The Mahabharata (1989)
Directed by Peter Brook

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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When Peter Brook filmed his play based on The Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit epic, he created an impressive if flawed work of art.

The epic tells the tale of two sets of cousins, the Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu, the king of Hastinapura, and the Kauravas, the one hundred sons of Pandu's brother, Dhritarashtra. The eldest brother of each set of cousins claims the throne of Hastinapura for himself and a struggle arises between them. At first the kingdom is divided, but, as a result of a gambling match, the eldest of the Pandavas, Yuddhishtira, loses his half, and he and his brothers are forced into exile for thirteen years. They are to be given back their kingdom upon their return from exile, but when the eldest of the Kauravas, Duryodhana, refuses to do so the two sets of cousins gather their armies and go to war.

With a limited budget at his disposal, Brook has focused on the personal dramas and psychological struggles of the characters of The Mahabharata rather than on their various adventures, and he has been remarkably successful in bringing out the intricacies of their personalities. While such complexities are often lost when a literary work is made into a film, the characters of Brook's play remain fascinating, multi-faceted individuals. The character of Karna, for example, who is Duryodhana's chief advisor, though he is a brother of the Pandavas, unbeknownst to them, emerges as one of cinema's great personalities. He is deeply troubled and angry, but he is also loyal, brave, and honorable. Brook's portrayal of his inner conflicts is masterful, and his final battle with Arjuna, one of his brothers, is among the most profoundly emotive scenes ever to have been filmed.


The director has divided the story he tells of these persons into three distinct segments. The first part of The Mahabharata provides the background to the succession struggle, introduces the characters and their conflicts, and generally bombards the viewer with information. There is no reason, however, why this need be a problem. Any attentive viewer should be able to ingest the complexities of the story, and, if he does, he will find the film's first third to be both captivating and exciting. The middle section of the film, which narrates the wanderings of the Pandavas while they are in exile, is, unfortunately, slow and amorphous. In the epic itself, the heroes are involved in a number of different adventures at this time, but, being essentially a play, Brook's work remains inappropriately static. When the Pandavas emerge from exile and the war begins, the film is able to regain its momentum, and some of its best moments belong to the final third.


The emotions aroused in the viewer by these events are generally enhanced by the movie's visual qualities, such as the sombre, brooding darkness in which its characters are frequently wrapped. What is more, given that Brook produced The Mahabharata on a very limited budget, he has wisely chosen to make an austere, stylized work rather than attempting to convey wealth and supernatural happenings with substandard props and special effects. Admittedly, some of the techniques he employs work better than others, but the overall effect is better than what he would have accomplished had he strained to achieve results beyond what was possible with the means at his disposal.


Whatever the movie's virtues, I must concede, nevertheless, that it is not without flaws. Probably intending to demonstrate the universality of the Sanskrit epic, Brook has cast as characters who are brothers men of different ethnic backgrounds so that one brother will be played by a Persian, another by an Italian, a third by an African, and so on. This unusual approach is at first a considerable distraction, but as the film progresses the viewer grows accustomed to the conceit. Unfortunately, because Brook's casting choices do distract the viewer, even if only intermittently, they do thereby detract from the quality of the film.


The Mahabharata is a powerful, stirring movie. By emphasizing the emotional struggles of his characters, Brook successfully engenders feelings of compassion, anger, and heroism in the viewer. The first and third parts of The Mahabharata are particularly exciting as a result. The film does lose some of its focus in the middle, but the remainder of the work is so emotionally charged that it leaves the viewer exhilarated by the experience of watching it. While it is by no means perfect, it is a significant achievement.

Review by Keith Allen

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