On a Saturday afternoon in late September, gaggles of hijab-clad women, many with young children in tow, swarmed outside the closed gates of an auditorium in Taman Mini, a popular recreational park in east Jakarta. A brawny, black-maned figure wielding a bow and arrow pouted suggestively from a phalanx of promotional banners that lined the street, with the title Panah Asmara Arjuna — Arjuna’s Arrow of Love — printed above. Inside, a stage featuring two giant gilt thrones was being readied. Strobe lights criss-crossed the auditorium, and an overwrought score thundered from the sound system. This was the set for the live broadcast of Panah Asmara Arjuna’s second weekly elimination round.
Advertised as a “maha reality show”, the Indonesian series follows a familiar trope: 15 young women start out sharing a house, and compete in daily challenges as they vie for the attention of a desirable hero. But in this case the hero happens to be someone who speaks no Indonesian, and had only been in the country for about a month when the show started: the Indian actor Shaheer Sheikh, who played Arjuna in the 2013 television series Mahabharat, an extravagant adaptation of the mythological epic by Star Plus. Every Saturday, the women line up on a stage, dubbed the “bharata yudha” zone, and Sheikh sends one of them home. The winner, who will be announced at the end of December, will travel with Sheikh to India. The Indonesian channel ANTV bought the rights to Mahabharat from Star Plus, and started airing a dubbed version of the show this March.
I first came across this Bahasa Indonesia Mahabharat in June, when I began to tune into ANTV every evening for its exclusive regional broadcasts of the FIFA World Cup. Mahabharat was aired just prior to each day’s opening matches. As I waited for well- built men to take to the football field, I ended up watching well-built men in faux-gold jewellery fighting with magical weapons instead. ANTV soon discovered that the ratings for the mythological series were higher than those for the football. At its peak, the show reached 7.6 per cent of Indonesia’s television viewership; the World Cup final reached only 6.2 per cent.
I met with Kelly da Cunha, ANTV’s general manager of production, in a boxy backstage room a few hours before filming for the Panah elimination round was to begin. Middle-aged and portly, da Cunha chuckled compulsively while recounting the numbers. “With these kinds of ratings, we decided to go further,” he explained. Early this October, ANTV brought seven Mahabharat cast members over from India to perform in a live, three-hour stage show in Jakarta. The programme consisted of interviews and assorted histrionics — such as the five Pandavas and their arch-enemies, Duryodhana and Karna, gyrating to music that, though loud, could not drown out the ululations of the hundreds-strong, largely female audience.
The popularity of a show based on the Mahabharata in Muslim-majority Indonesia might seem surprising, but da Cunha explained that Hindu epics are part of the country’s culture. For centuries, many parts of the Indonesian archipelago were majority-Hindu. By the 7th century CE, Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms dominated both Java and Sumatra — Indonesia’s two most populous islands. Ever since, Hindu cultural norms have infused indigenous mores, even after large-scale conversion to Islam in the 16th century. References to the epics are everywhere in Java — the language, the street signs, the political commentary. In Jakarta, many buses are painted with lurid advertisements for an energy drink called Kuku Bima, which promises Bhima-like endurance. An enormous statue of Krishna leading Arjun into battle dominates the roundabout in front of the Monas, the country’s main nationalist monument. There is a nationwide charitable foundation for twins named the Nakula and Sadewa Society. And one of the country’s bestselling novels, Amba, uses the story of Bhishma and Shikhandi (a later incarnation of Amba) to talk about Indonesia’s purges of communists in the mid 1960s. Wayang kulit, a form of shadow-puppet theatre that features tales from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, can draw tens of thousands to performances in rural Java.
Indonesians feel a real sense of ownership over the epics. In the mid-19th century, Ronggowarsito, a poet from a royal court in central Java, wrote an apocryphal history that traced the lineage of the Javanese kings back to the Pandavas. Eventually, many Indonesians came to believe that the Mahabharata was set in Java rather than India. But India still has special appeal. Da Cunha said that after ANTV aired the Star Plus Mahabharat, a rival channel began to broadcast an all-Indonesian version of the epic, Ksatria Pandawa Lima, whose title translates to “Five Pandava Knights.” The show flopped. The reason, da Cunha claimed, was that a local “copy” could not compare to the “Indian original”.
Da Cunha added that stories from the Hindu epics are not really associated with religion by Indonesian audiences. Instead, they are understood as morality tales that happen to be embedded in the local culture. “Even Shaheer is a Muslim,” he pointed out, “so there is nothing religious here.” I heard much the same thing when, last year, I met Ki Purbo Asmoro, one of Indonesia’s most celebrated wayang kulit masters, or dalang. Like most dalang, and most wayang kulit audiences, Purbo Asmoro is Muslim. “These stories are allegorical,” he told me. “None of us take them as the literal truth.” He also said the Hindu epics promote values — for instance, the loyalty, courage and integrity of characters such as Ghatotkach and Bhima — that are affirmed by Islam. But those parallels aren’t essential; for many Indonesians, the Mahabharat is pure entertainment, akin to shows such as the hit HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones except with greater cultural resonance.
Backstage on the Panah set, I also met Mahabharat actors Vin Rana and Lavanya Bharadwaj, who played, respectively, the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. Following the Jakarta stage show in October, in which they both took part, ANTV took the cast to Bali, the only island in Indonesia that remains predominantly Hindu today. They were met in person, the actors told me, by the Raja of Ubud, a Balinese town. Bharadwaj, a youngster from Meerut, recalled a Balinese fan ferreting away in her handbag, as though it were a treasure, an apple that he had half eaten. Rana, formerly a heavy-machinery parts importer from Pitampura in Delhi, spoke of a woman fainting when she saw him in the flesh. “They respect us so much over here,” Rana said solemnly. “Respect or desire?” I asked. He giggled nervously. Acquiring sex-symbol status by playing demigods has put the television Pandavas on awkward terrain.
A picture of the reality show where Arjuna selects the winner from 14 beautiful women
Meanwhile, “Arjuna” was gearing up for the stage. Sheikh listened intently, through an interpreter, to a headscarved young woman running him through the evening. Dressed casually, in sports clothes stretched tight across his muscular torso, he swatted with impressive accuracy at mosquitos buzzing around the room. With his shoulder-length hair and well-defined six-pack, it was easy to see why the Jammu-born actor is the most popular member of the Mahabharat cast in Indonesia. Sheikh boasts 262,000 Twitter followers, the vast majority of whom, he said, are Indonesian. On the first day the dubbed Mahabharat was broadcast in the Twitter-mad country, he said, his following jumped by 30,000.
Sheikh explained that when he was first approached to play the role of Arjuna, he had been reluctant, in part because his Hindi was poor. Once he accepted, he spent months in preparation, taking lessons in Hindi diction, learning to ride horses and handle weapons. He feels the role has changed him. Studying the Bhagwad Gita, he said, has been crucial in helping him make difficult choices. But it was unlikely to help with the toughest choice he faced that evening: which young woman to eliminate from the show.
In the broadcast, Sheikh was confronted by 14 contestants, or dewis, resplendent in anarkali-style kurtas. Over almost two and a half hours of high drama occasionally punctuated by dancing, he whittled the group down to five candidates for elimination. The girl he eventually sent away managed a wan smile when Sheikh pressed a locket he was wearing upon her as a keepsake. The episode concluded with “Arjuna” and the dewis dancing to the Bollywood hit “London thumakda”.
ANTV hopes to cash in even further on the Mahabharat craze. It intends to broadcast another live stage show from Jakarta this month, with an expanded cast including the Mahabharat characters of Bhishma, Draupadi, Shakuni and Kunti in addition to the five Pandavas. In a bit of cross-epic fertilisation, the channel also plans to invite the actors who played Rama, Sita and Hanuman in Zee TV’s 2012 Ramayana (which ANTV dubbed and aired earlier this year as well). Da Cuhna told me he believes the “soft power” of Indian pop culture has great potential in Indonesia. A year ago the craze was for Korean pop and culture, he said, but “at ANTV we want to replace that with Indian pop”. The channel plans to market Indian fashion accessories, clothes and music in addition to airing imported television serials. Da Cunha, who has made a career of spotting cultural trends, was bullish: “India is going to be the new Korea of culture.”
This is an extract reprinted with permission from the December 2014 issue of The Caravan © Delhi Press