It was the time when not a single TV antenna dotted the untidy Calcutta skyline. But that didn’t prevent the young Punjabi couple, who had set up home in that teeming city in the early ’70s, from having a good life.
Kuldeep Anand, now 85, worked as an executive in a private company, and Harshi, a former IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) singer and actress, had her hands full with their three boisterous young sons. The only irritant was a regular visitor from Delhi who always held forth about her wonderful TV set back home. “She would make us feel really small,” recalls 77-year-old Harshi.There was nothing the Anands could do about it because till 1972, there was no television in any city except Delhi. By 1975, it had arrived in a few other cities, including Calcutta, but by then the Anands had moved to the capital. In 1976, they bought their first TV — an 18-inch black and white Weston for around Rs 2,000 (a princely sum in those days). Recently, we joined the family in their Panchsheel Enclave home, in front of their 24-inch Panasonic TV, which has certainly cost them more than a couple of grand.
Giving the senior Anands company was their daughter-in-law, Paro Anand, who writes books for children, and her 22-year-old son Uday who will soon be off to Oxford for a Masters in Economics. Paro’s husband was away in South America on work, but her brother-in-law Vikram had dropped in to visit his parents. Lounging around the TV, the Anands tried to figure out what they should see. From the zero-option days of one state-run channel (Doordarshan) to today’s scenario of over 100 channels (courtesy Tata Sky), the Anands — like most Indians — have traversed a life-altering distance. “Back then, the sheer novelty of having a TV over-rode everything else,” said Vikram. “I would even watch the Rukawat ke liye khed hai (sorry for the interruption) sign with great interest.” Harshi recalled how no one visited each other on Sundays because every family would be parked in front of their set (always proudly displayed in the drawing room) to see the weekly film. Neighbours who didn’t have a TV would descend in droves to see what was then regarded as nothing less than a marvel of entertainment.
Television, the ‘ethereal spectacle,’ had actually started in India as an educational experiment, a collaboration between AIR and UNESCO in 1959. The last 50 years have seen sweeping changes, of which the most revolutionary were the arrival of colour TV in 1982 (in time for the Asian Games), the commercialisation of Doordarshan in the mid-’80s and the coming of satellite TV in the early ’90s. Harshi said she had gone to Hong Kong in 1982, and bringing back a colour TV set became something of a mission for her.
“Those days, all flights coming to India from abroad would be full of colour TV sets,” recalled Paro. The same year saw the emergence of a National Programme — and therefore, a national market. To create content, Doordarshan soon opened its doors to private producers and directors — drawn from the cream of the Hindi film industry — and ushered in what many now regard as DD’s golden years. Each of the Anands has their favourite from that period. Uday, a little boy then, would watch the Mowgli show without fail. His grandparents were passionate fans of B R Chopra’s Mahabharata. “I remember once we were driving to Chandigarh,” said Harshi, “and suddenly the driver stopped the car in Karnal so that all of us could get off and watch the Mahabharata!”
But the real watershed years were the early-’90s. Satellite TV came to India and so did economic reforms, inaugurating a seductive, heady era of unlimited choice. Today, Harshi watches serials like Balika Vadhu and Aapki Antara, Kuldeep enjoys mushairas on Urdu channels and programmes on the Bhagvad Gita, and Paro and Uday together watch American sitcoms and reality shows such as So You Think You Can Dance. But what unites the family together are talent shows such as India’s Got Talent. “I voted for all those who have made it to the semi-finals,” revealed Uday. When the first Indian Idol was telecast on Sony, the family would vote for their favourite participants. Even Discovery and Animal Planet top their most-watched lists.
They all agreed that there is much that is distressing on TV today, but no one wanted to turn the clock back. “Would you like to go back to when the only car you could buy was a Fiat?” asked Kuldeep. “Not at all. We like the fact that we have so much choice today. It’s like a buffet; you pick what you want. Ab iske bina guzara nahin ho sakta” (Now, we can’t live without it). Like anyone else who’s tasted freedom, they are loathe to give it up.