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  • Ravi Swami

"Ramayana - The Legend of Prince Rama", Dir: Yugo Sako, Ram Mohan, Koichi Sasaki, 1992

The long-awaited 4K remaster and restoration of the "Ramayana - The Legend of Prince Rama", animated feature film (135 min), an Indo-Japanese co-production from 1992, gets a rare outing in London at the very centrally located cinema noted for it's varied and adventurous programming - The Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square, in close proximity to London's Soho Chinatown, in July and November of 2023.

More details can be found on the webpage for the film on The Prince Charles Cinema website with ticket information and screening time.

Without elaborating on the plot of the film for those unfamiliar with Hindu mythology or religion and as a long time associate and promoter of the film since the mid 80's when I first discovered it, my interest has always been from the point of view of both the story as something I was very familiar with, more from the many cinematic adaptations than from a deep understanding of the complex mythology of Hinduism, from a young age, and as a long-time fan of Japanese animation, or "Anime", as a high point of the craft of animated films.

Historically, films with a religious theme outside of India are perennial favourites, eg "The Robe" etc though I am not sure if this necessarily translates to healthy box-office returns, and in this regard the Ramayana is a case in point, an aspect compounded by political upheavals and communal disturbances in India at the time of it's release that ultimately scuppered its chances of being profitable for the producers, and lingering problems over ownership and rights over the past 3 decades have left their mark on a film that by rights should have been a groundbreaker in terms of the medium, aside from a theme that could be seen to be well-worn, certainly in India at any rate.

Presenting such a film to Western audiences was always going to be problematic and I've often wondered how Westerners view Hinduism, a religion that feels very much like the elephant in the room in the context of the monotheism practised and followed elsewhere. People are able to count off a few Hindu deities such as Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, or Vishnu, or Shiva or Hanuman, the monkey god, but rather like reeling off the names of Indian spices when planning to cook a curry, any knowledge stops at there and there doesn't seem to be any curiosity to delve further unless there is some prior connection to India in some way.

Originating as it did in the immediate 60's/70's post "Counter Culture" fascination with all things Indian which was relatively short-lived and ultimately quite superficial in the West, though some were attracted to the cultish aspects of an alien-seeming religion with a degree of fanaticism, the interest has always manifested as an appropriation of the superficial, like wearing saris or "bindis" or "doing an Indian wedding" and no more.

This film will not provide you with an in-depth understanding of Hinduism but it will whisk you off into a strange world that contains aspect of the familiar even if you are not consciously aware of it since many of the themes and characters have found their way into other Eastern mythologies and Western storytelling and cinema.

I suppose the danger for me, as a non-practising Hindu and as a promoter of the film, is that I could be suspected of proselytising on behalf of Hinduism, or of supporting the current Indian Govt drive to grandstand Hinduism over other indigenous faiths, none of which is the case since my interest has always been from the point of view of the craft on display by many of the best Japanese animators, some of whom had lent their skills to studios like Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli and many others to tell a story which is an archetypal adventure on the same epic scale as those of Homer or any other classical author from antiquity that you care to mention, and cinema and perhaps animation are the perfect mediums to do justice to stories that, prior to cinema, were the domain of a centuries old oral tradition, ie left to the listener's imagination and dependant upon the skills of the story teller.

And this is of course a double-edged sword since no two people will see the same story exactly the same and finding a balance between being true to source and telling an exciting story can result in a complex knife-edge dynamic where you can please everyone or no one.

I'll conclude this piece with a recollection of being dragged along by our parents to see De Mille's "The Ten Commandments" as a child with the family - a spectacular and grandly mounted epic that similar to the Ramayana Anime had to seek the approval of the various religious authorities before it could be made as, in the case of De Mille's film, the intended last word in cinematic Biblical epics, split into two parts with an interval that allowed us to grab a quick burger (BEEF !! ..Hindu horror..!), fries and a milkshake from the Wimpy down the road before sitting through the eye-popping second half and then leaving the cinema reeling at the scale and colour but without any sense that the story was in any way superior to what we knew from Hinduism and that has in fact been depicted many times over in Indian cinema but perhaps with clunkier visual effects, by comparison.

This film addresses those issues in aces in a medium that allows for a greater freedom in combination with a level of technical expertise that was unavailable in India at the time of its production, and while it's an admittedly uneven film on some levels, where it scores is in depicting the story in a suitably epic fashion.

"Ramayana - The Legend of Prince Rama" is a freewheeling adaptation that fuses Indian design aesthetics and Japanese animation expertise ("Anime") that plays hard and fast with the mythology whilst simultaneously being keen to adhere to the sources as much as possible, primarily due to the producer Yugo Sako's early life as a Buddhist monk before he turned to documentary film making with a focus on Indian subjects and archeology, so you'll see magic, monsters and the occasional fanciful futuristic depiction alongside flying horses and chariots that could have sprung from the mind of Ray Harryhausen during the course of its 135 minute running time.

Ramayana - The Legend of Prince Rama, Dir: Yugo Sako, Ram Mohan, Koichi Sasaki, 1992

A 4k remaster of the original film as released in 1992, English language dub by Indian voice actors.

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