In late August 2018, as yet another bizarre bubble simmered to the top of the cultural boil, the meme-o-sphere was treated to the escapades of Johnny and Papa, a father-son duo engaged in a series of cryptic, weirdly animated nursery rhymes. The hollow intonation and dead-eyed expressions of these “characters” may have seemed instantly recognizable for those overly attuned to the incessant discharge of the modern online grapevine, their slapdash style familiar from the ongoing scourge of algorithmically-generated YouTube content aimed at screen-anchored, passively-monitored children. Engineered to exploit YouTube’s content delivery systems, many of these mechanically produced, low-budget videos in fact originate from the Indian subcontinent, a fact hinted at by the Johnny/Papa dynamic, which may actually have roots in the mythological story of a young Krishna, chided for eating dirt, opening his mouth to reveal the entire universe inside.
That story likely shows up in its earliest form in the Mahabharata, a sprawling ancient text that comprises both tales of conquest and adventure and scriptural disquisitions such as the Bhagavad Gita. In a neat bit of unintentional synchronicity, the Mahabharata’s sprawling story also birthed a 2013 animated adaptation done in the same unsettling style as the aforementioned videos, a project that endeavors to squeeze it’s 200,000 verses into a two-hour youth-friendly package. The attempt to fuse algorithm with epic is dubious, but also strangely fascinating.
In keeping with its soulless, computer-generated production mode, Mahabharat looks cheap, awash with repetitive character design and wallpapered background textures that wouldn’t appear out of place in a 128-bit video game cutscene. Yet it was actually very expensive, the costliest animated film in Indian history, and also one of the country’s biggest box-office bombs. High-end voice actors (including screen legend Amitabh Bachchan) anchor the cast, which eliminates the disturbing sing-song modulation of the YouTube videos, but retains the same smoothed-out style of movement and eerily unmoored camera. The movie’s content is just as clunky, following an opening title card that notes its disinterest in offending any particular religion or caste, which seems like a non-sequitur until you connect it to the country’s simmering ethnic tensions, a state seized upon and further inflamed in the years since the 2014 election of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
A bellicose legend detailing a “righteous war” waged against poorly-behaved brethren, Mahabharat could easily be interpreted as a contemporary call to arms, although as always it’s difficult and dangerous to ascribe a specific political agenda to content that declares itself apolitical. Strengthening the argument that something was in the air is the fact that this production was produced in conjunction, albeit not directly, with a live-action TV extravaganza, whose 267 episodes dwarf the 94-episode miniseries produced in the late ‘80s.
This version aims for something a bit more compact. Aimed at children and correspondingly opening with a framing story involving a magic eagle dispensing wisdom to two unbearable brats beneath the Gateway of India monument, it starts off in spotty territory. This settles down after the framing structure is thankfully abandoned for good, segueing into a main saga which mostly concerns the exploits of the Pandavas, five royal brothers with godly parentage. This quintet is pitted against their cousins the Kauravas, a stocked clan of equally royal sons that rounds out at an even hundred (they also have one sister). Composed primarily of blocky battles and glowering têtes-à-tête, the Mahabharat viewing experience is akin to watching two kids play with toys for about two hours, their imaginative flights of fancy only increasing the incomprehensibility of the story unspooling before you.
Seeing this style of animation drawn out to feature-length format ends up landing somewhere between entrancing and completely creepy, the allure of momentarily striking images balanced by a foot firmly planted in the uncanny valley. Unlike most algorithmic videos, Mahabharat actually includes lots of human involvement, although that often seems less like direction than the editing and assemblage of content created by a machine. The film is packed with puzzling and unorthodox choices: gliding pans that lead to nowhere, insistently suspect mise-en-scene, heads cut off in favor of strict focus on rows of rippling torsos. The camera is always moving yet rarely feels controlled, except when engaging in the sort of intense, zoom-focused shot/reverse-shot patterns that define Indian soap operas.
All this weirdness is almost worth the price of admission, a cost that is thankfully low in the world of Streaming Hell. So while the actual content of Mahabharat quickly becomes hard to follow, even for those interested in the ins-and-outs of ancient Indian mythology, there are still compelling moments scattered throughout, like the fact that every single baby wears the same stupid polka-dotted bucket hat, a confounding choice for an epic set in classical antiquity. Best of all are attempts to strive for beauty, which are unceremoniously mangled by the limitations of the form. Early on, a dreamy princess is introduced running her fingers through a row of flowers, a moment that at its best might seem like something out of Malick. Here, her digits are not capable of actually entering the texture of the plant, causing them to glide above at a disconcerting proximity, hovering along in uneasy limbo.
What’s most interesting about Mahabharat is how a gaudy, misbegotten flop intended as educational distraction fodder for kids can also function as a collision of so many fascinating contemporary issues. Unlike last year’s Padmaavat, another historical epic which drew criticism from Muslims for turning one of their foundational texts against them, this film elicited no controversy and inspired no real reaction. Yet despite its innocent and apparently apolitical exterior, it’s still capable of serving an ideological function, just like those creepy YouTube videos, seemingly innocent diversions which often bear a poisonous payload imported from darker corners of the web. Beneath it’s glossy, jankily animated surface, it’s yet another reminder that even the oddest misbegotten curiosities stand as the sum total of a complex confluence of trends and situations, and that we should always try to be well apprised of the content and context of the media we passively consume.