5 1/2 version and found it highly impressive, educative and informative. Possibly not facsimile true to the mega epic, it does deliver the gist. Instead of a ponderous epic to be revered more than cherished, Brook gives us a powerful human drama, modern in flavor and message. Since it may not be possible for us all to peruse the original due to it’s size, this is the next best thing to have compressed it and retaining at least a part of it’s soul. Once upon a time, it must not have been ancient, and some of that original freshness is preserved, seen through the eyes of those for whom over familiarity has not rendered it stale.

  • Yousei Hime

    I’ll confess that I doubt I’ll ever see this film (though one never knows), but I really enjoyed reading your essay and appreciate the details of the texts that I am unfamiliar with (which are most of them). Religions and mythologies are fascinating to me, and this is another rich source you’ve discussed. Thank you for it and for reading my recent poem.

  • Alice Blunt

    I enjoyed this smart and thoughtful take on the film, which I’ve seen too and really enjoyed. In fact, reading your piece has inspired me to go back and watch it again, as there are so many parts I’d like to revisit.
    Thanks and keep up the great work.
    Alice Blunt

  • ladynimue

    Interesting read this was.. you did a good job !

  • abhiqrtz

    At the very outset, I must congratulate you on a very thorough piece.

    I haven’t seen the movie, but as a practising Hindu with a sufficient knowledge of the great epic, I must say that you’ve written with such verve and accuracy that it is difficult indeed to believe that you aren’t one yourself.

    And, seeing that you’re interested in the epic, might I recommend you B. R. Chopra’s television adaptation, titled ‘Mahabharat’? The director, one of the foremost of Indian cinema, has been very loyal to the narrative, and has brought forth the ethical dilemma that every character goes through very effectively.

  • Special K

    Alas…I live in Germany. Where can an intellectual like myself see films like this IN ENGLISH? I am dying to see what you would think about the upcoming

  • ghotoohotoo

    a very good and informative article

  • Una altra intel·ligència « senzilla ment

    […] relativitat especial. Ara bé, la idea que ens cal una ment diferent no és nova. Al Bhagavad-Gita (versió Peter Brook) se’ns […]

  • Mehul

    A very good article indeed. Mr Bhattacharya’s criticism was wholly unjustified. Peter Brooks and Jean Claude Carriere are to be greatly commended for an immense effort and capturing a lot of the essential motivations of the characters. I am of Indian origin and grew up with the Mahabharat.

    Condensing the longest poem in the world to 8 hours is, in itself, a great achievement not to mention mounting a play with an international cast that will be accessible to and understood by people not familiar with the Indian traditions. Instead of recognizing this, Mr. Bhattacharya is busy finding flaws. His premises and bias are hinted at by his statement “symptomatic of the lack of sensitivity of the Occidental mind to the Indian ethos”. His world view consists of how west is unable or unwilling to understand the east. His only praise is reserved for the single Indian member of the cast (Mallika Sarabhai). Mr. Bhattacharya’s attitude, thus, reeks of the typical attitude of the Indian educated upper class which amount to “India is better than the rest of the world”. Thus, pay no heed to it.

    As to the suggestion of watching B. R. Chopra’s version, it is 94 episodes, each of 45 minutes. That, in itself, poses a huge barrier to anyone who is not of Indian origin, to see it. Further, in my view, it does not capture the motivations of each character and depicts an all too black-and-white picture of the various characters. For example, Duryodhana is depicted to be almost completely an evil, immoral person which he was not. He was greedy, ambitious, treacherous and egoistic yes. He was also courageous, brave and true to his friend Karna. If you’re motivated to watch all 94 episodes, have at it. It is a good effort and requires a LOT of your time. You can find it on youtube (with subtitles).

    The Mahabharat is a very complex tale. The very fact that two westerners not at all familiar with the tradition found a way to understand, condense and present this great tale in a way that a western mind can understand it is a tremendous achievement. Watch the version by Mr. Brooks and make up your own mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: