Fargo and the Mahabharata

I am having such an American weekend!  Star Wars yesterday, and finally catching up on Fargo today!  But, since I am still a student of Indian film, just like Star Wars yesterday, Fargo made me start thinking about what it has in common with Indian narratives, and how those narratives might actually be universal.

In this case, the Mahabharata.  Or more accurately, the Mahabharata versus the Ramayana.

Fargo, if you haven’t seen it, is a limited episode mystery anthology, each season is a completely new situation loosely connected by location (mid-sized towns in Minnesota with some criminal connection to Fargo, North Dakota).  The first season, which was delightful, set the killer Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton) against the responsible cop Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman).  The entire season was set up as Malvo’s implacable force of evil against Molly’s noble force for good, with a variety of characters with shades of grey caught between them.

At first, the second season appeared to be establishing a similar dynamic.  Molly’s father is the hero this season, another noble cop.  And there is a powerful crime family with a terrifying old man in charge of it.  We will have a noble hero and his family set against a terrifying villain and his.

But then the head of the crime family dies.  And we start to learn that our hero is not perfect, struggling with nightmares from his time in Vietnam and grief and denial over his wife’s impending death from cancer.  And after that, we meet cops who are not just incompetent, but cowardly and self-interested.  And we begin to sympathize with the members of the crime family, all of whom are driven by their own needs and fears and relationship drama.  By the 3rd or 4th episode, it becomes clear, not just to me but to all the other online reviewers I read and the comments on their reviews, that this is a different kind of world and a different kind of story from season 1.

Season 1 was set in 2006, the world was scary, but settled.  Good was good and bad was bad.  Season 2 is set in 1979.  At first, that seemed to just be a random decision, allowing them to use younger versions of the same characters.  But it was a calculated choice, a year when everything in America seemed to be falling apart, with Reagan coming to power and promising to solve it all.

So, right, all of these reviews were using long complicated sentences to explain how season 1 just felt different from season 2, and I was watching it going “Hey!  It’s the Ramayana versus the Mahabharata!”  Right?  Ram and Sita and the gang were more or less perfect.  And Ravaan and his cohorts were a clear cut evil.  And just in general, the world makes sense.  Ram should be king, Sita should be Queen, Ravaan should be defeated.  And then in the Mahabharata, it is all much harder to define.  The Pandavas are our heroes, but sometimes they do things that are less than heroic.  And the Kauravas are our villains, and yes they do bad things, but very occasionally they will do good things as well.  And some of their allies are actual good people who have been forced into this alliance.

More than our main characters, the times themselves are different.  The Ramayana takes place in Treta Yuga, when everything is slightly worse than the Satya Yuga, but still pretty good.  The world is lush and peaceful, kings are wise, subjects are obedient, and so on.  The Mahabharata takes place in the Dwapara Yuga when resources are becoming scarce, war is becoming more common, and all people are just slightly weaker, sicker, morally less than they used to be.

I don’t think this is because the writers of Fargo are stealing ideas from Hindu mythology.  I think that Hindu mythology found a basic human reality.  Sometimes, when the economy goes down or the climate changes or social injustices suddenly hit the news, it feels like the whole world is spinning out of control around you.  And in those times, it can be hard to believe in pure heros or villains.

But in other times, everything seems settled.  Maybe things are bad, but they are the same bad that they’ve been for a while.  The world makes sense, we know what the problems are and how to fix them, we know what is bad and what is good.  And it is obvious who is the villain and who is the hero.

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7 thoughts on “Fargo and the Mahabharata

    • According to Hinduism (as described in wikipedia), we’ve actually been in the Kali Yuga, the one that’s even worse than the Mahabharata era, since about 3104 BCE. Which, according to some scholars, leaves us with only another 427,000 years to go!

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  1. The B R Chopra Mahabharata was all kinds of awesome. People used to literally rush home in time to see it during the time it aired.

    I think the main standpoint of Mahabharata being a Dwapara Yuga tale lies in Draupadi’s vastraharan. Not only did the Kaurava brothers break dharma by attempting to disrobe a woman in open court but not a single good person objected to it or prevented it from happening. (In my eyes, Sita’s agnipariksha and subsequent exile is just as bad, but obviously not as much in the eyes of Treta Yuga people)

    One of my fave scenes from this Mahabharata is shortly after adult Krishna’s first appearance, when Parasurama – another Vishnu avatar who plays a small part in the epic – symbolically passes his Sudharshan Chakra to him and says “Enough eating of butter and playing Leela’s. Now it’s time for you to handle your yuga as I handled mine.” It didn’t actually happen in the epic, but such a powerful scene!

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  2. That Parasurama story is awesome! And it’s another theme that I feel like shows up recurringly in art (including Fargo), the idea that there is an older character who went through their own heroic trials in the past and is passing on the torch to a younger hero. And Star Wars, of course, did this in a big way!

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    • Here it is, it’s so much better seeing it in person than reading my narration of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6xXGxkhmlU

      The Parasurama bit starts at 3:40 and the important stuff goes on till 5:30. In case you need translation, the dialogue goes something like this
      Krishna (guy in yellow silk, talking to Balarama): …and anyway, I am waiting for someone
      Balarama (guy in blue): Who?
      (Parasurama enters. Everyone bows to him in respect)
      Krishna’s guru (addressing Sudama, guy in white): Sudama, tell your gurumata to prepare a feast for Parasuramji
      Sudama: I will
      Krishna: Rishivar, I bowed to you and did not get a blessing
      Parasurama: Since when are you in need of blessings, Vasudev Krishna? But since you asked for it, I surely must give you something
      Krishna: I am fortunate to have met you. That in itself is your greatest blessing.
      Parasuma (gently): Leave these games, Vasudev. I did not come here on my own initiative. You called me here
      Krishna: Then please give me your decree.
      Parasurama: What decree can *I* give you? Consider this an order if you will, or a blessing. I had given up my avatar in the yuga of Maryada Purshottam (that is, Treta Yuga) but the Kshatriyas have started their tricks again (sudharshan chakra appears on Parasurama’s finger) Here, take your weapon (the chakra passes from Parasurama’s finger to Krishna’s) and handle your Yuga. Being a Kshatriya doesn’t give anyone the right to create havoc in society. You have eaten enough butter, made enough music with the flute and played enough, Vasudev, now go and perform that duty for which you had come into this world.
      (Krishna bows in respect)

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  3. That was so cool! And thank you for the translation. I’ve really got to watch the whole thing sometime, I think I can stream it with my ErosNow subscription. Currently, my only knowledge of the epics is from Amar Chitra Katha!

    Also, this is a random thing I noticed in the clip, but I really like that there is so much ambient forest noise. Ambient noise is so unusual in Indian film (because of the post-dubbing), but it really added to the sense of it being a peaceful forest place.

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