India implemented a nationwide lockdown for 40 days in two phases, to fight against Covid-19. It was further extended with certain modifications. Several activities and entertainment programmes were broadcasted to keep people engaged during the Stay At Home period. Doordarshan, India’s national free-to-air channel, re-telecasted its 11 golden era programmes like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Chanakya, Shaktiman, Circus, etc. They were extremely popular when originally televised. It is not a surprise they got record viewership during the re-run.
Game of Thrones has been acknowledged as the most popular TV show in the world. Why Ramayana, an ancient epical TV drama produced in the late 80s became 6 times more popular than Game of Thrones in 2020? Originally, Ramayana was broadcasted from 25 January 1987 to 31 July 1988, every Sunday at 0930 hours, on Doordarshan. Given its encouraging reception in India, Star Plus has broadcasted Ramayana in the UK.
According to Nielsen data, the finale of Game of Thrones on HBO was the most-watched episode with approximately 13.6 million viewers. On 16 April 2020, Ramanand Sagar’s 78 episodic Ramayana has become the world’s most-watched show with 77 million viewers. Several reasons have been put forward by different analysts for Ramayana becoming the most viewed television programme in the world, overtaking Game of Thrones. To me, the following eight reasons played a role in making Ramayana the most popular TV show in the world.
1: The sizeable population of India: USA/UK has much smaller population base than India. Going by the enormous population base, any program in India is bound to receive more viewership than in any other country. A nation of 1.38 billion people, with most of them sitting at home during the nationwide lockdown, offered an eagerly available viewership to the re-running of Ramayana. This type of benefit was never available to the Game of Thrones. Normally, people watch TV programmes in their own country and culture. This was clear in the affectionate response accorded to Ramayana.
2: Free to Air programme: Ramayana ran on ‘free-to-air’ channel, Doordarshan while the Game of Thrones has never been free for spectators. HBO might be a subscribed channel for some people in the USA and a few other countries, but not for the rest of the world. Therefore, when we talk of watching a particular episode on a day, availability of Doordarshan was disproportionately larger than HBO. People had to pay a hefty amount to buy and watch each season of Game of Thrones on Apple TV or any other platform. Cost factor plays a significant role too.
3: Familiarity with Language: Primarily, Ramayana is made in Hindi while Game of Thrones is in English. English-speaking viewership all over the world is available to Game of Thrones compared to Hindi speaking people of India to Ramayana. The 2019 edition of Ethnologue, a language reference published by SIL International, USA numbers total English speaking (as first or second language) people at 1.268 billion all over the world. The same study identifies 637.3 million people as Hindi speaking population (as a first and second language). But only a few people in India do not understand Hindi, at least in TV programmes and films. People living out of India, not speaking Hindi at all, also watch Hindi films and TV series. So, in terms of language, while English easily outnumbered Hindi, but in absolute viewership for Hindi programmes, Ramayana was hardly at any disadvantage. One more point on language: while many people around the world understand plain English, watching Game of Thrones without subtitle is difficult for them.
4: Familiarity to the subject: Game of Thrones is a magnificent creation by the American novelist and screenwriter George R R Martin. His series of epic fantasy novels ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ was adopted in a breathtakingly engaging TV drama. But it was an unfamiliar subject for everyone. Ramayana is written in 24,000 verses by Maharshi Valmiki, a harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature. The epic Ramayana dates back from 7th BCE to 4th BCE. As per Hindu records, Ramayana took place in Treta Yuga, about 8,69,000 years ago. For over two millennia, Ramayana is part of the everyday life not merely in India but in the whole Indian subcontinent. Ramayana is read, recited and performed on various occasions. People are conversant with its subject and they feel attached to it. This advantage is not available to Game of Thrones.
5: Family Value: Ramayana offers universal life lessons for every individual. People watch it dutifully, along with family and friends. Culturally it is said that Ramayana teaches a way of moral life to everyone. It has social, moral, religious, ethical, historical, cultural and political lessons interwoven interestingly. While Game of Thrones may have such lessons, but it has not gained the status of an ideal family show. Brother-sister, teacher-student or father-daughter would not prefer to watch Game of Thrones together. Given strong sexual and violent depictions, possibly Game of Thrones will never come into a family-watchable category.
6: Religious angle: Ramayana is one of the holiest texts of Hinduism. Viewers look at it as a spiritual sermon. Watching Ramayana is considered a holy act. Game of Thrones is only entertainment, without having such religious value. When Ramayana was aired first time in 1987-88, some people used to seat in front of the TV as if offering a prayer. They would also encourage family members to do the same. This is not the case with Game of Thrones. Such theological and social affection to Ramayana added a huge viewership during its initial and second transmission.
7: Age no bar: Ramayana is suitable for viewers of any age - children, youth and old. Everyone watches Ramayana, from a toddler to a nonagenarian. Similarly, all genders like the show. There is no statutory, moral or social restrictions on watching Ramayana. Game of Thrones, having explicit depiction of sexual and violent scenes, is not suitable for children. In many cultures, parents would not want their children to watch Game of Thrones. It takes away a large viewership from Game of Thrones but adds to Ramayana.
8: Complete entertainment: Game of Thrones is a nicely written-directed-produced drama. Whoever starts watching first episode will be tempted to go to the next. It is hard-to-stop-type TV series. Jon Snow’s valour, Daenerys Targaryen’s zeal to reclaim the Iron Throne, Tyrion Lannister’s wisdom and what not? The extraordinary capabilities in different characters, including Dragons, add to the flavour of drama. But so is the case with Ramayana. There is everything of interest. A heroic King Rama who accepts exile for fourteen years to fulfil a promise given by his father, the devil king Ravana with ten heads, a saviour bird Jatayu and a monkey-God Hanuman and his force. There are elements of adventures, miracles and superpower. Ramayana is equally entrapping and entertaining for viewers.
Conclusion: While Ramayana is an ancient epic weaving culture and traditions, Game of Thrones is a magnificent modern fantasy. Production of Ramayana was done in the 80s, with the minimal technology available. So it may not attract in terms of special effects. On the other hand, Game of Thrones uses modern technology to give mesmerising effects. Both are full of entertainment and have huge fan followings. Giving full credit to the creators of Game of Thrones for making a cult viewership, we must acknowledge it can never be compared with Ramayana in its reach, popularity and acceptance in the society. Therefore, in my opinion, these eight reasons have made Ramayana world’s most popular TV show, overtaking Game of Thrones by six times more viewership.