For the next week, you should be prepared for culture shock if you wander into the Biograph. The kind of shock to be anticipated in Peter Brook's epic film of "The Mahabharata" becomes clear a few minutes into the story, when Ganesha comes on camera for the first time. Ganesha is the scribe to whom Vyasa, "The Mahabharata's" author, narrator and sometimes crucial participant, is telling the story -- an urbane gentleman, highly educated and punctilious, who happens to have an elephant's head on a human body.
The story becomes even stranger after the marriage of Dritharashtra, the blind king, to Gandhari, a princess who puts on a blindfold for the rest of her life so that she will not have an advantage over her husband. Gandhari is pregnant much longer than she should be and finally ends it by having her stomach beaten with an iron rod. What emerges looks something like a large bowling ball but, cut up into 100 pieces and specially processed, it turns into 100 warlike sons who are known as the Kauravas. Meanwhile, Dritharashtra's gentle brother, Pandu, is prevented by a curse from having sons, but his two wives, impregnated by gods, have given him five sons, known as the Pandavas. Being the sons of gods, these sons are the strongest, bravest, most honest and honorable of men.
Simplifying a bit, we might say that "The Mahabharata" (which can be translated as "The Poetical History of Humanity") is the story of a war between the Kauravas (the bad guys) and the Pandavas (the good guys) -- a war in which dharma itself, the order of the universe, is threatened; a war in which Lord Krishna, a manifestation of the great god Vishnu, will be a participant on the side of the Pandavas. The story is interrupted and diversified with many byways and digressions (one is the "Baghavad Gita," the lofty book of Brahman ethical teachings) and vivified with striking characters, curses, bitter vengeance, ambiguities and eccentricities, but it is a great story. It is not for everyone's taste, but those who like it are apt to like it enormously.
The film falls into three parts. In the first, "The Game of Dice," all of the Pandavas, their kingdom, possessions, freedom and family are lost in a rigged dice game with a relative of the Kauravas. Their wife, Draupadi (all five of the Pandavas share a single wife), pronounces a terrible curse on those who have doomed her to slavery, and the war becomes inevitable. Tensions build in the second part, "Exile in the Forest," and the dire consequences of Kaurava greed and intransigence burst into almost universal destruction in the third part, "The War."
By now, it should be clear that Brook, the daredevil director of everything from "Marat-Sade" to "La Tragedie de Carmen" and a great film of "King Lear," has taken on what may be the biggest challenge of his career. "The Mahabharata" is one of the great, ancient epics of India, a holy book of the Brahman religion and a story so long and complex that it makes Wagner's "Ring" cycle look like "The Bobbsey Twins." The original poem in Sanskrit is approximately 10 times as long as the Bible and, like it, full of things that make sense to believers in a way they never can to outsiders. Still, there is a lot of universal symbolism in the titanic struggle between greed and selflessness, and there are fascinating glimpses of a mentality that is at once related to that of the West and utterly alien. Like the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the people of the United States and those whose culture is embodied in "The Mahabharata" are cousins but also strangers to one another, almost inhabitants of different worlds. Not the least of the movie's good points is that it allows glimmerings of a bridge between those worlds.
Brook should be accustomed to the material by now -- it occupied him through most of the 1980s. His treatment began as a nine-hour stage presentation and has been condensed into a six-hour television series and the three-hour movie that will be at the Biograph through Thursday.
The Mahabharata, at the Biograph, is unrated.