A Long Time Ago On a Darshan Door Door Away

As a double-digit kid (just because I hate the word tween) in the early 90s, my pop culture started diverging from most of my peers. The reason was that my father was an early adopter of technology…I had a computer at home when ‘Computers’ wasn’t even a subject at school (I’m talking about the BW era…Before Windows, not Black and White – the display was neon green like the Matrix); and we got cable TV in 1992 (when it had around 5 channels, I don’t really remember very clearly).

I went into all of this to make one short point. I pretty much missed out on a lot of the 90s Doordarshan experience. We still watched Chitrahaar for some time, before Philips Top 10 happened. And I did watch Chandrakanta, Alif Laila, Jungle Book and all the other Hindi dubbed anime (yes they were all Japanese) with title tracks by Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj (credited only as Vishal). But I had only second hand knowledge of stuff like Shaktimaan (all you need to know – Tamraj Kilvish, “Andhera Kayam Rahe” and “Sorry Shaktimaan!”), Raja Aur Rancho (all you need to know – Rancho is a monkey…or was it Raja?) and all the rest of DD Metro (all you need to know – Super Hit Muqabla).

[Totally Irrelevant Aside – While we are talking of DD shows that I only have second hand knowledge of, let us veer for a moment towards Tahkikaat. As you all know, this 13 episode whodunit starred the director of Guide, Teesri Manzil and Jewel Thief alongside the future director of Mudda – The Issue, Pappu Can’t Dance Saala and I M 24. But what you probably haven’t given any thought to, is the fact that Tehkikaat was actually written and directed by Karan Razdan. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, here’s a visual…

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He also wrote and directed the show Rajani and was married to its star Priya Tendulkar for some time. He went on to directing films as well and his filmography as director includes such gems as Hawas, Girlfriend, Souten – The Other Woman and Eight-Shani.]

In short, I knew Tara better than I knew Shanti.

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I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Over the course of the 90s, more and more people around me started getting cable but as I went off to college at the turn of this century (just because I hate the word noughties) I mostly forgot all about TV (with all the free internet access who needed TV?).

Therefore, I didn’t even have second hand knowledge of an amazing gem that aired on DD starting in 2002. Also, the show was a huge failure so there was hardly anyone talking about it (then or now). It ran for only 90 episodes (Wikipedia says 52 but YouTube has 91, including one special preview episode) which seems like a big deal until you take into account that Shaktimaan began 5 years before it and ended about 2 years after it (about 500 episodes or close to 10 years).

[Another Totally Irrelevant Aside – We’re not even going into the comics, animated series or merchandising opportunities that Shaktimaan generated…as far as I know, Shaktimaan was the last huge success that Doordarshan had.]

But why are we talking about Shaktimaan? What about that failure of a show that I just called a gem? I’ll get to that presently, o rhetorical device. You see after the grand success of Shaktimaan, a 40-plus Mukesh Khanna thought that he was the reason for Shaktimaan’s popularity among kids (when in fact it was completely the other way round…anybody from the cast of Mahabharat could have played Shaktimaan successfully, including Gajendra Chauhan…ok maybe not him, or that Vidur guy).

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Even she would make a great Shaktimaan, with all her rotating experience.

So of course he decided that the only thing he could do to further his career now (apart from becoming a BJP supporter) was to star as yet another superhero. And thus the Brahmand ka Yoddha (Warrior of the Universe), Aryamaan came into existence. It is a testament to the quality of the show that this real life origin story is actually more interesting than the in-universe origin story of Aryamaan…which basically boils down to good King and wife have the prophesied messiah child whose life is threatened by evil stepmom causing exile during which he is trained by great wise old man.

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Played by Kiran Kumar who is only 11 years older than Mukesh Khanna.

This origin story goes on for an excruciating 20 odd 20 minute episodes, all of which open with a 3 minute opening title/song sequence followed by the same 3 minute voice over introduction to the universe accompanied by bad 3D animation of every place and organization you are likely to encounter through the entire duration of the series, even if a lot of it is not going to feature in the episode you’re currently watching. These 6 minutes remain common to every single episode, even though the intro ends with a lead in to the beginning of the first episode. So the ending of the intro doesn’t make any sense in episodes 2-90, but they had already recorded it…so. Yeah.

If only their audience was not illiterate (or hated reading), they could have used some sort of text floating off at an angle into space to provide the expositional details…like they did with the opening credits. You know, something completely original, like the show itself.

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They could have called it a scrawl or something.

It’s a show about a “young” warrior who belongs to a desert planet in a galaxy far, far away (presumably a long time ago as well), who is prophesied to bring balance to the universe. One of his companions is a supposedly adorable little droid robot who talks only in blips and bloops.

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These are the droids no one has ever looked for.

He fights against an evil syndicate that seeks to control the whole galaxy starting with gaining a trading monopoly over some sort of space mining. He is trained by a wizened old man (about 9 centuries old) called Hoshin, who believes in signs and prophecies and magic and talks in grammatically unsound sentences. He even goes to a sort of galactic assembly place that has representatives from all the planets and systems in individual pods that float up when they have to speak. And he fights using some sort of photonic sword or something.

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This image has not been created using a Facebook filter.

So it was nothing like anything the world had ever seen before.

Yeah, ok…I am only writing about Aryamaan because the Force has Awakened across the world (thought not yet in India thanks to Dilwale and Bajirao Mastani) and it is, to use a word with a very specific Indian meaning different from its actual meaning, ‘inspired’ by Star Wars. But to be completely fair to Aryamaan, it wasn’t really a straight ripoff of the Star Wars films.

Because if it had been…it would have been a much better show. Even Attack of the Clones stretched out over 90 episodes would be a much better show than what Aryamaan: Brahmaand Ka Yoddha ended up being.

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If you look closely, Kiran Kumar is crying in this scene…about what his life has come to.

After watching some 30 odd episodes of the thing on YouTube (you can watch it here if you’re into masochism), I have hit upon some of the reasons for the spectacular failure of this completely original sci-fi fantasy space opera and they fall broadly into three categories. (I have given the categories really original names, too!)

III – Revenge of the Shit

Rohit Shetty and Sanjay Leela Bhansali (I am never going to forgive you guys and your shitty films for delaying Episode VII by a week) are living proof that you can get away with making absolute, utter shit and still be a really successful filmmaker/creator. Because a lot of times, what really matters is not whether you’re making shit…but whether you give a shit about what you’re making.

If you make shit without giving a shit, the shit is going to hit the fan and come back to bite you in the ass…and then you’ll be in deep shit. I call this the Revenge of the Shit Principle™.

And boy did the people behind Aryamaan not give a shit. If you look at the finished product, it seems that everyone involved with the project (with the possible exception of Mukesh Khanna) was just phoning it in, because they were getting the money anyway. Not a single technical department on this production really had any fucks to give about the quality of work they were churning out.

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Even the costume guys didn’t give a shit that the hero looks like a blimp.

The visual effects suck more than a really promiscuous vacuum cleaner. The sets (that are mostly just matte/green screen replaced with badly made 3D models) look worse than a school project made by a 5th grader with no talent for arts and crafts.

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I. Can’t. Even.

Whenever they show stars (which is quite often, considering it’s a show set in space), it’s the same still image featuring the constellation Orion (as seen from Earth) very prominently…and for some unscientific reason they twinkle. And not like they twinkle on earth – they go out and come back into existence every half a second or so.

Plan 9 From Outer Space looks way better than what these people turned out more than 40 years later with around double the budget. [Note – To normalize the difference between a film and a show, budget here refers to approximate money spent per minute of final content.] And Plan 9 has been called the worst film of all time many times. (Mostly by people who haven’t seen Khooni Dracula.)

This would be bad enough, but compounding this problem is the fact that it was 2002, around a decade after the Great Liberalization that was retroactively put into place by Hon. Shri Narendra Modiji’s government. A lot of people now had access to cable TV (and through it, international shows) and Hollywood movies regularly played in theatres even outside the metros (including the remastered original trilogy and the prequels). When someone has already seen stuff like Mahashaktimaan, Harry Potter Aur Parasmani and Mayavi Talvaar in the theater, you can’t impress them with Mukesh Khanna holding a tubelight in front of a papier-mache background.

II – Attack of the Clichés

Clichés are not just lazy forms of storytelling…they are in fact vampiric entities from the Imaginary Realm that came into existence the day the first story was told and brought someone joy. They exist only to sap all the joy out of stories and subjugate all of humanity and doom us to a joyless existence of unoriginal, irritating stories. As such, they are the sworn enemies of everything that is good in the world.

And every cliché from the worst possible sources makes an appearance in Aryamaan. It’s like someone distilled the essence of the worst of B-grade 80s Bollywood, blended it with every problem in Indian television, sprinkled some heavy-handed mythological references and then somehow found a way to amplify all of that crap all the way up to 11.

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Sometimes all the way up to eleventy five!

Jealous evil stepmother queen; helped in her plotting by an overtly ominous minister who dabbles in medicine and magic and somehow retains his position despite being obviously evil; good king oblivious to everything except what is explicitly stated; menacing business guy who wants to control everything and doesn’t lose any deals despite being a dick to everyone; messianic child who everyone wants to kill but escapes through the machinations of a goody-two-shoes mother…let’s just stop right here, because even mentioning clichés negatively just makes them stronger and then one day they will all gather enough power to subjugate all of humanity. We have to stop that from happening.

The acting is horrible, the storytelling is awful, the pacing is glacial, the plotholes are plentiful and the characters have about as much depth as a puddle of piss on a flat surface. And then there is the language…the heavily Sanskritised Hindi that they chose to use would have only made sense if the target audience was limited to Hindi teachers and BJP spokespersons.

But the worst thing about it is that there is almost no actual action or comedy in the show. Yes, a show about a space warrior has no action…a show meant primarily for children has no comedy. The experience is kind of like if you went in to watch The Force Awakens but ended up seeing Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo.

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Now I kind of want to watch this version.

I – The Phantom Menace

But sometimes, even when everything else is all right…there is one problem that is either invisible to everyone, or no one is willing to point out. And that problem is alone a menace to the success of the project. Aryamaan had one such Phantom Menace…Mukesh Khanna in the lead role.

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Worse than Jar Jar.

In conclusion, Aryamaan is a sad, pathetic attempt by a man in the throes of midlife crisis to try and be a hero for little kids. It is sort of, but not really a ripoff of Star Wars…but you’d be better off watching a spinoff series about the adventures of Jar Jar Binks and his Ewok sidekick than sitting through this show.

But there is one episode of this show that is sublime art. It is a tragic study of the differences between the expectations that people have from their lives and how reality turns out. It is a story of the folly of men and how all the best laid plans come to naught. It is the special preview episode that they made fully expecting that they had another Shaktimaan on their hands. Watch it with the knowledge that you never even knew that this show existed…and it will definitely be a better experience than watching Dilwale.

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