The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. Comprising of more than 74,000 verses, long prose passages, and about 1.8 million words in total, The Mahabharata is one of the longest epic poems in the world. Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata is a 1989 film version of this epic.
In Brook’s The Mahabharata, an international cast was intentionally used to represent the various Hindu characters in the film. This technique, known as colorblind casting, is “simultaneously a directorial choice in mismatching a role’s race and its player, …and an open display of the actors’ racial features contradictory to those intended by the playwright” (Shen, 2008: 1).
This paper seeks to look at how effective colorblind casting was in adding to the success of the film and at the same time, its criticisms.
Colorblind Cast Chosen by Acting Ability
Colorblind casting has received strong support from the academia as it allows actors the chance to play roles that were once considered off limits to them because of their race (Schechner, 1989: 10). Because of colorblind casting, Brook traversed the world to find the best actors, in terms of their acting abilities, suited for the various roles in The Mahabharata. If Brook was not colorblind in his casting, African actor Mamadou Dioume, who played Bhima, would not be cast in the production and audiences would not have gotten a chance to marvel at the giant man’s acting prowess. Actors that were chosen based on their aptitude and not their skin color allowed the production to be brought to a higher level by letting “audiences marvel at such performers’ abilities to mask the gap, to “become” who or what they are representing” (Schechner, 1989: 6-7). Thus, colorblind casting is seen to be a success in this sense.
However, Brook’s decision to cast actors of different races in The Mahabharata brings these actors’ acting abilities into question. There is little doubt that Brook considered the actors that he cast as being the best he could find, but whether they were good enough to bring any value to the production was another matter. By employing colorblind casting and leaving the actors’ race exposed in its mise-en-scene, the principle of compensation is being disagreed with. At the same time, the compensating mechanism is such that if the actor plays a role of which he has a different race to, he has to use more skill, effort and luck to succeed as compared to playing a role of which he has the same race (Shen, 2008: 5-6). This can be seen by comparing the acting of Indian actress Mallika Sarabhai, who plays the role of Draupadi, to that of any other cast member. Sarabhai’s acting is seen as more natural and congruent to the film while that of, say, Italian actor Vittorio Mezzogiorno as Arjuna, seems to be more strained and incongruous in relation to the production. Thus, in the colorblind cast of The Mahabharata, the acting skills of a great actor might not be enough to offset the negative value he might have added to the play by playing the role of another race.
Therefore, even though we see merit in actors being chosen based on their abilities and not by color, there are other factors preventing the effectiveness of colorblind casting in Brook’s The Mahabharata.
Colorblind Casting for Promotion at the International Level
Peter Brook wanted an international cast for the production of The Mahabharata so that themes shown were freed from any particular culture. Jean-Claude Carriere said that if “ we had tried to make a wholly Indian production the barrier would have remained, or if we had taken only Africans the universal aspects would have not been so strongly felt” (Schechner et al., 1986: 63). With colorblind casting bringing in cast members from Japan, Italy, etc, the viewer would most definitely look at The Mahabharata as not just from one culture, but also as being a potpourri of different cultures. Thus is the effectiveness of colorblind casting in the promotion of the film internationally.
At the same time, the inconsistency of the translation from the Sanskrit epic to the English film and the fact that all the actors of varying skin colors utter the same awkwardly translated prose gives one a feeling of incoherence when watching the film. Even if the actors possessed superb acting skills, the effects on the viewers would largely be that of a comedy as it is quite funny to watch a Japanese actor such as Yoshi Oida, who plays Drona, say the rigid lines from the prose with such self conviction. Also, viewers might have a hard time suspending their disbelief at Indian Gods being played by white men, for example Bruce Myers playing Krishna. This presents a failure of promoting The Mahabharata at the international level caused by use of colorblind casting.
Moreover, the use of colorblind casting for promotion in the international level might have forced Brook to trivialize the original epic. In Brook’s version of The Mahabharata, it is clear that there is a great reduction in length and also absence of a large part of what was in the original. What was left in the production was simplified portrayals of the original epic, with scenes being cut to make the sequence of the production appear chopped up and disjointed. To make matters worse, actors unfamiliar with the Indian culture and the original Mahabharata made the dialogue sound awkward and characters also appeared to say unexpected things (Dasgupta, 1987: 15). This distracts the viewer from the original intentions of the epic, which was to educate on Hindu mythology, and also makes the viewer uncomfortable with the way the characters were being portrayed. Thus, colorblind casting for promotion of The Mahabharata at the international level seemed to have had more failures than successes.
Colorblind Casting Benefiting Actors
The discussion of the effectiveness of colorblind casting is not confined to the perspective of the audience. Colorblind casting in Brook’s The Mahabharata can also benefit the actors. According to Mallika Sarabhai, being part of a multicultural cast provided a joy in discovery of the different cultures. Vittorio Mezzogiorno also said that when he acted in another language, he felt that “the meaning [sic] is so much better” (Brook’s Production Video).
However, one has to regard these comments with a pinch of salt as the actors have a vested interest and are emotionally attached to this production. In fact, this cultural exchange was not evident on screen. In the film, it is observed that there was no coherence in the way the actors acted towards each other. Even though the dialogue was in English, most of the actors spoke with their native accent. There was no hint whatsoever that the cast was learning from each other’s culture and integrating themselves with one another. The fact that the cast was from around the world made the individual accents stand out even more.
Thus, even if colorblind casting had benefited the actors in giving them the chance to interact with the different cultures, these benefits have been lost to the viewers.
At first glance, colorblind casting seems to be an effective technique for Brook’s The Mahabharata in that it allows actors to be chosen based on acting ability, promotes the production on an international level and benefits the actors. However, after delving into the effects of colorblind casting, we see that it actually does more harm by taking away the true essence of The Mahabharata, which is about Hindu mythology, and replacing with it a production that departs from the original in terms of the authenticity and the message. Thus, colorblind casting is mostly ineffective in Brook’s The Mahabharata.
Dasgupta, Gautam. “The Mahabharata: Peter Brook’s “Orientalism.” Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1987): 9-16
Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata. Dir. Peter Brook. DVD. RM Associates, 1989.
Schechner, Richard. “Race Free, Gender Free, Body-Type Free, Age Free Casting.” TDR 33.1 (1989): 4-12.
Schechner, Richard, et al. “Talking with Peter Brook.” The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1986): 54-71
Shen, Grant. “Operational Mechanism of Colorblind Casting.” Lecture Note 12. TS2232. NUS, (2008): 1-7