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The broadcaster that defined television in India

india Updated: Sep 15, 2009 00:15 IST
Kamayani Singh

“Basesar Ram would have disapprovingly walked out had he been subjected to the programmes on television today,” says actor Vinod Nagpal (69), referring to the alcoholic father he played in Hum Log, India’s first soap opera.

First telecast in 1984, the series helped make television — and sponsor Maggi noodles —part of the Indian equation.

But television in India had already been around longer. It came to India on September 15, 1959 when United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) gave India $ 20,000 and 180 Philips TV sets.

The national broadcaster’s head office was a makeshift studio then, and they worked with just a small transmitter.

“Back then, the viewer was merely the target of an experiment,” says media commentator Sevanti Ninan, News bulletins and daily telecasts began in 1965, making newsreaders like Salma Sultan and Rini Khanna unlikely style icons “TV when it began was part of the Nehruvian model of nation-building,” says Sultan. “The idea was to make the people part of the scene.”

The Sunday movie and Chitrahar, which showcased Hindi film songs, were the biggest draw — apart from, of course, the news bulletins.

It was in the 1980s, after the introduction of colour television on the eve of Asian Games in 1982 that television charged into urban homes, with Hum Log, Buniyaad, Nukkad, Rajni and Udaan keeping families riveted.

“But television in 80s was more than just entertainment - it was an educator and an anchor,” says Ghazala Amin, news anchor with Doordarshan from 1980-2003.

During its 17 month run, Hum Log received over four lakh letters, many of them pleas to not make the characters suffer any more.

It was the entry of private players with the liberalisation of broadcast industry in 1991 that changed the fate of television in India forever.

Within five years of introduction of cable TV, the complexion changed. The motive was now instant gratification, which led to mass replication of shows across different channels and 24/7 news.

Many feel 24/7 news breached the boundaries between entertainment and news.

Senior journalist, Vinod Dua, however, is happy about the transition from state controlled to private television.

“Private television has given us the gift of freedom,” says Dua, who has anchored numerous programs with Doordarshan and private channels since 1974.

“But do we get time to process the unlimited entertainment and news that we have at the tip of our fingers now,” asks Nagpal.

(With inputs from Paramita Ghosh and Sumegha Gulati)