Why is Indian Television so terrible?

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That television is called ‘idiot-box’ seems undeniably apt, when one views the kind of shows that dominate Indian TV currently. It’s crap!

There is no nicer way of putting it. Surfing through the vast multitude of channels, one can hardly find anything remotely stimulating to one’s intellect. Soap operas, catering to the lowest common denomination among the viewers, have either rich kids (mostly good-looking too) whine about their first-world problems, or housewives (decked up like a Christmas tree no matter how trauma ridden) engage in a game of one-upmanship with their likes. These serials have virtually become custodian of our society’s morality and family values, or as I put it, staple diet for the dim-witted.

And what does their success and longevity tell us about our own selves as a TV watching audience? Perhaps just that our bunch is a sucker for relationships and sentimental claptrap; our emotional quotient far outweighs our intelligence quotient. If one choses to move away from these soaps, one is faced with reality TV shows, such as Big Boss, pandering perfectly well to our voyeuristic nature. Also we have mythological and historical accounts, which seem more like projects of an overtly nationalist lobby, being both factually incorrect and leaving no space for scrutiny.

Even news channels have turned into a circus, and Arnab Goswami is not to be blamed alone. One can sure point out that the purpose of television is to entertain and not up-skill its viewers, certainly not in an age of cut-throat competition over TRPs; I agree, but some sensible content would surely not kill all the fun. After all, the purpose of television is also not to systematically dumb down an entire generation of viewers and turn them into couch potatoes. What I lament the most is the eroding away of all diversity from television.

To a cynical viewer, the situation looks grim.

The introduction of the channel EPIC, with its focus on informative shows, folklore, etc., has however brought some relief to this writer and augurs well for Indian television. It’s a wind of change to say the least, and a throwback to the old days of Doordarshan, where the solitary channel was capable of broadcasting a wide variety of shows, on diverse subjects.

EPIC has started out on a similar note, and their shows such as Raja, Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniya, Ekant and Samrachna takes the viewer back to the glorious days of Surabhi. A personal favourite of mine is Mid-Wicket Tales by Naseeruddin Shah, where the actor visits important events and personalities that have shaped Indian Cricket.

The article thus seeks to take the reader on a trip down memory lane, to the old days of Doordarshan, to a time when television made more sense. A time when comedy did not have to be loud to get laughs, and drama could afford to be subtle. Here, we are refraining from talking about the more celebrated shows such as Nukkad, Hum Log and Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan. Instead we look at a few lesser acknowledged gems.

KIRDAR: Directed by Gulzar, and featuring the doyen of Indian acting, Om Puri, along with Mita Vashishth, Raj Zutshi and Irfan Khan-in one of his earliest appearances-in smaller roles. Also one of the stories, ‘Sunset Boulevard???, featured the famous actress of yesteryears, Nadira. Kirdar consisted of a motley collection of short stories written by acclaimed writers such as Ahmed Nadeem Qasim from Pakistan, Samaresh Basu, Malti Joshi and Gulzar himself.

kirdar

FLOP SHOW: One of the foremost examples of social commentary through satire, Flop Show was written and ‘misdirected’ by the late Jaspal Bhatti. He also featured in all the episodes, along with his wife, Savita Bhatti (who produced the show) and his trusted lieutenant, late Vivek Shauq, in various characters. The show attempted to address issues faced by the common man such as corruption, nepotism, official negligence and indiscriminate use of influence by those wielding authority, through parody and dark humour.

MALGUDI DAYS: Based on the works of R.K.Narayan, directed by Shankar Nag and featuring eminent actors such as Anant Nag and Girish Karnad, this masterpiece requires no introduction. Set in the idyllic town of Malgudi, this was an essential part of growing up, and along with Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, remains the most cherished memories of childhood.

BYOMKESH BAKSHI: Created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, this work has been made and remade several times, in Bengali and more recently in Hindi by Dibakar Bannerjee. However, Rajit Kapoor, who played the Satyanveshi in the Basu Chatterjee directed series of 1993, remains the quintessential Byomkesh, with K.K.Raina as the faithful companion – Ajit. And while the verdict on whose portrayal of the sleuth was the best remains contested, for many such as me, who hadn’t had the opportunity to see his earlier depictions in Bengali Cinema; it is Basu Chatterjee’s version that is most easily recognised.

BHARAT EK KHOJ: Narrated by Roshan Seth, who reprised his role as Jawaharlal Nehru from Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, this series, based on Nehru’s Discovery of India, directed by Shyam Benegal and featuring actors like Om Puri, Pallavi Joshi and Salim Ghouse among others, remains a criminally underrated work. The series dealt with India’s past – from creation up to Independence – and had distinguished historians such as Prof. Irfan Habib, Prof. R.S.Sharma, Prof. Sadashiv.A.Dange and Dr. H.D.Sankalia as its script consultants. How wonderfully different would our politics have been, I often wonder, if it could attract the same viewership as B.R.Chopra’s Mahabharat or Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan.

bharat ek khoj

TAMAS: Based on Bhishan Sahani’s work of the same name, and directed by ace cinematographer and director Govind Nihalani, Tamas is a riveting account of unparalleled grief and hardship resulting from the communal strife that gripped India just prior to Independence. Set against the backdrop of Partition, it above all, reveals the transformation of man into a vile beast, lusting blood and plunder. It is a story of man’s surrender to his baser instincts. Excellent performances by Om Puri, Deepa Sahi, Amrish Puri, Dina Pathak and Ila Arun make it one of the finest shows to be ever broadcasted on Doordarshan.

tamas

YATRA: Commissioned by the Railway department to make a TV series on the Indian Railways, director Shyam Benegal eventually settled on the Himsagar Express, which before the introduction of the Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express, held the distinction of covering the longest train route in India, from Jammu to Kanyakumari, travelling across a distance of 3715km, over seventy hours and stopping at sixty-nine stations. The series beautifully captures the ethos of Indian Railways as it follows Om Puri, an army jawan, on his journey as he traverses through the length of the country, with various other characters joining along the way.

yatra

SURABHI: The above list would have remained incomplete without the mention of Surabhi, the longest running cultural series in India. Hosted by Siddharth Kak and Renuka Shahane, Surabhi, in an age prior to the internet or mobile phones, introduced many Indians to parts of India, they otherwise would not have known of. Also, the weekly contest at the end of the show, which promised a grand prize gained such popularity, that the Indian Postal Service had to separately issue a new variety of postcards called ‘Competition Cards’. Surabhi was a truly informative show, and its viewership transcended all age groups and regions. At a time when the concept of TRPs were unheard of, the popularity of the show remained unsurpassed, and the only other show that could rival it in its attainment of universal adoration was perhaps Kaun Banega Crorepati, when Amitabh Bachchan hosted

surabhi (1)

Those were the days of Doordarshan. When you had no choice over what you got to watch, and no option to change the channel. Amidst the noise of television today, I wish to go back to those saner days. When watching television wasn’t something you did to pass time, till you fell asleep.

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