Not simply for entertainment : the failure of Kahani hamare Mahabharat ki and its place in a new generation of televised Indian mythology
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This thesis looks at the media event of Kahani Hamare Mahabharat Ki (Our Story of the Mahabharat), a serialized, televised version of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata which ran on prime-time Indian television from July to November 2008. The show was created and produced by Balaji Telefilms and Ekta Kapoor, well known throughout Asia for extremely successful prime-time soap-operas which have come to be representative of the genre in India. Kahani Hamare Mahabharat Ki was canceled quite early in its run (it was intended to air for upwards of three years) due to low ratings and intense viewer criticism of the program. The bulk of the criticism compared it unfavorably to an earlier version aired by B.R. Chopra and his team in 1988-90, which is to this day remembered as one of the most watched events in Indian television history, and is still widely seen as a largely “successful” visual translation of the story to television. This thesis analyses the dimensions of Kahani Hamare Mahabharat Ki’s promises to offer something both “old and new” to the Indian public, its internal structure, the influences upon its creation, its failure, the nature of the criticism against it, and how it sparked a large public debate about how “authenticity” and “tradition” are currently being conceptualized by modern popular media in India. The thesis takes data and evidence from a variety of scholarly, print, online, and ethnographic sources to demonstrate that Kahani Hamare Mahabharat Ki’s failure was much more complex than the case of its being simply a “bad” show; rather it reveals that to many, Chopra’s earlier version has become in some ways monolithic, containing an essential “rightness” that speaks to broader concerns about the current state of India’s cultural and religious heritage as refracted through the lens of modern media. This thesis examines Kahani Hamare Mahabharat Ki as one unique occurrence within a much broader field of mythological/devotional programming currently available in India, and points to the need for a larger scholarly study of this phenomenon.