Many questions arise while watching Ramyug, Kunal Kohli's adaptation of the Indian mythological epic, Ramayana. Especially around its timing. Is Kohli trying to 'interpret' the text in a light that hasn't been attempted before? Something Mani Ratnam tried to do almost a decade ago? Is he trying to re-evaluate the roles of 'good' and 'evil', something Amish Tripathi did in the Shiva trilogy? Is he looking at the text through the eyes of contemporary politics? Is he going for provocative treatment, something we might never expect from an adaptation?
The answer to all of the above questions is, no. Kohli is treading the same reverential path as Ramanand Sagar's 1987 hit on Doordarshan. Given the popular political sentiment in the country and the blockbuster success of some of the 'revisionist' period films, one might imagine Kohli didn't have to strive too long to find investors for this project compared to the others. It's impossible to watch a show with chants of "Jai Shri Ram", without hearing the echoes of incidents repurposing the chant for acts of violence these days.
However, keeping the politics and the timing aside, there's still scope for 'entertainment' in a Ramayana adaptation. A tale as old as time itself, around good vs evil, there are plenty of iconic moments that are drilled into a majority of the Indian population, thanks to the umpteen renditions of Ram Leela across the country. Simply invoking these moments could result in a strong reaction, even if the execution is questionable. Kohli's adaptation of the epic seems to have Rajamouli-like ambitions, but ends up looking as something marginally better than an Ekta Kapoor show. Making a critical choice of letting characters sport 21st century hair-cuts and trimmed beards, probably in an attempt to contemporise them, the choice turns out to be a major distraction throughout the run-time of nearly six hours.
Diganth Manchale wears the placid face of Ram, occasionally breaking into a dimpled smile, and shedding a few tears. Akshay Dogra is the more volatile Lakshman, sporting 'lockdown hair'. Aishwarya Ojha starts off with a slight reluctance in her diction, but carefully settles down as the episodes progress. Aided by veterans Dalip Tahil, Shishir Sharma and Tisca Chopra, the fresh-faced cast don't do a particularly bad job, but it's just the overall filmmaking that never quite hits the mark. Sometimes Kohli is so transparent about his intentions behind the scene, thanks to an enthusiastic background score, it ends up looking like a Versova street-play. Kamlesh Pandey's dialogues could have done with a light touch, eerily reminiscent of Ramanand Sagar's version, but they're directly at odds with the contemporary-looking beards. There's always a bass-heavy background score chanting Raavan's name, each time he comes on screen. Vivan Bhatena's Hanuman, whose torso does a large part of the heavy-lifting for his role, has the Hanuman Chalisa sung each time he takes off into the clouds. Ramyug is a show that could have been a podcast, given how the background songs and the verbose dialogue repeatedly assault you, and the visuals are rarely novel as one might have thought.
To arrive at this abysmal show's biggest disappointment, is how bland Kabir Duhan Singh is, as Raavan. While the actor has the physicality and the sinister beard, Singh's failings as an actor are all over the character. Kohli finds an interesting way to depict Raavan's ten heads, almost like an M Night Shyamalan character with multiple personalities, but the idea isn't explored further. In an age, where filmmakers tend to dig beyond the obvious to find a righteous 'motivation' for their villains, Kohli never manages anything beyond some pop psychology behind Raavan's inherent "evil nature". In a time, when there are already multiple perspectives on 'good' and 'evil', and the semantics between the two, Ramyug is as simplistic as a show has ever been. Going about underlining "good" and "bad" in broad strokes, Kohli's show wants to spell out and underline everything, lest someone misinterpret it. With the help of styling, background score and even the choice of words for a character, Kohli practically seems to be screaming in our ears about what to feel in a particular scene. There is the rare saving-grace even in a bad show like this, where a Tisca Chopra imbues her Kaikeyi with humanity, and makes her seem like a real person. Unlike her colleagues.
Ultimately, Kunal Kohli's Ramyug never seems to answer why such a project was made in the first place. Is it because he had a novel treatment in mind for the Hindu epic? Or is this another one of those exercises, where a filmmaker tries to make their way from oblivion to relevance, by making something that 'works' for the masses? If the reason behind making the show is the latter, then it should be a worrying subject for a director of Kohli's repute. He made some decent films in the 2000s, nothing warrants getting on the 'Hindu pride' bandwagon, something most of his colleagues are exploiting to gain favours with the current establishment, and to further their careers. Kohli even seems to side-step Ram asking for an agnipariksha from Sita, towards the end of the show. It's a strangely contrived moment, where Kohli seems to be on tenterhooks, thinking about the Hindu fanatics as well as a section of Twitter waiting to label the scene 'regressive'. So Kohli doesn't even dwell on Ram's side of the personality, where he (apparently) asked Sita for evidence of her 'purity', and makes her walk through fire. It's a moment that arguably embodies Kohli's tentative vision for the show. It's anybody's guess if the makers hurried into production, hoping Lord Ram would take care of it. He doesn't.
Ramyug will begin streaming on MXPlayer from 6 May.