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

Benegal’s monumental series, based on ‘A 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 A 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 A 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 A 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.

A 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. “A 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 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

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