The prominent cultural role of the two classical Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayaja can hardly be exaggerated. Both remain highly visible in contemporary society both as multiform texts and as bodies of visual art and performance. Moreover, in the voluminous scope of their Sanskrit redactions, with their complex main plotlines and baroque profusion of subsidiary tales, each seems to aspire to a sort of encyclopedic or “mother-of-all-stories” status; indeed the Mahabharata is quite brazen in claiming this in its famous boast, “No story is found on earth that does not rest on this epic” (1.1.240; van Buitenen 1973: 43). Given that such hyperbolic assertions are sometimes echoed within the Hindi film industry-as in Rosie Thomas’ observation that “It is common to hear filmmakers say that every film can be traced back to these stories, and even that there are only two stories in the world, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata” (Thomas 1995: 182, n.35)— the comparative rarity of treatments of these epic stories, either in whole or in part, in the copious output of mainstream Bombay cinema might appear surprising. To be sure, allusions to the epics, especially through dialogue and the names of characters and less commonly through narrative situations, abound in popular Hindi films, and there have periodically been successful send-ups of the basic stories as spectacles of the “mythological” film genre, such as Babubhai Mistry’s Sampoorn Ramayan (1961) and the same director’s Mahabharat (1965), made in the ornate and comic-book-like visual style standardized by decades of popular illustration. But although “mythological” films dominated the first decade of indigenous feature film production, their output rapidly diminished during the 1920s, yielding to action-packed “stunt” and “historical” films, crime dramas, and later to the “social”—a loose designation referring to any melodrama with a contemporary setting. With the coming of sound in 1931, the dominant Hindi film market would itself be dominated by this omnibus genre, and mythological films, though they would remain robust players in regional and especially southern cinemas, would generally be confined, among Bombay productions, to occasional low budget “B-grade” releases aimed at niche markets of pious grandmothers and rustics, although occasionally such a film would become a hit with a broader audience (e.g. the unexpected success in 1975 of the goddess film Jai Santoshi Maa;

Lutgendorf 2002). The relative absence, during the post-independence period, of films directly based on the classical epics, and indeed of films with “historical” subjects, is even more surprising given the remarkable prominence during the same period of epic themes in Indian fiction writing and of mytho-historical plays on the urban Indian stage.