Chanakya (Devanagari: चाणक्य) is a 47-part epic Indian television historical drama written and directed by Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi that was originally telecast on DD National from 8 September 1991 to 9 August 1992. Produced by Prakash Dwivedi, the series is a fictionalized account of the life and times of 4th century BCE Indian economist, strategist and political theorist Chanakya (also known as Vishnugupta) and is based on events occurring between 340 BCE and 321/20 BCE, starting with Chanakya's boyhood and culminating in the coronation of Chandragupta Maurya. Chandraprakash Dwivedi played the title role of Chanakya.
The series is divided into three major parts:The early life of Vishnugupta in the kingdom of Magadha and the circumstances leading to his self-imposed exile, particularly the persecution (and subsequent death) of his father at the hands of Dhanananda, King of Magadha.The invasion of northwestern India by Alexander, his death and the rebellion led by native Indian kingdoms under the leadership of Chandragupta Maurya against Alexander's successors in India. The Greek invaders are defeated.The attack on and overthrow of the Nanda rule in Magadha and the crowning of Chandragupta as the King of Magadha.
Within this framework, Dwivedi portrays the politics and backstabbing that governed relations between kings and officials of that time. He covers the workings of the early Indian republics and the way of life of ordinary Indians.
Chanakya is critically acclaimed and has been hailed as a "milestone on Indian television." At the same time, it has been the subject of political controversy. It has been televised in many countries around the world and has won five Uptron Awards. The series was widely praised for its authenticity, casting and grandeur.
Dwivedi spent more than nine years researching Chanakya and read over 180 books on the subject including the Arthashastra. For him, Chanakya was "the first man with a national consciousness." And that is what made him take up the project:
Chanakya started out as an idea for a film. But Dwivedi abandoned the plan and decided to make it into a television series because it was not possible to meet "telecast deadlines" if it had been shot as a film. Dwivedi didn't conceive of the series as a "purely factual account" of Chanakya's life and times. But he did want "to present a work of fiction based on historical evidence—unlike the serials Ramayan and Mahabharat which presented history with a touch of masala." He didn't want to "[create] false drama just to appease popular sentiments." Episodes 11, 12 and 14 were based on McCrindle's book The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great as described by Arrian, Q. Curtius, Diodoros, Plutarch and Justin, while the final episodes dealing with Chanakya's scheme to win over Dhanananda's minister, Rakshasa, were based on Vishakhadatta's 4th century CE play, Mudrarakshasa.
Initially, Dwivedi was associated with the project only in his capacity as writer while his brother, Prakash Dwivedi, was the producer. Dwivedi decided to direct the series after continued differences of opinion with the original director, Rajiv Singh, who later filed a case against the producers. Dwivedi submitted his script to Doordarshan in April 1986 and shot the pilot after receiving the approval sometime in 1988. He submitted it to the channel in December 1988 and got the final approval by the end of the year. BR Chopra, the producer of Mahabharat had been interested in the series and had submitted a proposal of his own to Doordarshan. However, Doordarshan preferred Dwivedi's project to Chopra's proposal which had been "found wanting."
The pilot was shot at a cost of INR 1.8 million (15 million in 2009, as estimated by Dwivedi). Doordarshan initially allotted 26 episodes for the series and an extension was promised if "the quality was up to the mark." In early 1992, a further 21 episodes were sanctioned as against the 26 demanded, after the extension was initially (controversially) revoked, for a total of 47 episodes. The first 17 episodes were shot over nine months at an estimated average cost of INR 900,000 per episode. A huge cast of about 300 actors were involved with the production.
The production team included well-known technicians such as art director Nitish Roy and costume designer Salim Arif who had previously been involved with Shyam Benegal's Bharat Ek Khoj. Arif was also part of the cast, as narrator and as the character Sidhartak. Roy remained art director for the first 25 episodes, and Nitin Chandrakant Desai, who was assisting him, took over Episode 26 onwards.
"Magnificent sets" were erected at Film City, Bombay (now Mumbai) for the series and an amount of INR 7 million was budgeted to build three cities including Pataliputra and Takshashila. Chanakya was Desai's first independent project and "[he] had to recreate the ancient grandeur of Pataliputra" for the series. Desai spent weeks at the Asiatic Library and Bombay University researching the period. The university librarian even had a separate desk installed for him in the arts and culture section after noting his "constant presence at the library, even during lunch hour, for weeks at an end." The result was a town with "26 structures, four main lanes and six bylanes," all part of a single set.
Close attention was paid to detail when it came to costumes and weaponry, so much so that a piece of armor worn by Chandragupta was procured for over INR 8,000. According to Muneesh Sappel, associate costume designer, the costumes "were based on books by Alkazi Raushan (costume advisor for the serial Mullah Nasruddin), Dr. Moti Chandra (former director of the Prince of Wales Museum), N. P. Joshi (author of Life in Ancient Pataliputra) and K. Krishnamurthy’s Early Indian Archaeology." Terracotta sculptures from the 1st century CE, the museums at Sarnath, Patna and Lucknow, and the caves at the Borivali National Park were other sources of inspiration. In a 2009 interview, Salim Arif considered his work on Chanakya to be better than that on Bharat Ek Khoj.
Dwivedi chose stage actors to play the parts in the series. Pramod Moutho, Suraj Chaddha, Ragini Shah, Ajay Dubey, Arun Bali, and Himanshu Gokani were among the first to be selected. While Dwivedi played the central role of Chanakya, he faced a problem when he looked for someone to play the adolescent Vishnugupta. It was then that his friend Akshay Vyas introduced him to Mitesh Safari. "One look at Mitesh and [Dwivedi] knew he had found his Chanakya. [He] did not even take Mitesh's screen test and told him to report directly for the shooting."Mohan Kaul – EditingRajeev Khandelwal – Re-Editing/EditingRajan Kothari – CinematographySubhash Agarwal – AudiographyAshit Desai – MusicNitish Roy – Art DirectorNitin Chandrakant Desai – Associate Art DirectorSalim Arif – Costume DesignerMuneesh Sappel – Assistant Costume DesignerChandraprakash Dwivedi – Chanakya (Vishnugupta/Kautilya)Mitesh Safari – Young ChanakyaDinesh Shakul – Chandragupta MauryaAbhishek Dwivedi – Young ChandraguptaSanjeev Puri – Senapati Sinharan (of Taxila)Deepraj Rana – AkshayBakul Thacker – SharangdevSanjay Mishra – NipunakNavneet Nishan – ShaunotraShahrukh Irani – Alakshendra (Alexander the Great)Nileish Malhotra – Satrap PhilipKurush Deboo – Cliturcus/ KritorusSuraj Chaddha – King DhananandaPramod Moutho – Maha Mantri ShaktarHimanshu Gokani – Maha Amatya VakranasSurendra Sharma – Shishupal (Shaktar's spy)Vimal Verma – Paur MilindRagini Shah – Chanakya's motherAjay Dubey – Acharya Chanak (Chanakya's father)S.P. Dubey – Acharya Abhinavgupta (Chanakya's guru)Meenakshi Thakur – Bhamini (Shaktar's wife)Mahendra Raghuvanshi – Kaaljayi (Dhanananda's spy)Ankur Merchant – Young AjeyaPunit Shukla – Young KartikeyaUtkarsha Naik – Chandragupta's motherLaxmikant Karpe – Chandragupta's uncleMihir Bhuta – Young KatyayanSusheel Parashar – crematorium grounds keeperShikha Diwan – Angad's motherSurendra Pal – Maha Amatya Katyayan (Amatya Rakshas)Irrfan Khan – Senapati BhadrashaalAshok Lokhande – Ashwadhyaksha PurushduttNaresh Suri – Senadhyaksha BalguptaIshan Trivedi – Acharya AjeyaRenuka Israni – Maitree (Ajeya's wife)Manoj Joshi as Mantri Shriyak (Shaktar's son)Vipin Sharma – Maha Mantri VarruchiChand Dhar – Acharya RudradevTrilok Malhotra – Bhagurayan / Sarp MahamatyaJairoop Jeevan – Susidhartak (Undercover Spy)Salim Arif – Sidhartak / NarratorNeena Gupta – Raj Nartaki ShwetaPrakash Dwivedi – Monk JeevasiddhiSudhir Dalvi – Ambhiraj, King of TaxilaAdarsh Gautam – Ambhikumar (Ambhi), Prince of TaxilaChandramohan Bounthiyal – AnujdevBrij Mohan Vyas – Kulpati Acharya TaponidhiSiraj Syed – Maha Mantri SushenNamrata Sahani – Princess Alka (Ambhiraj's daughter)Arun Bali – Parvateshwar (Porus), King of KekayaAshok Banthia – Maha Mantri IndraduttMalvika Tiwari – Kalyani (Porus' daughter)Kirti Azad – Ashtavakra (Spy in Taxila)Kumar Ram Pravesh – Chakravak (Spy in Taxila)Anita Kanwal – Subhada (Spy in Taxila)Kamal Chaturvedi – Mrityunjay (Spy in Taxila)Chandrakant Beloskar – Minister PishunaPrakash Dwivedi – Laghu PauravrajJD Majethia – Malayketu, son of PauravrajMalayraj, King of Malva
The series gathered much praise for its authenticity, particularly the way it used costumes and similar artistic devices. Journalist and media critic Sevanti Ninan, bemoaning the lack of attention paid to authenticity and aesthetics in Indian mythological serials, wrote in a 2000 column in The Hindu — "'Chanakya' still stands out in one's memory for its period authenticity."
The series was commercially successful for Doordarshan, bringing in INR 180 million in advertising revenues. While thinking about opening up the organization's second channel, DD Metro, to private producers in lieu of license fees, it took the Chanakya experience into consideration with a Doordarshan official commenting that "quality programmes can attract enough advertising support to sustain even small producers who could be bidding for time slots on the metro channel."
Chanakya brought instant and lasting recognition to the director and chief protagonist, Dwivedi, who is often referred to as "Dr. Chandraprakash 'Chanakya' Dwivedi."
The series faced criticism for having a pro-Hindutva subtext and a nationalist agenda, something that Dwivedi strongly denied. Questions were raised about the "liberal use of saffron and 'Har Har Mahadev' slogans" in the series and Dwivedi's links to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Then BJP chief LK Advani had visited the series' Film City sets in 1991, and journalist Madhavi Irani noticed in Dwivedi's office, during an interview with him, "a large laminated photograph of the BJP supremo ... posing with doctor sahib and his brother, serial producer Prakash Dwivedi."
Critic Maithili Rao, while accepting the "tasteful and authentic" nature of the series, termed as unhistorical the story arc dealing with "akhand Bharat" (undivided India). "In the fourth century B.C., people did not have to unite against a foreign force. [Dwivedi] is trying to create a Pan-Indian identity at a time when there was none," she said.
Another critic, Iqbal Masud, took aim at Kautilya and his magnum opus, the Arthashastra, and questioned the "amoral treatise's" relevance in the present time and age. "[The serial] is the spiritual justification of the BJP's forthcoming rath yatra from Srinagar to Kanyakumari. In the existing cauldron of hatred, the serial's image of shaven heads and Vedic mantras is only bound to ignite passions.... [There is no] beating around the bush that the ideology Chanakya preaches is the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP,” he said.
V. Geetha, in an editorial in the Deccan Herald, wrote:
Other critics referred to some other (non-political) inaccuracies. Script writer Govind. P. Deshpande (who scripted the episodes on Chanakya, Shivaji and Mahatma Phule for Bharat Ek Khoj) thought that the series had failed to "correctly identify and interpret the concepts of dharma and rashtra as they existed from the Vedic to the Mauryan times," and that the philosophies of the time, both Vedic and otherwise, had not received in-depth treatment. Dwivedi did receive support from veteran actor Dr. Sriram Lagoo who said that "[the series] portrays the period of Vedic culture quite accurately and one imagines there was quite a bit of saffron going around even then."
The controversies, including "accusations of religious propaganda," resulted in Doordarshan pulling the serial off air, but only after the series completed the allotted number of episodes thanks to legal action by the producers. “I still feel that people didn’t understand the kind of work I did in Chanakya. Nobody saw the pains behind making a serial set in a period about which there was practically nothing on record. But controversies were raised, so people didn’t watch it seriously," Dwivedi said in an interview years later (1996).Best Director – Chandraprakash DwivediBest Actor – Chandraprakash DwivediBest Art Direction – Nitin Chandrakant DesaiBest SerialBest Actor in a Supporting Role – Surendra Pal
Chanakya premiered on Doordarshan's main channel, DD National, in September 1991. In 1993, it was picked up by the BBC and telecast in the UK on BBC2 as part of the Saturday morning Asia Two slot. Zee TV re-ran it in 1997 when Dwivedi was the channel's programming head, and 9X in 2007–08. Since 2008, Amrita TV runs a dubbed (into Malayalam) version titled Chanakya Tantram. The series has been broadcast in the USA, Canada, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Nepal.
Since 1993, the complete series has been available on home video in formats including a set of 16 VHS video cassettes, 47 VCDs, and 12 DVDs.