The DD Files: When Shyam Benegal brought India’s entire history to TV screens in ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’

Benegal’s monumental series, based on ‘The Discovery of India’, is Nehruvian in scope and its lapses.

Indian cinema and television, and not just their Hindi iterations, have an odd relationship with history. Even though directors and producers seem endlessly fascinated with history, as the litter of shows on Maharana Pratap and the queen of Jhansi suggests, these films and shows bear very little relation to actual historical fact.

Now imagine a television serial in which not just one brief period centred on the heroics of a single character is shown, but which covers the entire sweep of Indian history, from the Indus Valley civilisation to the freedom struggle.

Every Sunday at 11am between 1988 and 1989, families across India could switch on their televisions to see India’s history take shape on Bharat Ek Khoj, a hefty 53-episode series that ranked for television viewers at the time with Buniyaad and Ramayana.

Made for Doordarshan audiences in the early days of government programming, the monumental dramatisation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India directed by Shyam Benegal remains the most ambitious adaptation of Indian history to ever appear on screen.

Bharat Ek Khoj episode 1.

Benegal first read Nehru’s philosophical and social history of India as a child in middle school, when it was gifted to him, and these and other books had stayed with him.

“We have immense diversity in our country and coming from outside, people wonder how we live together as a nation,” Benegal said. “We have our fault lines even today of caste and religion, but that does not prevent us from being Indian. With the show, we were looking to discover the adhesive factor that holds us together.”

Scripting for the show began in 1986. Benegal had a team of 35 historians, each specialists in their fields, to vet the script and cull exaggerations. And on November 14, 1988, Nehru’s birthday, the first episode was screened. The lengths varied from the scheduled 60 minutes to sometimes 80 or 90 minutes if the subject matter called for it.

“We were on Sunday at 11am, so it didn’t matter very much if the show ended at 12pm or 12.30pm,” Benegal pointed out.

As a tribute to the book, the show features Roshan Seth playing Nehru as a sutradhar, a narrative constant in the gentle flow of history, and expounding from the empty set of the episode at the beginning of or during the show.

There were other narrators as well. Benegal wanted to emphasise India’s strong traditions of lore by using folk artistes to narrate parts of history that still live in stories. Om Puri, who also plays multiple complex roles in the show, lent his distinct gravelly voice as the third link of the show, in an impartial voiceover that gives context to viewers during enactments of historical events.

Roshan Seth as Jawaharlal Nehru. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.
Roshan Seth as Jawaharlal Nehru. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.

Historical shows these days have lavish budgets, even if it is just to show Hrithik Roshan fighting off a crocodile in Mohenjo Daro. The production quality for Bharat Ek Khoj is exceptional. The show pays careful attention to small details such as costumes – and caste marks – even on flimsy sets that have obviously been recycled from one time period to another.

The cast too is recycled across episodes. You will find Om Puri as Duryodhana one day, reformed Ashoka the next and haughty Aurangzeb the third. Salim Ghouse plays Krishna, Rama and Tipu Sultan, and Pallavi Joshi appears as Sita, Kannagi of Silappadikaram and an Indus Valley woman.

Benegal made some unorthodox decisions with respect to scripting decisions. Most directors would have been content to portray Duryodhana, the villain of the Mahabharata whose machinations and jealousy led to the great war of the epic, as someone beyond redemption.

And yet, Puri’s rendering of Duryodhan as a sympathetic character – someone with the grace in his final hours to accept his faults and to instruct his son not to carry on the legacy of hate after his death – was informed in some way by Yuganta, Irawati Karve’s reading of the Mahabharata, even if the script of that episode was based on Urubhangam, a third century Sanskrit play by Bhasa.

Naseerudin Shah dazzles as Shivaji too, in what might be the most balanced portrayal of the Maratha ruler that will ever come to television. Shivaji’s hesitation over how to take power and his indignant escape from the Mughals in a box of sweets, all shine through.

Bharat Ek Khoj: Shivaji part 1.

Unfortunately, there is little place for the women to shine, even though, like the male actors, the women repeat their roles across episodes. One rare two-part episode that centred on women characters was of the Sangam period that uses the Tamil epic Silappadikaram to talk of trade practices in the south. However, Joshi as rage-consumed Kannagi is disappointingly flat, as indeed are many other episodes that fall a little too deeply into textbook material instead of stories.

Like the source book, its most frank confrontation of caste is in older periods, when it dwells on how caste became rigid. In times nearer to our own, Jyotirao Phule, rightly gets an entire episode for his tireless work against caste.

And yet, if the show is Nehruvian in its portrayal of history, it also has its Nehruvian lapses in its focus on the role of the Congress in the freedom struggle to the exclusion of all else. No history of modern India can be complete without some attention to Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and visionary anti-caste leader. Bharat Ek Khoj, which has two episodes on Gandhi, is silent on Ambedkar.

Bharat Ek Khoj. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.
Bharat Ek Khoj. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.

History is a prickly subject now, perhaps even more so than in the late 1980s. But even as Nehru wrote The Discovery of India to give a sense of India’s historical place in the world, he also ducked the urge to simply glorify this history.

Far more a philosopher than historian, Nehru wrote The Discovery of India over four months while in jail in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra in 1944. He and other political leaders had been imprisoned since they launched the Quit India movement of 1942.

The Discovery of India is a tricky book to classify. It is at once history and philosophy, economic theory and social critique. Nehru frequently digresses from the events of the past to lay out his very strong ideas about Indian culture. The second half of the book concerns itself only with the events leading up to and during India’s colonial subjugation.

In that, the tome bears a resemblance to the structure of history textbooks before governments began to fiddle with it and pretend that the Mughals existed only as conquerors, and that Hindu rulers who had lost battles against Muslim rulers had actually won, but were crafty enough for nobody to have noticed it until 400 years after the event.

Nehru, like these textbooks, focussed on the history of the north and west, including the regions that are now Pakistan and Afghanistan, as the history of India. South Indian kingdoms are mentioned largely in the context of their imperial achievements and eastern Indian kingdoms not at all.

Bharat Ek Khoj. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.
Bharat Ek Khoj. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.

The book covers not just kings and princes (whom Nehru said he did not find very interesting) but the ideas that shaped India as well, such as the Bhakti movement or why later Indian rulers seemed indifferent to military and industrial innovations.

There is even a good amount of scathing reflection on India’s British rulers that are particularly fascinating in a time when Nehru and Nehruvians are often maligned as British collaborators,

For instance, in the context of the deindustrialisation of India by the British and Britain’s later insistence that India should focus on strengthening its agriculture, Nehru wrote:

“The solicitude which British industrialists and economists have shown for the Indian peasant has been truly gratifying. In view of this, as well as of the tender care lavished upon him by the British Government in India, one can only conclude that some all-power and malign fate, some supernatural agency, has countered their intentions and measures and made that peasant one of the poorest and most miserable beings on earth.”

It is not 140 characters, but in today’s times, that would be called a burn.

Bharat Ek Khoj. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.
Bharat Ek Khoj. Image credit: Doordarshan/Sahayadri Films.

Engrossing as Nehru’s views on the British are, the show naturally could not follow his reflective digressions. In that, particularly in later episodes, the show shifts the focus to other parts of the country and works hard to bring in at least a semblance of diversity of opinions.

“This is Nehru’s version, maybe, but he was a person with a wide range of interests,” Benegal said. “But there are gaps in his history. There is a lot about north and central India, but not much about the south.”

Even when source material is scant, as in the Indus Valley period, of which even today most things we know are speculative, there is that extra leap into drama to bring it to life.

Some historians at least disagreed with this portrayal. “The Discovery of India was not meant as a history of India, but as a history of Indian culture,” said SR Bhatt, a historian specialising in the Buddhist period to whom Benegal had sent some early scripts. “I said that the show should be faithful to the text [of the book] and show only positive aspects of India.”

Bhatt, who was in 2015 appointed chairperson of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, had other disagreements with Benegal, including the fact that the Mahabharata episodes were scheduled to come before the Ramayana ones. Eventually, he said, Benegal said he would run his suggestions by script writer Shama Zaidi and did not send him any further scripts.

There is no denying that Bharat Ek Khoj, commissioned as it was by the government, contributed to government propaganda for nation-building. That much is evident by the show’s tendency to be didactic instead of engaging. There was, however, little interference in the actual content of the show from the government.

“Our greatest advantage was that we were never bothered by the government or the ministry [of Information and Broadcasting],” Benegal said. “Once our advisors had been accepted by the government, we had a free hand and we had no influence from any political hand. There was a great deal of trust.”

No interference notwithstanding, Bharat Ek Khoj, as a tribute to Nehru, is necessarily a Nehruvian view of history. This idealistic vision of India – that is remarkably level-headed in its acceptance of certain rights and wrongs and yet blind to others – might not have stood today.

Bharat Ek Khoj: Rana Sanga, Ibrahim Lodi and Babur.
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.


In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.


Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.


The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.


The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.