Sunday mornings were never the same after the first episode of Ramayan aired on television. The serial that brought the nation to a standstill, is still remembered for Arun Govil’s blissful smile, and creating unprecedented records, including being watched by over 650 million people worldwide. Shot in an aesthetic manner, Ramayan was a story about the victory of good over evil. The streets often wore a deserted look during the telecasts such was the show’s popularity.
Once upon a time, Ramayan attracted more viewers than Game of Thrones
Produced by Ramanand Sagar, Subhash Sagar and Prem Sagar, Ramayan was directed by Ramanand, Anand Sagar and Moti Sagar. The role of Ram was played by Arun Govil, Sita by Deepika Chikhalia, Lakshman by Sunil Lahiri, Hanuman by late Dara Singh, and Ravan by Arvind Trivedi.
“Indian television wasn’t prepared for a mythological show like this,” says Moti, adding, “The film industry felt that television was a risk. Everyone was sceptical about this big-budget show. But (Ramanand) Sagar saab fulfilled his dream, and it paid off.
He wanted to make it as it would have maximum connect with the audience. But if it was a film, he wouldn’t have been able to capture the essence and depth of the topic in just three hours. TV was the best bet.”
Casting actors for the characters was a tough task. There were over 200-300 auditions to help the director gauge who fit the bill. Govil says, “I was rejected after the audition. Sagar saab chose someone else. He wanted me to play the role of Bharat, but I wanted to play Ram. Later, they called me back. I was happy to have landed the role.”
The toughest part of the show was to create the feel of a war in the absence of computer graphics. “We had called 2,000 people to recreate the grandeur of the war. We got junior artistes from Umbergaon and as far as Ahmedabad (Gujarat),” says Moti. The show was shot in Umbergaon. It was also the most expensive TV serial back then, with as much as `9 lakh being spent per episode. “As many as 3,000-5,000 people would come over to watch the shooting,” adds Sagar.
Govil says, “The biggest challenge was to emote without being too expressive. Ramji is never loud, physically or emotionally. He is always pious. One had to look like a human and a God at the same time.” The actor shot for two and a half years for the show. Govil didn’t build his body for the role, but he had a fit physique. “Ram was a warrior, so he had to be fit even if he didn’t have six-pack abs,” he says.
The makers knew that the series was a hit within a few episodes, even though the initial reaction wasn’t positive. Within a month, the tide had turned. Once the show’s popularity picked up, it kept growing — soon becoming a household name. And the rest is history. Govil says, “Elderly people would touch my feet, which made me very awkward. That reverence was unbelievable. I told people to bless me instead. But they believed that they were touching Lord Ram’s feet. One can’t challenge such faith.”
People would pray in front of their TV sets. “Once, a driver stopped a passenger train because he wanted to see the episode; he delayed a marriage party [in the process]. Another time, when the team visited Jaipur’s Birla Mandir, over 40,000 people were waiting to see the cast. In Jammu & Kashmir, the power station was burnt down because an electricity cut co-incided with an episode. In a hospital, there was a heart patient who had been asked not to sit up. But when the telecast began, he got up from his bed and went into the waiting room, where the show was on. Another time, Ram and Lakshman were wounded by an arrow in the war, and two-three people who saw that got a heart attack and died due to shock. We heard many such stories, some strange and others unbelievable, from all over India and the world,” reminisces Moti.