Disney plans series on epic Indian poem ‘Mahabharata’ about a warring dynasty

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FILE PHOTO: A man looks at his phone as he passes by a screen advertising Walt Disney’s streaming service Disney+ in New York City, U.S., November 12, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Walt Disney Co. is filming a series based on an ancient Indian poem about a warring dynasty, as it seeks to gain a stronger foothold in one of the world’s fastest-growing entertainment and streaming markets.

A retelling of the “Mahabharata,” the some 2,000-year-old Sanskrit poem about two groups of cousins vying for their clan’s throne and kingdom, will be released in 2024, Gaurav Banerjee, head of content at Disney+ Hotstar — Disney’s Indian digital platform — said at the media giant’s three-day D23 extravaganza event at the Anaheim Convention Center in California.

Disney is hoping the longest poem ever written — with 200,000 verses in its unabridged version, it’s like the South Asian version of “Game of Thrones” — will strike gold in India as streaming platforms come under increasing pressure from investors to show they can buck a downward trend in subscriber growth hitting Netflix. A rerun of the 1980s production of the “Ramayana” — an ancient tale that like the “Mahabharata” is central to Hinduism — was a surprise TV hit in India during the covid-19 pandemic.

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“Mythology has always been one of the most popular genres on Indian television,” said Mihir Shah, the Mumbai-based vice president at consultancy Media Partners Asia. “The announcement of Mahabharata on Disney+ Hotstar is a move to extend this success” into the world of online streaming, he said.

Yet the enormous scope of these stories — the “Mahabharata” is roughly 10 times the length of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” combined — makes it a daunting prospect for any filmmaker. The 1980s version of the “Ramayana,” the shorter of the two poems, was played out over 78 episodes. SS Rajamouli, one India’s most successful directors who is known for his trademark action-filled epics, told Bloomberg News earlier this year that he was girding himself to eventually tackle a cinematic version of the “Mahabharata.”

Of the three main international streaming services in India, Disney is at the top, with just under 60 million subscribers. Live streaming of cricket, India’s national obsession, has been a big driver of that growth, though Disney lost the rights to digitally broadcast tournaments earlier this year to a consortium of Hollywood studio Paramount Global and Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd.

Many analysts are now skeptical that Disney can meet an ambitious target set two years ago to sign up 260 million subscribers by fiscal year 2024. Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy told investors last month that the company now expects between 135 million and 165 million “core” Disney+ customers, and as many as 80 million customers for Disney+ Hotstar in India by then, or a maximum of 245 million.

 

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