In a galaxy far, far away, a child grows up on a distant planet, where a wise old father figure trains him to fight with a lightsaber. He discovers who his parents really are, unlocks the full force of his powers and sets off to overthrow the evil Empire. Did I mention he’s also hiding from an evil stepmother and her mutated demon baby, who can only be defeated with a mythical sword?
That’s the plot of Aaryamaan – Brahmaand Ka Yodha, a 2002 Doordarshan show which blended elements of George Lucas’ trilogy with homegrown mythology to create “India’s answer to Star Wars”.
Its references to George Lucas’s original trilogy are unmistakable, right from the opening credits, which appear in the style of the iconic Star Wars scroll. “We were very influenced by Star Wars in terms of the technology, the visual effects, the magic that George Lucas brought to the screen, and wanted to make a space soap opera like that. We were doing something that had no precedent. So we had to go back to Star Wars and steal the look, the style, the weapons,” says its writer Kamlesh Pandey, who would go on to write Rang De Basanti (2006).
The homeworld of prince Aaryamaan’s parents, Thar, is a desert planet much like Tattoine. A space union general shows up looking like Darth Vader got dressed in a hurry. Tobo, the robot tasked with protecting Aaryamaan, is a shorter version of C3P0.
Mukesh Khanna, who played Aaryamaan, came up with the idea for the show years before he shot to fame playing another super-powered being – Shaktimaan. He pitched it to Rajshri Productions, where it was greenlit. “Back then, it was titled Akash. The idea was: there’s this guy who comes from the skies and flies here and there,” he says. However, the actor landed a role in 1983 film Dard-E-Dil, got busy and the idea was shelved.
In 2001, he began developing a spy show for Doordarshan. When its writer abandoned the project midway – Khanna doesn’t remember why – he thought of reviving Akash instead. “(Shaktimaan director) Dinkar Jani and I realized Shaktimaan had captured the universe so where could we go now? The answer was space. We said: Let’s make India’s answer to Star Wars.” Jani had just one ground rule: Earth would never be seen in the show, they would explore different planets instead.
They met with Pandey, who was also a massive Star Wars fan – “Who wasn’t in the 70s?” he says – and was coincidentally writing something similar. He cracked the approach to the show early on, deciding that while it would look like Star Wars, the characters and storylines would come from the Mahabharata. “That was the only way to get the audience to identify with it. You can’t have a totally alien story with alien characters in an Indian story. Why would the audience watch it then?” he says. He wrote Aaryamaan as a Ram figure and his scheming stepmother as Kaikeyi. The villainous Narak, who abducts Aaryamaan’s mother, was clearly Ravan. Still, there are arcs that seem to be lifted directly from Star Wars. Take
Luke Skywalker Aarymaan, who has no knowledge of who his father is and must be trained by 750-year-old Jedi master warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi Hoshin, whose own “bigda hua shishyak”, Darth Vader Narak, had turned against him in the past.
“Well, even Star Wars took from Indian mythology. Darth Vader is Ravan. Luke Skywalker is Ram. Han Solo is Laxman,” says Pandey.
The team moved quickly, hiring RK Studios for a month and Natraj Film Studio for another to put up massive sets, including a spaceship with detailed interiors, including fake switchboards and consoles. The rest of the area was converted into a storage space for the costumes and props such as swords and lightsabers. Crest Communications was roped in to work on the VFX. Khanna asked composer Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma (of duo Laxmikant–Pyarelal) to craft a theme for the opening credits, having met him on the set of his brother’s film, Insaan (1982). “In those days, you’d pay around Rs 30,000 for a theme, I paid him Rs 3 lakh – it was so good,” he adds. Sham Kaushal was hired to choreograph the space battles.
Aaryamaan began airing on July 12, 2002. Problems soon arose. Khanna, who was counting on the Shaktimaan fanbase to bring in viewership numbers, found them lacking. “Shaktimaan aired at noon and then Aaryamaan would air at 12.30 pm. A lot of feedback we got was that kids were waiting to see if Aaryamaan would fly, like Shaktimaan did. So I asked Jani to make him fly. I thought it might help us commercially.” It didn’t.
The top-notch production also came with a hefty price tag. “Each episode cost Rs 17 lakh to Rs 18 lakh. After episode 26, I realised there was no scope of recovering the costs. Even advertisers for our slot began dwindling,” says Khanna. The 45-minute-long episodes were gradually pared down to 30 minutes. Practical effects were replaced with a blue screen. Exterior shots of the ship gave way to closeups of hands on knobs and dials. “We had to let go of Crest and hire our in-house people who were also working on Shaktimaan. I had to compromise.” Unable to afford Pandey’s writing fees, Khanna let him go, hiring Shaktimaan writer Brijmohan Pandey in his place.
The costs came down to Rs 6 lakh an episode. But by the time episode 52 rolled around, Khanna decided to cut his losses. The last episode features Aaryamaan and fire-breathing monster Gomantak racing to acquire the mythical sword. We never find out if he reaches it in time and is able to defeat Narak or regain his kingdom.
“People still ask me about Aaryamaan. I thought we’d revive it once we got the budget but no channel seems interested. Even now, they only want more Shaktimaan,” says Khanna.
Pandey has several theories on why the show failed to connect with audiences, including that it was ahead of its time. His main takeaway is much more simple – “If you want to compete with George Lucas, you should have very deep pockets.”