One of the most poignant, destabilising images from the Ramayana is one painted by Raja Ravi Varma, where Ravana is shown slicing off Jatayu’s wing with his sword while grabbing a distraught Sita with his other hand. Sita’s hands cover her face. She is weeping. Ravana’s hands are around her waist, holding her like a child to the hips. His fingers look like claws. The two are up in the clouds, you can see the mountains below. The sliced wing is floating down, with stray feathers blowing in the wind—the wind is summoned in the picture by the floating feathers.
The destabilising part of this image is how, in some prints, below the knees Ravana and Sita appear to become inextricable—you do not know whose feet you are seeing. At first glance, it seemed like Ravana’s. But then you see it is Sita’s, with a toe ring.
The tension that this suggestion of intimacy creates sprouts from the fount, Valmiki’s Ramayana, where “with left hand he [Ravana] seize[s] lotus-eyed Sita by her hair and with his right hand by her thighs” (From The Ramayana of Valmiki: The Complete English Translation by Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman). When he fights Jatayu, Ravana has Sita “clutch[ed]… tightly to his left side”. It is this clutching that Ravi Varma fleshes out with his brush. And it is this touch that director Om Raut does away with entirely in Adipurush, his meek adaptation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, that bestows on Sita a flat, de-sexualised purity.
Sita’s abduction takes place as soon as we settle into the film. This allows the entire second half to be devoted to the war—the CGI flexing, adrenaline pumping format founded by Bahubali. That is how Raut sees the epic, an excuse for adrenaline. (That our adrenaline flatlines through the film is a separate failure, a preoccupation that does not belong here.)
The abduction takes place with no touch. Ravana does not even grip Sita’s hair. She is levitated onto a bed of encroaching weeds that tie her up, her luscious hair flowing loosely. Touch is considered inherently sexual, and so, impure. Sita’s purity is inextricably bound to her, flattening her from a character to a motif, an idea, devoid of complexity, easy to digest, easy to idealise, and to put on a pedestal.
“Sita’s purity is inextricably bound to her, flattening her from a character to a motif, an idea, devoid of complexity, easy to idealise, to put on a pedestal.”
Even though Valmiki’s text never lets you question Sita’s purity, even insisting on it with a backstory about how Ravana could not do anything to Sita against her will because of a curse, the poet surrounds Sita with people, including her husband Rama, who doubt her chastity, so that the doubt trembles through the text.
Raut does not give Sita this narrative luxury of trauma, of accusation. Not only does he renounce physical touch, he also erases the possibility of doubting Sita’s fidelity. Her purity is never challenged, ever present. Adipurush, as the disclaimer states, is “a work of worship, utilizing the epic… as a source of inspiration.”
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Missing the point
Stuck between seeming virtuous and being cinematic, even the filmmaker is confused. In an interview, Raut said he changed names—Rama is Raghav, Sita is Janki, Lakshmana is Shesh, and Ravana becomes Lankesh—to make them “human and approachable”. Because naming the character Rama would automatically create a patina of divinity in the eyes of the spectator. This is disingenuous, even silly, given the great lengths to which the film goes to make Raghav seem god-like. Adipurush is nothing but a work of worship, but in its blinkered opportunism it forgets what makes the Ramayana such a compelling text in the first place. It is not the adrenaline.
Valmiki’s Ramayana was not intended to be a manual for maryada. Valmiki’s Rama was a hero in the literary sense. As the devotional fever of Vaishnavism snowballed and spread, congealing into stories, inflecting—infecting, even—them with spiritual ideology, Rama became an exemplar. In the words of scholar and translator Arshia Sattar, “his actions and behaviour became increasingly paradigmatic.” Similarly, Ravana, a devotee of Siva, became increasingly villainised. Valmiki’s Ramayana lists Ravana’s rapes and conquests, but also his virtues, creating a complex figure. The Sundarakanda, for example, says that the women in his harem came there of their free will, galvanised by their lust and love, not his.
The first and last books of the Ramayana—the Balakanda and the Uttarakanda—which are considered later additions, are the ones which explicitly graft divinity onto Rama, making him an avatar of Vishnu. This is the inheritance of a later theological period, which rumbles till it reaches a fever pitch in the 16th century with Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, sung in an entirely devotional timbre. Now, Rama needed to be defended, not discerned. In trying to defend Rama, Adipurush blurs out all his indefensible actions.
One of the enduring complexities of Valmiki’s Ramayana is how fickle dharma can seem. Rama, the maryada purushottam (the perfect man), the horizon of righteousness, is constantly battling himself. Sattar explained it best, calling dharma “sukshma, subtle, elusive, hard to know… that when we choose one way of being and doing over another, we will as often be wrong as we are right.” It is a superb literary dilemma, one that Adipurush removes completely, content with a flattened binary of the good and the grotesque.
- Om Raut’s Adipurush is a meek adaptation of Valmiki’s Ramayana that does away with the epic’s complexities to create flat, cardboard characters
- It is stuck between seeming virtuous and being cinematic
- Rama and Hanuman in Adipurush feel militarised, as if the nation needs the weapons of this imagery, because without that the nation would not exist
There are three moments in Valmiki’s Ramayana that exemplify the complexity of dharma—when Rama and Lakshmana make fun of Ravana’s sister Surpanakha, with Rama egging Lakshmana on to mutilate her; when Rama kills the monkey king Vali by deceit, ambushing him from behind; when Rama forces Sita to prove her purity and ultimately banishes her. In the movie, the first becomes straightforward cause and effect; Lakshmana mutilates Surpanakha because she reaches out to kill Sita—Rama does not egg him on. Rama’s killing of Vali is dealt with brusquely, briefly—now shown, now gone. This is not a movie interested in questioning right and wrong, it merely performs blindly. The third instance is completely axed out.
By removing Rama’s complexity, the film also edits out Sita’s rousing presence—her response when asked to prove her purity, her unwillingness to return to Ayodhya, her asking the earth to swallow her. Both Rama and Sita are thus flat cut-outs of dull, unquestioned virtues. This wilful abdication of any instability turns the film into a chaste act of devotion; it is not entertainment, nor does it give sensual, intellectual, literary, or cinematic pleasure. This is what happens when blinded by warped ideas of devotion, one refuses to see a literary text as such. Devotion does not require narrative arcs. It does not require catharsis. Or tension or feeling. It is a perfumed thing, light, ether-like.
What is apparent is the anxiety to seem righteous. Rama, in post-Babri India, has become a stand-in for the ideal Hindu man—muscular, strong-willed, dharmic, armed. As has Hanuman, with akharas mushrooming in the shadow of his sculpted pecs. A social world holding on to this symbolism with a desperation born of fear; fear of cultural collapse, of oblivion. A victimhood that expresses itself as pride. That is why the devotion to Rama and Hanuman feels so militarised, as if the nation needs the weapons of this imagery, because without that the nation would not exist. As if this symbol, if tainted even a little, will undo something seminal in Hindu culture.
This cultural anxiety is often seen in contemporary cinema too, where people are afraid that if a protagonist from the margins is given a strain of something negative, something unresolved, it would undo the entire marginalised community’s moral citizenship; that badness of character could be mistaken for badness of identity. The flipside of this is the ongoing cultural project—where goodness of character is mistaken for goodness of identity.
In the end, I always return to Sattar’s framing of the Ramayana, which is about a “search for a dharma… that is vulnerable but all the more precious because it has been sought and found rather than given and received.” Here then is a way of looking at this text, written around 1500 BCE, sent into three directions from which we get three different recensions—South, North-West, East—finally compiled into a critical edition in 1975 in Baroda, translated in America, then summarised, then mistakenly summarised, then filmed, then discoursed with. Here is a way to lend this text dynamism. To make the Ramayana seem like a quest, not an answer. Because, of what use are rusted answers to age-old questions?
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.