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Some Ramblings - Sri Ramarajyam (2011)
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla
sri ramarajyam

The two prickly issues that look to stand in the way of Rama being the exemplar of human perfection are the ones that involve the felling of Vali (in Kishkinda Kanda) and the abandoning of Sita (in Uttara Kanda). But for these two Rama's decisions remain uncontested and worth emulating. However, it isn't his decisions that were questionable in those two instances, but it is the lack of proper understanding of the word 'Dharma' that created the confusion in the first place. 'Dharma' is not absolute, fixed or immutable. In fact, it is a tool to achieve harmony, which is a subject time, standards and regions. So what was followed as 'Dharma' during one period at a place might be considered not, in a different time and conditions. Take the case of 'Aswamedha Yaga'. The practice that a horse with a royal seal becomes a representative of the state and can claim authority over any piece of land that it walks over, might amount to hegemony under the current standards. But 'Raja Dharma' mandated that the ruler of the state take up these 'yAgAs' whenever the state was going through strife (read, financial distress). And so annexing the adjoining regions to alleviate the financial stress by a rightful declaration of war was considered just in those times when populations were sparse and spread out. As times changed and regions becomes more interconnected and populated, plans of expansion by occupation of neighboring nations to improve one's financial conditions slowly transformed into establishing trade relations with them to creating a steady financial streams. Hence what was 'Dharma' under one set of circumstances became a different 'Dharma' in a different era. 'Dharma' doesn't talk about right or wrong, it doesn't have a judgment mentality and doesn't indulge in arguments about morality. 'Dharma' is all about rules and practices to achieve harmony in a society; it is about adherence of agreed standards, following which, threre will be cohesion, failing which, chaos. And so there is 'Raja Dharma' (administrative law) that a king had to abide by for the welfare of his subjects and there is 'Poura Dharma' (civilian law) that the people had to stick to maintain order.

It is in this context of 'Dharma' that those two decisions need to viewed under. First, Vali. Kishkinda, an independent territory, still fell under the broader jurisdiction of Ayodhya (think of it as Federally Administered Tribal Area), and even though Rama abdicated the throne and took to the woods, he was still a prince of the state, entrusted with the responsibility of providing security to the subjects of the crown. And so, when Vali transgresses the law by holding Sugreeva's wife captive, he becomes a criminal of the state who had to bear the brunt of the justice administered by Rama. For Rama, it was not personal, though he was in the same state of Sugreeva, and so could identify with the greivance. It is about laying down the law as a part of Raja Dharma. Since Vali was granted a boon by which he would automatically be transferred all the power of his opponent facing him, Rama had no option but to slay him from the side, from behind a tree, fulfilling his obligation as a dispenser of justice. Because, remember, 'Dharma' is not about fair or unfair, right or wrong, it is about following or not following a standard. In that context, Vali violated the rule and paid for it with his life, and Rama, immaterial of the way, had to deliver justice.

The second issue is much more personal and even more contentious - the abandonment of Sita. How could he banish his dear wife on some fool's poor choice of words? Is that what love is, is that the way to reciprocate her unflinching loyalty and unwavering devotion? This issue, like the one before, can only be understood in the then prevailing social mileu and can only be interpreted through the then existing rules guiding social conduct (Dharma). Back in the time when polygamy and poly-amorousness (where both men and wife took multiple partners, legally), loyalty to one another was a trait that was held in high regard. And that was one of the noble characters of Rama, that even in those days of permissible and sanctioned promiscuity, he pledged his loyalty and allegiance to a single partner, and when that sacredness is besmirched (doesn't matter whose fault it is) by Sita's exile in Lanka, Rama suddenly had to face the troubling situation of confronting this breach of social contract. Since a king had to hold himself to a higher moral and social footing, renouncing Sita's company was his way of abiding by that standard, in order that his subjects take his example and lead a life devoid of any amorality and promiscuity, even knowing fully well of Sita's chastity or purity. Like in the case of Vali, to arrive at this decision he had to put his personal likes and dislikes away, sitting on judgment of his own resolve to set an example of model marital conduct. In both the situations, Vali and Sita's, he was bound by the harshest interpretations of guiding principles, and his strict adherence to them is the essence of the highest praise bestowed on him - rAmO vigrahavan dharmah - the embodiment of Dharma is Rama himself. And in doing so, 'daevuDu raamuDu ayinaa kaakapOyinaa, raamuDu daevuDayyaaDu'.

Recalling Veturi's words that apply to this context

kaTHinamainadi dharmam
kannulaenidi nyAyam
manusu laenidi chaTTam
manishi janmakidi kharmam

'Sri Rama Rajyam' was a lifetime in the making for the duo, who tried understanding 'rAma tatwam' from different prespectives in all their combined works - stories, pictures, paintings, songs and movies. Even in their 'buddhimantuDu', the lines between humanity and divinity had been purposefully blurred, showing that God intervening at oppurtune moments in favor of man pales in comparision to a human making a difficult choice in matters of taking the right decision. That, at the cost of great personal distress is the essence of 'rAma tatwam'. Loyalty towards father, brothers, wife and ultimately his subject, in all his different societal relationships, is what that make these ideal human qualities seemingly divine. As the anecdote went, when Ranganayakamma sent Bapu a check to deliver the cover art for her book on the skewed perspective of Ramayana ('rAmayana visha vRksham'), Bapu promptly returned the check on the back signing 'rAma rAma', almost chiding her that 'rAma tatwam' is not about the personality, it is the essence of human existence and dissuading it means disowning oneself. Whether it be 'sampoorNa rAmAyana' that shed a humanistic light on the turmoil of Ravana, or 'gOranta deepam' that mirrored the resolve of Sita in the face of constant duress, or 'mutyAla muggu' that highlighted the angst of separation, or 'sundarakAnDa' that showed the pining for affection, Bapu Ramana mined the many facets of Ramayana, with the context determining which segment they sought the inspiration from.

And with 'Sri Rama Rajyam', they have come a full circle, culminating all their efforts on the toughest part of the epic, which contained the character they espoused the most through out their careers, wherein making a hard, but right, choice at great personal expense is what is indeed heroic than all acts of valor put together. 'uttarakAnDa' is the upanishad equivalent in Ramayanam that talks about the application of 'Dharma' in a given situation. Every thing before the 'uttara kAnDa' is pretty trifle when compared to this hardest part, when 'Dharma' consumes one's own self and the love of his life. Here is a person who trekked with him through the ups and downs of his life, and faced every unimagineable situation that a monogamous woman can face. And what does he have to do in the name of his duty? Sacrifice himself at the altar of Dharma and along with himself, takes his wife down with him. Bapu-Ramana arrive at this final turn on the path to perfection, and they pour their souls into this epic depicting the greatness of the sacrifice that Rama and Sita had to endure to uphold the law of the land. This is not a re-telling or remaking of 'lavakuSa', but a re-imagining of the mythology in contemporary ways, explaining the complexities of choice in simple terms, and depicting the repurcussions of those choices in heart-tugging ways.

Every aspect of 'Sri Rama Rajyam' - technical and theatrical - blends beautifully to deliver an experience that his heartfelt, emotional and even disturbing - much like what the characters went through taking those turns. There are no actors here, merely roles, no stars here, merely characters. Balakrishna delivers a performance of his lifetime pouring out of pathos from his eyes and through his voice (a nice touch is the breaking of his voice at all the choking moments). He greatly minimizes his usual hurried approach in dialogue delivery by slowing down the tempo to a gentle, elegant and a clear pace - a diction that befits a lover, father and a king. This certainly is highest point of his artistic achievement. And same goes with Nayantara, who probably played the best Sita on celluloid. The serenity and the sorrow, the piety and the pathos, all registered and played well on her expressive face, ably complimented by the vocals of Sunita. While their earlier 'seetA kalyANam' was a bravura exercise of confidence and skill of Bapu-Ramana-Aarudra to render Ramayana completely poetically, 'Sri Rama Rajyam' is a visual feast that has Bapu's paintings come to life as he paints each frame, from the long, dark and cold corridors of the palace to the hustle and bustle of the green woods and warm hamlets (with commendable computer contributions). Illayaraja and Jonnavitthula who had the unenviable task of matching up to the Ghantasala and Samudrala's yester year's hummable classic numbers carve a path of their own and deliver a result that could easily stand on its own. Finally, 'Sri Rama Rajyam' can proudly stake its place next to its colossal predecessor, surpassing it even in a lot many facets (dialogues, direction and performances). An impossible feat pulled off by an incredible duo for a fitting swan song.

bApu-ramaNalaku jOhArlu, jaejaelu!!!

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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