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The Modern Saint: a tribute to filmmaker Ramanand Sagar

Remembering the creator of Ramayan on his 98th birthday.

By Vikrum Mathur

Ramanand Sagar; photo credit: www.sagartv.com
Ramanand Sagar; photo credit: www.sagartv.com

WASHINGTON, DC: The year was 1991, and I had just turned 3. My mother had sought to imbibe in me early an appreciation for the spiritual core that made up Hinduism and a big part of Indian culture. To achieve that goal, she popped in a videocassette of the television series Shri Krishna, and at the outset, the image of a pleasant looking, intelligent man filled the screen. The man explained, as an intro to the series, the various shades and forms Lord Krishna is known for around the world and the objective of the serial to depict him as the colorful spiritual figure that he truly is.

From that introduction I was hooked, and when I asked my mother who the gentleman on the television was, she told me he was the director – Ramanand Sagar. Thus began my journey and fascination toward watching nearly each and every television work of this great man, who would not only instill in me a deep devotion towards the Almighty, but also enable me to learn much about Hindu values and traditions, as well as the Hindi language.

Ramanand Sagar was a man who actually began his career in Bollywood films as a writer, most notably writing the Raj Kapoor classic Barsaat. He went on to become a highly successful filmmaker with hits such as Arzoo, Geet, Baghavat, Salma, Romance, Lalkar, Charas, Jalte Badan, and Aankhen.

However, as stories suggest, these works gave him much name and fame but did not provide him with the true feeling of satisfaction that he sought from life. He wanted to do something that would be his magnum opus, a project for which he would be eternally remembered. Legend has it that he began to foresee television as being that very medium which would bring families together and carry with it a worldwide appeal.

He decided that for his magnum opus project, television would be the optimal method of transmission, and that project would be an adaptation of the epic Ramayan. Another key idea of bringing this epic to television would be the ability to analyze and present interesting details and anecdotes glazed over by the Ramayan film adaptations of the past, which only gave the basic details of the story. With television, Sagar could present all that he wanted without having the constraint of time.

Sagar decided to test the television waters before undertaking such an important endeavor, and his production company first produced the hit series Vikram Aur Betaal, starring Arun Govil and Sajjan. It was directed by Sagar’s son Prem for Doordarshan and its success, followed by his other son Moti’s Dada Dadi Ki Kahaniyaan, cemented Ramanand Sagar’s belief in creating Ramayan for the small screen. Many of the actors in the two aforementioned serials were cast in Ramayan, most notably Arun Govil as Ram, Dipika Chikalia as Sita, Sunil Lahri as Lakshman, Arvind Trivedi as Ravan, and Dara Singh as Hanuman.

The gamble on Ramayan proved to be one of the most fateful decisions by Sagar, as it became the first ever blockbuster on Indian television. Airing every Sunday morning, people dropped everything and sat enraptured in front of their TV set, some even worshipping the actors in real life as incarnations of Lord Rama, Sita, and Hanuman. Till date, many people claim that when they think of Shri Ram, the image of Arun Govil pops in their head, or Dara Singh as Hanuman. Ramayan would turn out to be that work for which Sagar would be forever remembered and identified, and till date, the series is a benchmark for the best adaptation of the epic ever.

Sagar followed Ramayan with Luv-Kush, based off of the Uttar Ramayan book, showcasing the further adventures of Shri Ram and his children Luv-Kush. The series also proved to be a hit, and then Sagar decided to produce and direct a mega television serial which would require even more detailing and hard work than Ramayan, and that was Shri Krishna.

Shri Krishna, which happens to be my most favorite work by Sagar, aired for more than seven and a half years with over 200 episodes. It was based primarily on the Srimad Bhagwat, and covered all the way from Shri Krishna’s birth to his grandchildren. It was also a blockbuster, and audiences loved the performances by Swapnil Joshi as a young Krishna and Sarvadaman Bannerjee as an adult Krishna.

My personal favorite aspects of the show were the depiction of Lord Vishnu’s prior 8 avatars to Shri Krishna and the depiction of the various colors of Shri Krishna, whether he stole butter, killed evil demons, or engaged in “prem-leela” with Radha and the gopis.

Two particular lessons from the show stand out to me personally, and always bring tears to my eyes whenever I see them. The first is Shri Krishna’s interaction with a poor fruit seller woman, who belongs to a lower caste. When no one buys her fruits on a particular day, her only source of income, the tired woman sits down in front of Shri Krishna’s Gokul home and expresses her disappointment about her lack of sales. Right after, Shri Krishna comes out and asks for all of the fruit, to which the woman replies that in order to have the fruit he must give something in return.

Shri Krishna, a child of about 7 at the time, does not understand monetary transactions and offers to sit on her lap as the payment, which he likens to what he does to his mother or other gopis when he wants butter from them. The surprised woman retorts that such an action is an impossibility as a high caste person cannot touch a low caste one, but the Lord sits down anyway and says that he does not understand what caste is, just the fact that the woman reminds him of his mother. The woman is so happy that someone has showed her a dash of humanity that she gives the fruits away. When she returns home, she notices that her empty fruit basket feels heavy, and opens it to find hundreds of jewels, showing that the Lord does look after his devotees.

The other beautiful aspect of the show is how Shri Krishna, Radha, and the gopis’ raas leela is depicted. Each and every gopi loved Shri Krishna, and when they all worshipped Maa Durga for the man of their choice, Maa Durga was amused to see each one ask for Lord Krishna. She granted each gopi her wish, and on a particular full moon night, the Lord took many forms and danced with each gopi. Sagar described this as the meeting of the soul to the almighty, the ultimate happiness, the ultimate love. He said that in the principle of devotion, there is no thinking involved, just plain love, and that is what the raas leela was. This is but a taste of the wealth of knowledge from the series and it truly is the show which made me embrace spirituality and till date it provides me with the greatest happiness and relief in times of need.

Sagar’s company would go on to produce hit after hit in serials such as Alif Laila (Arabian Nights), Jai Ganga Maiya, Jai Mahalaxmi, Shree Brahma Vishnu Mahesh, Sai Baba, and Hatim. One pet project of Sagar, Jai Durga, was never realized under his direction, but was completed by his sons in 2007.

Another fascinating initiative by Sagar was Sagar World, a theme park like Disney World, except based off of the mythological serials he produced.

The visionary Sagar was born on December 29, 1917, and passed away on December 12, 2005. I remember finding out the information about his death from a relative and feeling absolutely devastated. It was a strange feeling. Here was a man I had never met and would never meet, yet I felt like I lost someone who was my own. Someone who had shown me the way my whole life, who had held my hand, and through his work, continues to do so.

10 years since he went to a better place, to the late Mr. Sagar I say, without your work, I would be like a traveler without a map, a soul without a destination, and perhaps a human without a heart. Mr. Sagar’s work has been the biggest source of my character, of my way of life, and of my ethics. It continues to provide me with the optimism one needs perennially through life.

Mr. Sagar gave each and every interested individual the gift of learning about Indian history for years to come, and he is truly a modern saint to be revered, for what he has done has been one great service to mankind for generations to come and we must not forget this great man. Mr. Sagar you were one of a kind and the world needs more good men like you. You are sorely missed and this is but a humble tribute to celebrate your great work.

(Vikrum Mathur is an actor, and avid film buff who resides in Maryland.)