The Mahabharat is the world’s longest poem and one of two major Sanskrit epics in India. Possibly dating back to the eighth or ninth century BC, it tells the story of the Kuru clan of India and primarily focuses on the antagonism between the cousin brothers of the family, which eventually leads to a civil war.
The epic has been inspiring and entertaining Indians for several centuries now. Twenty-first-century Indians are no exception to this rule, and many have been glued to their TV or computer screens over the past year, watching the half-hour “Mahabharat” TV serial on the Hindi channel Star Plus, every weekday.
TRP rating estimations place the viewership at 9.3 million a week, putting it in second place in the crowded Hindi TV serial space. But as befits this day and age, the serial has taken on multiple “avatars” to promote and market itself. Social media is a major aspect of its strategy, aiming to pull in the younger demographic.
The series debuted in September 2013, and Star Plus began their social media campaign prior to the launch with targeted Facebook and Twitter ads. Moneycontrol.com reports that Star Plus “bought trends for two days and ensured #AajKaMahabharat stayed on top of Twitter’s chatter charts. According to a source at a rival channel, Star reportedly paid Rs. 300 million ($5 million) for this partnership with the site.” The channel also roped in well-known mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik for a Twitter Q&A with fans. Here’s a sample of one of his conversations:
— Devdutt Pattanaik (@devduttmyth) September 16, 2013
Mobile apps were also launched, allowing fans to listen to chants and view the family tree of the main characters. The app was well received with a rating of 4.3, over 3,000 reviews, and between 50,000 to 100,000 installs.
The social and online promotion has continued throughout the program’s run. Each episode is promoted with a teaser on the Star Plus YouTube channel, and once the episode airs, it is made available online. The channel also ran promos for key points in the story such as the introduction of significant characters. Here’s the promo for the warrior Karna, one the more complex characters in the story.
Star’s unique take on the characters was noted by many. In regard to Shakuni, who is traditionally seen as an antagonist, the Annapurna International School of Film and Media, a non-profit media school, writes:
The ads overturned the conventional perspectives about characters and thus shook up the viewers.
For example, Shakuni has always been known as the evil uncle. The channel portrays him as a brother who is trying to avenge the injustice meted out to his sister.
The show’s fans have also jumped in on the hype. Official and unofficial fan club Twitter handles keep followers updated about the latest buzz surrounding each actor. Here’s a tweet from the fan club of Saurabh Raaj Jain, who plays Krishna on the show:
— SaurabhRaajJain OFC (@SRJ_maniaFC) June 17, 2014
There are a few voices taking a dig at the serial though. A Facebook page titled Mahabharat Ki Galatiyan, which translates to “the Mahabharat’s mistakes”, lists out where the show deviates from the traditional Mahabharat story. The page has nearly 11,000 likes.
With the plot entering the climactic stage of the Kurukshetra war, the massive conflict that brings the story more or less to a close, there have been rumors of the serial coming to an end soon. But the show’s producer hinted at some sort of a sequel:
“We have a lot in store. I can’t reveal what it is at this moment. Expectations really put a lot of pressure on everybody and that isn’t a way to live life.”
It makes good commercial sense for the show to carry on in some format because of mythology’s enduring success on Indian TV. For example, “Devon ke Dev… Mahadev”, a TV show revolving around the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, is still going strong three years after its launch. So it’s quite possible that social media will remain abuzz with Mahabharat chatter for a while to come.