Very few stories in the world seem to be referenced as often as the Ramayana, which could be because of its age, although I prefer to attribute it to its versatility. Also, by the end of this essay I will likely find one more probable cause for it.
I only started reading the Ramayana (in an old 5th hand translation, so I'm sure much of its meaning was lost on me) because of all the films that are based on it or that draw parallels with it. Not to mention all the songs that talk about Ram and Sita! Yet no two movies "inspired" by it were the same, so I got to the point where I just wanted to know: ok, what the heck is the original story? Well, not surprisingly there are many original stories, so many in fact that I could not find a summary to post here and spare myself the trouble of describing the version that I read. Heh...
To make a long story short (and please help me out with a link if anyone knows of a good short synopsis), Valmiki's Ramayana (the version I read anyway) sees Sita kidnapped by the demon Raavana who keeps her captive in Lanka while trying to convince her to be his wife. Sita keeps pushing him away firmly convinced that her true husband and master Rama is on his way to rescue her. She is right of course, and he does come to save her, but after Raavana is killed, Rama tells Sita that he cannot take her back because she has lived in a stranger's house for a whole year and it is not acceptable for him to take her back. Sita then orders a fire be built as she would rather be consumed by fire than live knowing that her husband and God doubted her. However, the god of fire refuses to take her thus proving her purity to Rama who then admits that he knew she was innocent but required proof for anyone else in his kingdom who would doubt it.
The last book of the Ramayana is not universally accepted as part of the story, but of course, consistent pagan that I am, I find it quite relevant. Sita and Rama return to Ayodhya and here again the commoners start whispering and making accusations, so Rama asks the pregnant Sita to leave for the good of the people and the kingdom. She does and in the forest she gives birth to two twin sons. Years later, Rama encounters his sons and is told their story. He then asks Sita to be brought back, but upon her return, he feels that she should once again clear everyone's doubts and go through the trial of fire. But this time she won't. While lamenting her fate she calls to her mother, The Earth, to swallow her. Rama never remarries and continues to rule righteously over Ayodhya until the end of his days.
One thing I am not here to do is discuss the Hindu scriptures, as much as I am interested in finding out more about them, so I will take the Ramayana version that I have read at face value without debating the many aspects of it that I disagreed with. That is better left to scholars. What I am here to talk about is films that use the theme of kidnapping and what happens to Sita after she get rescued.
I don't watch many movies from the 80s and the 90s, which is a shame for this particular topic because I bet there is a wealth of references in those, what with 9 out of 10 films being love stories in those decades. But even if I restricted myself to the 2000s there is still a cornucopia of references and interpretations, perhaps more than it would be fit for a religious story.
Before I even get to the films I can't help but point out that most mythical pairs of lovers are given a pretty straight-forward treatment in modern films. Take Romeo and Juliet for example: from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet the story stays pretty much the same even if the post-modern coating tries its best to make the latter look like a new story.
|I swear I tried to resist posting a gratuitous shot of DiCaprio, but I can never win this one...|
Or if we go further back in time to Tristan and Isolde, every modern adaptation has them going through the same trials and ending in the same place. Orpheus and Eurydice are yet another example of mythical lovers whose fate has been reenacted many times (we won't count Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet, because the connection is loose at best) with virtually the same result: why Orpheus, why did you have to turn? Yes, we know, because there would be no story otherwise. In the Bible there are few couples that can be seen as ideal lovers, with Adam and Eve being anything but ideal, and at any rate they are seen more as parents and family heads than as lovers. And then of course Samson and Delilah as famous a pairing as they are, would have some serious trouble if they applied for the "ideal couple" designation.
One thing is for sure though: whether we see these stories on a theatre stage, at the opera, on celluloid or on paper, the narrative follows the original story with enough fidelity to reassure us of the immortality of each myth.
However, not so with the Sita-Ram story. The more films I see referencing the Ramayana (even if not always openly acknowledging it), and specifically the love story part of it, the more twists and turns the original story takes. Out of the 8 movies I chose for this post, only one follows the story somewhat closely, but even that one adds its own footnotes thus giving it a whole new meaning. Which is somewhat baffling because in a society as irreligious as ours one would expect to find all kinds of reinterpretations of myths all over the place, while India strikes me as more conservative in the way of Gods and religion, and yet they come up with the most surprising... do I dare call them blasphemies?
Sure it's debatable whether or not Sita and Ram are seen as ideal lovers, and enough Desi people have told me that they are not, but from where I'm sitting, getting referenced in every other song about marriage and in every other movie about marital bliss puts them pretty high up on that pedestal.
And before I move on, because I always try to make sure there are no spoilers in my reviews, this paragraph is here to warn you that THERE WILL BE SPOILERS GALORE in this post for every single one of the movies mentioned. And the reason for that is: most Sita-Ram inspired stories follow the same pattern, except at the end. Here's a closer look at each of them in no particular order.
Khal Nayak (Hindi, 1993)
I have no idea why I even watched Khal Nayak all the way to the end, I suppose it was some sort of challenge I gave myself, but since I watched it, I was not going to leave it out even if it's from a decade I had no intention of including. Khal Nayak tells the story of Ballu, a criminal who has so far managed to escape justice every time. Ram is the head of the secret police (so secret in fact that he gives statements on TV regularly) who is on his tail. Ganga, played beautifully by Madhuri Dixit, is a jail supervisor and Ram's girlfriend, who decides to go undercover and join Ballu's gang to bring him to justice. After many (read 3 hours worth of them) over the top scenes and ridiculous displays of villainy (usually punctuated by fake cackles and menacing zoom-ins of the villain's face), Ganga ends up rescuing Ballu from an encounter with the police, because she has discovered the human being under the mask of the villain. However that labels her as a traitor and lands her in jail.
Ram, despite knowing her to be innocent, is ready to bow down to justice (much like the original Ram to the "justice" of his people) thus betraying her trust and their love. In this version of the story it is Ballu, the villain, who turns himself in and stands up for Ganga's purity in a speech that references the Ramayana more than once.
Tendencies to humanize the demon Raavan appear quite often in films, which is not very urprising considering there are apparently scores of interpretations that see him as a great leader of his people and a very learned man.
Pinjar (Hindi, 2003)
One of the most heart-breaking stories in Hindi cinema, at least for me, Pinjar revisits the Sita-Ram story over the backdrop of Partition. In this one, Raavan is Muslim (Rashid) while Sita and Ram are Hindus (Puro and Ramchand). He kidnaps her to settle an old family feud, almost against his own wishes. When she finally escapes after days of being locked up, she is rejected by her parents on the assumption that she has been raped.
Even if she hadn't been, which they are willing to believe, her honour is now tarnished and theirs along with it.
Puro must sacrifice herself for whatever is left of the name of her family, and for their lives which would be in danger if they took her back.
Leaving aside the moral issues that the parents' behaviour raises, the film succeeds fabulously in showing the gradual acceptance of her situation in a Sita forced to go back to Raavan as her only chance of survival.
Years go by and Rashid cannot come to terms with his sin, so he does everything in his power to make things right, even across the dangerous riots and curfews spawned by the recent Independence / Partition conflict. The ending is one of the most beautiful and heart draining moments that Bollywood has ever given me. I'm sure whoever has seen it will agree, and whoever has not... well, they're really missing out.
Lajja (Hindi, 2001)
A film that talks about the place of women in modern society via three women who are not really connected to each other that the main character meets. The main heroine, Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala), is an abused wife who runs away from her husband. Along the way she meets other unhappy women and puts together a very unflattering image of the woman in the Indian society. A great idea, very poor execution.
All three women in this film have one of Sita's names, but Janaki (Madhuri Dixit) is the only one where the side of the story that interests me is complete. She is showered with gifts and attention from the older owner of the theatre which effectively invites the jealousy of her chosen one, the father of her unborn child. In the form of a play (they are both theatre actors, which makes this a play within a play within a movie) Janaki is asked to go through the trial of fire to show that "Raavan" has never touched her and she bluntly refuses.
She sees no reason to prove her innocence in front of a husband who does not trust her.
The audience cannot accept a Sita who will not take the agni pariksha, so Janaki is promptly trialed and condemned by the public who attacks her, thus causing her to lose the baby. She does not resemble Sita in her resentment of Ram, but she does resemble her in the will to raise her child/children by herself and be both mother and father to them.
Sita Sings the Blues (USA, 2008)
The animated Sita Sings the Blues is a groovy, jazzy retelling, definitely the most modern interpretation, though a rather simplistic one (understandable given the fact that it is a 90 minute 2D animation). The fate of the abandoned writer is shown to mirror the fate of the abandoned Sita in clever montages of the writer's real life alternating with segments of the Ramayana. Sita thus becomes a symbol for every other woman left behind or neglected by the husband in favour of power or ambition. The narrators' interpretations of the Ramayana seems to favour that angle as well.
To them Ram always had a doubt about Sita which is why falling prey to his ambition to be the ideal king for his people is no hard work. But make no mistake, Sita is not absolved of her side of less-than-ideal behaviour either. At one point she is shown as a blood-thirsty puppeteer out to get Raavana killed, instead of saving herself. Nonetheless, Sita Singa the Blues is the most faithful retelling of the Ramayana, even if oversimplified, as it takes the story all the way to its finale where Mother Earth swallows a Sita who has essentially had enough.
Hey Ram! (Tamil / Hindi, 2000)
Hey Ram! is a tricky one because while it focuses on the Ram versus Raavan conflict (and turning the tables on it a couple of times too), there is very little Sita in it. By the way, this is the article that prompted me to watch this movie and include it in this post, as it may not be evident at first glance that the film even has anything to do with the Ramayana (at least it wasn't to me). The Sita in this story is about as passive as the Sita in the Ramayan, though to be fair, the fact that she is murdered somewhere in the beginning during the religious riots in Calcutta has a great deal to do with that. Nonetheless, she is instrumental to the plot on the one hand because the memory of her murder is what motivates Ram Saket throughout the entire story, and also in a more active role she comes back as a vision just as Ram is chosen to fight the demon (in this case Mahatma Gandhi) to make sure that he does not stray from it.
One could say that this is the most blood-thirsty Sita we have seen, even though she does not have an actual physical presence in the story.
The parallels however stop here because the rest of the story focuses on partition and on Ram fighting his demons.
Khuda Kay Liye (Pakistan, 2007)
Khuda Kay Liye has to me the most interesting treatment of the original story, a very unexpected one even if not entirely realistic. Mary, the daughter of a devout Muslim living in England with his white common law partner (right, well, the word "devout" only applies to his expectations for his daughter, he is clearly exempt from any kind of laws - of Islam or otherwise), gets tricked into going back to Pakistan where she is forcefully married to her cousin, a radical Muslim. She is in a very dangerous and remote part of Pakistan, so escaping is virtually impossible. During her 2 year captivity she makes friends with the women of the household but she is also raped and impregnated by her now husband.
She goes from being a bundle of energy and optimism to an empty shell kept alive only by thoughts of revenge and by her baby.
When she is finally rescued by her British fiance, she does her own killing of Raavan by bringing her husband to justice. However, when all is said and done and justice has been served, she takes the surprising decision of going back to the village where she had been held captive. She doesn't think she is the same person that "Ram" loved before, the captivity has changed her. This is the first Sita who never even gets to the trial of fire because she has trialed and convicted herself long before that. Considering one of the central themes of the film is broken spirits, this ending is appropriate, showing us a very down-to-earth Sita, stripped of all her Godlike devotion and indulgence, just a woman who has lost all hope in mankind.
Raavan / Raavanan (Hindi / Tamil, 2010)
Mani Ratnam's recent venture, Raavan / Raavanan, shows us a less celestial side of Ram, in the shape of Dev, a police encounter specialist (so a modern version of the killer of demons). This Ram is not the type to just bow to his father's wishes, which is probably why he has no other father than the IPS uniform. Nonetheless he goes to war in order to find his loved one, and is helped or hindered along the way by characters that mirror (some more faithfully than others) the secondary characters in the Ramayana. This one too turns the tables on the traditional characters and presents us a Raavan full of humanity and pain against a Ram full of hatred and ambition.
The twist, because of course there must be a twist, comes after Ram recovers his Sita (Ragini) and accuses her of impurity, knowing that this will push Ragini back towards Beera (the Raavan of our story) in a search for answers. In this version of the story, Ram believes Sita, but decides to use her to reach his goal of killing the demon. Much like in the original story, that proves to be his undoing and he loses her to his ambition.
Varudu (Telugu, 2010)
The only film I have so far seen that takes the sensible approach on the topic is the Telugu movie Varudu. When his bride gets kidnapped by an evil suitor and the parents are ready to give her up as damaged goods, Sandy the groom announces that it makes no difference to him if her honour remains intact or not, she is still his wife.
Luckily nothing happens to her because the villain, much like Raavan in the original story, turns out to be a softy at heart and gives her some time to think. I always said that a more determined villain, who does go through with his evil plans, would make a very interesting, albeit commercially doomed, film.
It's interesting to note that most of these films, when the characters invoke Sita, the ideal woman, make it sound as if she accepted to put herself through the trial of fire, whereas that does not seem to be the case in the text that I read. The first time she asks for death, but is saved from it by the Gods, while the second time she practically refuses. How is it then that lesser humans expect their Sitas to go through a trial that the Godess herself only took by chance and not by will? The movies had given me a much more submissive version of Sita, so I was surprised when reading the book to find out that she did in fact have more strength and pride than I had given her credit for.
The movies also tend to vilify Rama beyond the facts of the book. Rama turned out to be less than ideal in many other instances, but the first time around he does not ask Sita to go through the trial of fire, he merely accepts it as her wish to die. Which is of course no small transgression, but all his other failings seem to constantly give way to the big one that endured: the request for proof of purity.
Why is it, I wondered, that films seem to favour this interpretation then, when it's not even based on the facts of the book (if we assume that the last book is not considered part of the scriptures)? Why is it that Sita is martyred when she turned out to be a much stronger character in the book? Why is it that submissiveness comes through as Sita's strongest trait and self-righteousness as Ram's? And how can this couple still be considered ideal despite all that?
Many questions that may never find an answer as I am sure a desi's interpretation will be completely different than mine, or any outsider's. I'm sure I also missed a lot of subtleties that a Hindu would just take for granted. Which is why I never claimed to have my own interpretation of the story (ok, I do have one, but have no intention of writing about it).
But the fact remains that films keep going back to this story, over and over and over again, only to alter its ending. Could it be that the reason why it has been reinterpreted so many times is because its original form is far from ideal?
How ironic a conclusion would that be?