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Grant Morrison on his interest in Indian epics

Ajita Shashidhar     November 5, 2013
Grant Morrison, the Scot writer of Batman and Superman comics, has tied up with Graphic India CEO Sharad Devarajan for an animated series titled 18 Days on the epic Mahabharata. In an e-mail interview with Ajita Shashidhar, Morrison talks about 18 Days and his interest in Indian epics. Edited excerpts:

Q. What inspired you to make this animated series on Mahabharata?

It was Sharad Devarajan! When Sharad approached me with the idea of doing a new version of the story, I jumped at the chance. I liked the challenge of adapting and condensing a story on the scale of the Mahabharata. I've loved the Mahabharata stories all my life but I never truly grasped the intricate, glorious structure of the thing until I had to read and re-read the entire epic for this project. There's an incredible range of characters and all of them are achingly human and vulnerable as well as magnificent and mythical so it appealed to me on all levels.
Q. Who are your favourite characters in the Mahabharata and why?

My favourite character is Karna. I love the idea of someone who has all the qualities, all the potential and who should have been the ultimate hero - except fate decides otherwise and other guys get all the breaks. I find him very human and relatable. I think he has a kind of brooding, misunderstood, James Dean-outsider quality which translates easily to the west. [Dean was an American actor known for his rebellious nature. His most famous movie is Rebel without a Cause.]
I'm also very fond of Krishna, who is quite simply super cool and who provides a window onto the new parts of the story I've added to the original.
Q. India has a rich history of story-telling but Indian characters haven't really succeeded in appealing to the global audience. Is it to do with the style of story-telling?

A good story is a good story no matter what and this [Mahabharata] is a great story, up there in the 'Greatest Story Ever Told' bracket, so I don't think anyone has to be familiar with the mythology or the culture. Just as you don't have to be a hobbit and live in the Shire to appreciate The Lord of the Rings, you don't have to be well-versed in Indian culture to enjoy the Mahabharata. Also, we've taken what's often portrayed as a historical battle and turned it into a mythical one, so it's far more fantastic and science-fictional than previous retellings. In many ways, it might be more fun to come to it fresh.

The characters in this story are some of the greatest characters ever created by human imagination -- really powerful figures that do things that are very down to earth and relatable. I've relied on that to make this work.

This story is less about good versus evil in the traditional Western sense and more about dealing with compromise, anger, greed and fear. The very things which make its heroes great are the things which bring about their greatest defeats. It's an immensely human story that acknowledges the weaknesses and failures of its heroes as often as it promotes their strengths and victories. Unlike the snarling, cackling irredeemable villains of Western melodrama, even the monstrous Duryodhana is a complex, ultimately sympathetic figure. I think western audiences who are unfamiliar with the myth will find it very satisfying, fresh, adult and relevant to all of our lives. As I do.

Q. Can you tell us how you have tried to create a global appeal with Mahabharata?

We decided to play up the more fantastic, science fiction elements of the Third Age. We took the descriptions of vimanas and astras as literal descriptions of anti-gravity machines and super-WMDs [weapons of mass destruction]. The supreme technology of the Third Age, we're told, was based around ideas of communication, so we've given our warriors their own versions of computers and the Internet, and so on.

We chose to translate the Sanskrit term 'kshatriya' as 'super warrior' - which suggests something even grander and more disciplined than a superhero but hints that our characters are, in many ways, obvious precursors to the likes of the Avengers or the Justice League.

By choosing to present the conflict on a more mythic, symbolic stage we were able to create a visual style that was very modern and fantastic, removing the conflict from the realm of historical speculation and placing it squarely in the realm of the human imagination where it belongs.

I've also given the entire story a new twist, not present in the original, which makes the battle much more relevant to our current times.
Q. Why did you choose to release Mahabharata on YouTube?

The project was intended to be an animated series from the beginning. Like all new storytelling platforms, this digital version adds to the possibilities of comics. We're still at the very early stages of the process and there's still a tendency to rely on some of the tropes of the print format but the potential to innovate and to define this new platform is at a peak at the moment. It's an exciting time and I'm glad to be part of it. We're witnessing the birth of something new and it's still hard to tell what the child is eventually going to look like!
Q. Is there a live action film on Mahabharata in the making?   

Hopefully the web series is just the start. 18 Days will definitely be released as a comic series and Sharad and I see a lot of potential for taking the story into a live action television or feature film format, which, given the history and material, could easily be more grand and epic than The Lord of the Rings or Game of Throne. While there are over a billion people who know the story, there are billions more who remain unaware of what they've been missing. The Mahabharata has resonance beyond any one culture. It would be a privilege to be able to bring this incredible story to a wider global audience.

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