Filming The Ramayana

by mrupa

This month we will celebrate the wonderful appearance of Lord Sri Ramachandra on Sunday the 13th.

I’m not sure which year it was, but for a few months we were all constantly immersed in the pastimes of Lord Rama during the Fall even more so than in the Spring. It wasn’t exactly because of the victory celebration of Lord Rama over Ravana and His reunion with Sita; but because the whole off Broadway devotee acting company who had been performing the Ramayana in New York City was living in New Vrindavana AND making their hit play into a real live action movie; right here.

At least to us communal peons it seemed clear that certainly the chance to use Prabhupada’s Palace for many of the ‘royal’ scenes was one of the reasons such an undertaking was taking place here. Also Sankirtana was a member of the troupe, playing Ravana’s son, Indrajit. And Suchitra, a New Vrindavana devotee, was playing the hunchbacked nurse of Kaikaye. By the way, Devala got to play Rama Himself in the showdown fight scene between Rama and Ravana cause he knew martial art stuff.

The hope of having on-location access to the wide expanses of natural landscape, had also been some of the reasons to film here, but as the company had come in the mid to late Fall, there was very little in the way of lush forest verge around, and it could get pretty darn chilly to be standing around in thin costumes; and oatwater didn’t exactly ‘stick to your ribs’ either. One devotee cameraman had titled his day’s work trying to shoot background forest footage as, “Looking for Leaves”

Anyway it was quite an effective immersion technique in Rama Lila and the endeavor to bring it to as many as possible that everyone in the community appreciated. We were always talking about the filming, about how the pastimes were being adapted, how the actors were portraying their various characters, and how often anyone at any time might be recruited into the scenes that needed lots of extras.

It was during the days of the candle factory, housed at the far end of the big prasadam hall in the combo guest building-men’s ashrama-Deity kitchen-marble shop building. The room’s space could be accessed either by walking all the way through the prasadam hall, or through the big sliding glass doors on the back side.

During one of the many marathons while I was soaking some candle cores (it had gotten too cold to cast concrete) the glass doors opened and it was announced we were all to go up to the Palace and be extras for the scene where Ravana and the raksasas are partying and Shurpanaka comes running in to her brother with her face disfigured and gets the whole confrontation between Rama and Ravana rolling.

We were all really nervous, but excited about it. I mean talk about bumpkins. Not only were we very rural and unrefined by regular standards — we were pretty backward and crude by such expert devotee standards as well, basically cultural and social nincompoops. But wow, to actually be part of this incredible chunk of preaching was a very enlivening idea, and we were game to try our best.

When we got up to the Palace the ladies of the group went into the basement of Kirtanananda’s house and “Kaikaye” helped us try to get into make-up and costume as raksasis to populate the party scene. The men were doing likewise somewhere nearby.

It was a major austerity for me. Having stuff on my face made me feel almost claustrophobic, and of course I couldn’t wear my glasses so I felt disoriented in the surrounding blur of everything and everyone. Plus there was just the whole character thing. We’d been years tying to be as much a wooden piece of the background as possible and wallpaper isn’t exactly the way a partying raksasi is supposed to be looking or behaving.

All the devotee actors were just great; as people, as actors, and as devotees. You have to have a good degree of realization you are not your body to be able to step into other characters’ roles convincingly. I had heard Lokamangala the devotee playing Ravana spent 4 hrs getting into make-up and character. They said he would recite the demoniac nature verses from Bhagavad-Gita the whole time to help him get the character. And believe me, when he was in character even though he was the most soft-spoken gentleman himself you could ever want to meet; kids cried, and peed all down their moms at the mere sight of him in full get up. I had vivid nightmares for weeks after working in the Palace scene only for a few hours.

he actors did everything they could to try to help us get into the service of it. I remember walking into Prabhupada’s temple room at the Palace after I thought I was all set to go. The devotee playing Shurpanaka was standing just inside the door in full costume and obviously also in nearly full character. Cackling she grabbed me saying, “Oh you look much too pious dearie.” And started twisting and tucking and turning stuff all around till I could pass the muster, all in a sense of great good comraderie.

Nrsnghananda began directing us about and telling us to ‘mingle’- we were partying raksasas after all.

Well, you can maybe imagine how that went down, or not. We were telling ourselves it was all for preaching, it was our service just now, it was such a great opportunity etc, etc. But we had been pretty thoroughly programmed to extensive gender separation as well. Bottom line; we rehearsed and filmed from about 4pm until midnight before there was enough of something to put together for the few minutes of scene that was going to be in the movie. Must’ve been rough on the real actors.

Actually, shortly after it all started I figured I was just too out of it for it and was heading for the temple room doors (I think Rishi was too, but he was big and tall and made a great ‘Lurch-like’ raksasa so he didn’t get out either). As I reached for the doors and freedom, one of the regular actors in full flush by then grabbed my hand, spun me around and raised my arm in a grand entrance type salute to Ravana and the assembly. Nrsnghananda had liked the gesture apparently, and I was stuck as a member of the group for the duration. Uh, I mean I got to be a part of the party crowd for the night.

Jai Sita/Rama.

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Reader Comments

Thank you, mrupa, for helping me to re-live the Ramayana video, which will always have a place in the hearts of our family. I can’t begin to count the number of times we watched and became absorbed in Rama lila due to this video. Our sons are now grown and married but they still remember and appreciate the cast and crew for making the movie. I used the movie to enhance my teaching in Gurukula and plan on using it when I have grandchildren some day. It is a classic, loved and appreciated by all. Thank you.

Your servant,
Nataka-candrika dasdi (ACBSP)

It was 1980. I went to India that year, via NYC, and I rode there (NYC) in the return vehicle the players came to NVC in.