How a Broadway-style Ramlila made the epic a surreal spectacle
The creator of Sampurn Ramayana, a three-hour rendition of the epic which will be staged in Delhi from September 29 till October 4, recounts the journey of the ‘Broadway Ramayana’
Like every child of my generation, I grew up watching the local Nukkad ki Ramlila of our village. It was that time of the year when we were allowed to stay out late by our elders and we used to love it. Watching these Ramlilas was a very wholesome experience — besides the story of Shri Ram, there was also comedy, local magicians, the joy of having peanuts tucked up in blankets, and the company of friends and family.
Then, we moved to Delhi and I got married to Madhu, the daughter of Late Ram Krishan Gupta, the legendary founder of Luv Kush Ramlila — arguably the biggest Ramlila in India. As a boy from a small village in Haryana, I was amazed by its massive scale. It used to happen at Red Fort and I loved the VVIP treatment we got there, courtesy of my father-in-law. But it was very far from our house.
We used to take our son to watch this Ramlila, but it was quite a task to go daily since, like every traditional Ramlila, it used to happen in parts. We could only afford to take him once or twice, missing the whole essence of this great epic. I wanted my son to learn from the values of Shri Ram’s life, and not just enjoy the grand party and melas. Moreover, the frequent disruptions due to VIP guests broke the rhythm of the act. Something within me could not relate to this traditional concept of Ramlila anymore.
How the idea took shape
I deeply felt that something needed to be done. For if things were not changed, the next generation would slowly forget about Shri Ram’s values. It was then that I decided to create a Ramlila where the whole story is narrated in one day; the performance is shorn of the crude comedy that reduces the great life of Shri Ram to mere entertainment. I also decided that we would not stop the show for any VIP as no one is above Shri Ram. Being accustomed to the grandeur of Luv Kush Ramlila, my dreams were to make it grander.
With this thought process, I started to create and weave the whole concept in my head. I used to discuss this at length with my family, and to my great surprise, my son Saurabh took great interest in this idea. He has been actively associated with this project with me since then. It was in 2011 when we started working on the script for this Ramlila.
We wanted to cover every aspect of Shri Ram’s life and it turned out to be much more difficult than we had anticipated. We were always careful with every character and every word as Indians have imbibed Ramayana in their hearts. Even a small mistake could hurt sentiments, and being a huge Ram bhakt myself, it was the last thing we wanted. It was the skillful writing of Raju Maan that helped us in turning our ideas into a solid script. It took one year to complete the script as it was re-written, edited and re-edited continuously until we were fully satisfied. This way, Sampurn Ramayana came into being.
The cinematic feel of the epic
We wanted Sampurn Ramayana to have a cinematic feel. For this, we decided to pre-record the entire show in studios. We were keen on this production to have the best soundtrack so we approached Chandra Kamal, who we had known for a long time. He and his father, Raj Kamal, were the music directors of BR Chopra’s Mahabharat. He brought his son, Bharat Kamal, on board and Bharat brought the latest sounds on track.
We convinced Udit Narayan to sing for us and now we had an amazing title song called Ye Hai Ram Ki Lila. Together, we created a soundtrack which we can proudly say is one of the best Ramayana-based soundtracks at the moment. It took us three years to complete this soundtrack as our ambition ran high and we did not want to compromise on any aspect of this production. The end result was worth every second of effort that went into making it. There are 18 original soundtracks in Sampurn Ramayana as on date, more than any Bollywood movie.
Now that the foundation of Sampurn Ramayana was ready, it was time to present this to the world. We did not want to make this a commercial production as it was dedicated to Shri Ram. It belonged to the people so we decided to introduce it through a NGO. Hence, we formed Aryan Heritage Foundation in 2015, to bring people together and collect funds through donation.
Roping in Shashidharan Nair
We hired the director of a local Ramlila to direct Sampurn Ramayana. But Shri Ram had other plans for us. One day we went to watch a show based on Mahabharat, and we loved it. I decided that if anyone should direct Sampurn Ramayana, it should be the director of this show. So Shashidharan Nair came into the picture. Initially, he wasn’t very keen as he had other commitments, but he gave into our persistent perusal and agreed.
From there the hunt for costume designers, light designers, stage designers, set designers, graphic designers and other technicians began. They were not among the most eminent names, and had no prominent work to show, but we discussed our vision with them and got fantastic results from them. It was difficult to explain our vision as something like this had not happened at that time, and there was no benchmark to compare it to.
A spectacular first show
In October 2015, our first show opened to more than 10,000 spectators against an expected 4000. The venue was overflowing with people and emotion. The atmosphere was magical and the review from the audiences was that they had not seen or experienced anything like this before. Their kind words were very overwhelming and all the hard work that was put in suddenly made all sense. Today, thousands of children are getting to know about Lord Shri Ram through our show every year. This is a matter of great satisfaction as this was our aim from the very start.
With the kind of response we got, our ambition only grew bigger; we try to bring something new and grander to the production every year. Kailash Kher has lent his voice to “Lankapati Lankesh”, the introduction song of Ravan, and Mukesh Khanna to Valmiki, the narrator of the show. Our stage design was revamped and costumes were overhauled. Such is the cultural impact of this production that more and more Ramlila Committees are trying to adopt the three-hour format for their Ramlila. In recent years, our production could only be compared to the Broadway shows of New York. To emphasize this analogy, we started calling Sampurn Ramayana as Broadway Ramlila.
We have come a long way from Nukkad Ramlila to Broadway Ramlila, but there is still a long way to go. This production has only impacted the audiences in New Delhi till now, and there is a whole world out there that needs to know Lord Ram through Broadway Ramlila. First stop, Ayodhya….
(Rajender Mittal is the creator of Broadway Ramlila and president of Aryan Heritage Foundation.)