A couple of weeks ago I went to the All India Radio (AIR) studios near Sachivalaya for a chat on India’s recent cricket debacles and the future of Tests. While conversing on this and that with the producer, I learnt to my surprise and delight that the AIR archives has interviews with such an eclectic group of people as George Harrison, Neil Armstrong, Pearl S Buck and Martin Luther King.
However, these interviews were fortunately ‘discovered’ by the personal diligence of some officials, not as a matter of policy or organisational search. I could not help but wonder what might have been had the government not been moribund on generating content and also managing AIR’s rich legacy. Who knows what other treasures exist?
For the record, All India Radio has more than 18,000 hours of music and interviews archived under the National Audio Archival of the Nation scheme. This also includes speeches by pre- and post-Independence giants such as Gandhi, Bose, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar and Sarojini Naidu amongst others.
All things considered, this is a monumental repository of content, but there is a whole lot of invaluable stuff that is lost in the maze of apathy or suspect/inefficient cataloguing. Add to this Doordarshan (located at Worli), and Films Division (at Peddar Road), which also come under the ambit of the Prasar Bharati, and what perhaps remains undiscovered boggles the mind.
AIR and DD are easily scoffed at these days, but growing up in the 1970s, especially in Bombay, exposed one to what might be considered the ‘golden age’ of radio and television. It sounds laughable to compare those ‘government’ days to the enormous choices of private TV stations and FM radio but when it comes to quality and breadth, well, maybe we lost something along the way.
True, sometimes the sets for TV shows were impossibly simplistic, depending largely on wobbly thermocol cutouts and a large supply of potted plants. And yes, once the national network started, any programme that was on — live cricket coverage in its last stages included — would be interrupted for the 8 pm news. The regularity of “khed hai” announcements when the signal broke down was also the constant butt of jokes.
But precisely because radio and TV were government run, they did not have to accede to the demands of advertisers and sponsors or pander to the lowest common denominator.
Talent — for radio and TV — was acquired from established authors and the theatre crowd that worked not so much for financial reward (given the dismal payments) but for passion — and some fame, of course.
Young World, by Ronnie Screwvala for Bombay Doordarshan, was far superior to most such programmes shown today and made Bombay the envy of other cities. Sunday seemed empty without the laughs of Adi Marzban, Jabbar Patel and Co in Aavo Maare Sathe. Screwvala and Sabira Merchant on What’s The Good Word honed our quizzing and language skills.
Early DD also understood the seduction of Bollywood and Chhaya Geet became a Sunday evening fixture that kept people home and glued to their black and white TV sets. As far as popular culture is concerned, none of the high production, big money serials today have managed to top the depth and appeal of what DD provided in its heyday: compared with the quality of writing and performances in sagas and sitcoms such as Hum Log, Buniyaad, Nukkad, Tamas, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi — to name just a few — the saas-bahu shows are mind-numbingly dull.
On radio, while FM stations today play the same few Bollywood songs, AIR listeners in the past had infinitely more variety: from films or otherwise, instrumental or vocal, classical, semi-classical or pop and in Hindi and English. Why, till the late 70s, Mumbai’s ‘hip set’ would still await the latest in Western rock and pop on Yuvavani!
Inspector Eagle and Hawa Mahal were quite the rage every night, the episodes being widely discussed the next morning. Weekends offered bonanzas. The Bournvita Quiz Contest — conducted delectably by Hamid Sayani — was a must for every school kid on Sunday mornings. For cricket lovers, there was Cricket With Vijay Merchant on Sunday afternoons. Radio plays and interviews with the world’s best were commonplace.
Alas, as in so many other areas, and like so many other monopolies, Prasar Bharati not just went out of sync with changing trends and demands, but lapsed also on its basic objectives. Formed more than a quarter of a century ago to become a more regimented creator, accumulator and disseminator of content, it is now best defined by inefficiency and lack of focus.
This is not so much to do with the people who staff it but with lack of direction by the I&B ministry, and hopeless HR practices. Several first-rate producers, directors, VJs and anchors have been reduced to thumb-fiddling cynicism or hopelessness because of government restrictions (and this oscillates depending on which party/coalition is in power) on what to cover and/or stunted career growth paths.
Of course a state-owned media may have a different overview of events, people, etc, and given its size, will inevitably be riven by some bureaucratic sluggishness. But there is no reason why it can’t be dynamic and more robust in newsgathering, tackling issues and creating programmes that engage people. The fact is that while Prasar Bharati is of the government, it is for the people. Somebody in the I&B ministry needs to wake up to this.