The '80s is often considered the darkest period in Bollywood history. This was the time when the '70's big guns, Rajesh and Vinod Khanna, were giving duds after dud and the Khan troika of the '90's was yet to rise. Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra looked old and jaded, and Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol and Jackie Shroff were nothing more occasional flashes in the pan. Sridevi and Jaya Prada weren't doing anything better either, busy churning out re-runs of their Tamil and Telugu hits for a foothold in mainstream pan-India audience.
But this was the time Indian television was warming up to some really good content. Rich in stories, an amazing collection of actors and some truly engaging storytelling meant that the television was the place to be.
We go down memory lane and revisit some shows that ensured every minute we spent in front of the small screen was totally worth it.Mahabharata (1988 – 1990)
Without doubt, the king of Indian television! Sunday mornings, with those deserted streets anywhere in India, have never been the same since then. Even today, this BR Chopra-produced multi-starrer remains the benchmark for any mythological TV serial. Such was its popularity that even BBC broadcast it, and this mega serial was dubbed in Tamil, Telugu and Indonesian for respective viewers as well. Who can forget Mahendra Kapoor’s rendition of the shloka from Geeta ‘Yadaa yadaa hi dharmasya’ and Harish Bhimani’s narration (he’s also the voice of Samay, if you recall). Hum Log (1984)
Written by Manohar Shyam Joshi, Hum Log was India's first soap opera. Tracing the lives of the members of a lower middle class family, the aspirations and problems would soon find a taker in all. Remember characters like Nanhe, Basesar Ram, Badki and Chutki? Who can forget the monologue at the end of every episode where actor Ashok Kumar discussed the happenings and end it with the punchline ‘Hum Log’. Bharat Ek Khoj (1988)
This Shyam Benegal-directed serial, based on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, wasn't popular but remains an important milestone in television historical dramas. It starred Roshan Seth (playing Nehru, who else but him!), and actors like Om Puri and Pallavi Joshi, Kulbushan Karbanda playing important roles, it was engaging if elite content. Buniyaad (1986)
Manohar Shyam Joshi was back on TV with another family drama called Buniyaad, unfolding during partition and in the period that immediately follows. It was a hugely popular TV serial that sealed Doordarshan’s fate as the primary broadcaster in the 1980s. With theatre-honed talents such as Alok Nath, Anita Kanwar, Sulekha Sikri, Sudhir Pandey and a legion of good Bollywood talent like Soni Razdan, Vijayendra Ghatge and Kiran Juneja, the serial was a hit from the word go. Who can forget Lajoji and Haveliram! Fauji (1989)
Ah, Fauji! The serial that would give Bollywood its next big superstar after Madhuri Dixit -– Shah Rukh Khan. A TV series based on the training of Indian Army officers, the series was an instant hit, mostly with girls.
Katha Sagar (1986)
Yet another popular TV series directed by veteran director Shyam Benegal and several others and based on short stories by famous writers from world literature -- Guy De Maupassant, Rabindranath Tagore, Leo Tolstoy, O Henry, Anton Chekov among many others. And featuring in them were some of best talents from Bollywood and theatre – Utpal Dutt, Shammi Kapoor, Om Puri, Saeed Jaffrey, Waheeda Rehman, Moushumi Chatterjee, Supriya Pathak, Vijayendra Ghatge, Parikshit Sahni, etc.
Directed by Govind Nihalani and based on Hindi novel by writer Bhisham Sahni, the serial was based the Partition and told the story of a Hindu and Sikh couple. Realistic with powerhouse performances by Om Puri, Deepa Sahi, Bahraj Sahni and Dina Pathak and with music by the Benegal veteran Vanraj Bhatia, the series was a controversial but well-received TV series. Malgudi Days (1986)
The charming tales of simple folks from the fictional town of Malgudi remains one of the best-loved moments of growing up in the 1980s. Based on the novel by legendary RK Narayan, the TV series (aired in 1986) was directed by Kannnada actor Shankar Nag. Its iconic background score was the handiwork of Carnatic musician L Vaidyanathan while acclaimed cartoonist RK Laxman did the illustrations that appeared with the credit. Mirza Ghalib (1989)
For lovers of Urdu poetry world over, this was the serial to turn to. Written and directed by Gulzar, with ghazals by Jagjit Singh and a superlative performance by Naseeruddin Shah, Mirza Ghalib remains the last word in refinement. Nukkad (1986)
Continuing the glorious run of great content on TV was Nukkad. Written by Prabodh Joshi and directed by two of the most respected names in Indian cinema, Kundan Shah and Saeed Akhtar Mirza, the serial received an overwhelming response from audience when it was aired. In many ways, it made the careers of actors like Dilip Dhawan, Rama Vij, Pavan Malhotra, and Avtar Gill, some of whom like Pavan Malhotra are still around. So popular was the serial that many of its characters are still fondly-remembered: Khopdi, Guru, Kaderbhai and Ghanshu Bhikari. Remember the title track 'Bade Shehr Ki Ek Gali Mein Basaa Hua hai Nukkad'. Param Vir Chakra (1988)
Based on the exploits and sacrifice of the recipients of the highest gallantry award awarded in India, the Param Veer Chakra, the series chronicled the lives of the likes of Major Somnath Sharma (died in Kashmir, 1948), Major Shaitan Singh (died 1962, Ladakh, J&K) and Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hamid (died 1965, Punjab) and Lance Naik Albert Ekka (died 1971, Bangladesh) and others. Directed by Chetan Anand, it too boasted of a bevy of established actors such as the late Farooq Sheikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Kanwaljit Singh, Puneet Issar, Annu Kapoor among others. Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan (1972 – 1993)
Arguably India’s first celebrity chat show hosted by Bollywood child star Tabassum (then, of course, a lady), it was among the most-sought after TV show through the ’80s. Known for her charming and endearing persona, Tabassum was a star attraction, though almost always she would have a Bollywood celeb gracing the show. Man, was it popular! Udaan (1989)
Remember Vimlaji of the Surf ad in the 1980s? Well, yes, the ‘aunty’ Kavita Choudhary would metamorphose onscreen to don the khakhi, playing an Indian Police Officer in the TV series Udaan. Based on the life of IPS officer Kanchan Choudhary Bhattacharya (former Director General of Police), the serial traversed the trials and tribulations of the young female trainee and then officer in a male-dominated arena. Chitrahaar (1960s – till date)
This Bollywood-songs based programme is definitely one of the best-loved moments from the ’80s era. While the programme itself has been around since the late ’60s, it went truly national when DD National channel spread its wings, post the Delhi Asiad in 1982. Its format was a medley of Bollywood songs, both new and old. Thanks to it, my ’80s generation could get a glimpse of the golden era of Hindi film music – where else could one have heard and seen the works of the like of Naushad, SD Burman, Ravi, Salil Chaudhury, RD Burman, Bappi Lahiri and more. And don’t forget – this was much before the era of YouTube. Karamchand (1985)
Veteran Bollywood actor Pankaj Kapur’s most iconic character belongs not to the big screen but the television. Playing the ‘carrot’ eating detective, Pankaj as Karamchand remains one of India’s best-loved detectives. And, how can we forget his ‘dumb’ sidekick, the utterly loved Miss Kitty, played by Sushmita Mukherjee. The serial was directed by Pankaj Parashar and written by Pankaj Prakash. Vikram Aur Betaal (1985)
This Arun Govil and Sajjan-starrer television series was based a work called Betaal Pachisi by Mahakavi Somdutt Bhatt, a collection of stories meant for children, set in the times of King Vikramaditya of Ujjain. The format of the series was about King Vikram bringing a corpse (a ghost actually) to a mendicant whom the king meets in the first episode. Through the course of the journey, each time the corpse/ghost tells the king a story and at the end of it, asks him a question. On answering it right, the corpse returns to the tree and thus the episodes flow. Sherlock Holmes (1984)
21 years before Benedict Cumberbatch would win acclaim (and crazy female fan following), there once was another TV series produced by Granada for the BBC on the famous British sleuth. Starring Jeremy Brett, many are of the opinion that this was the final word on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Escape from Sobibor (1987)
Much before the movie Schindler’s List would become the gold status in the Holocaust narrative globally for the modern generation, there came another Granada Production, a made-for-TV series based on true stories of survivors of Holocaust who escaped from Nazi camp in Sobibor, Poland. It’s realistic portrayal with chilling images of a daring escape from one of the most dreaded concentration camps in occupied Poland was the finest one got to watch on Indian television.
The World This Week (1988)
In the good old 1980s, Doordarshan news (read by the likes of Tejeshwar Singh, Nithi Ravindran, Rini Simon, and most famous of them all, Salma Sultan) was a staid if a dignified affair. The news readers almost always wore a sari and read the news without much drama (though in correct English). All that got a shake-up with the arrival of Prannoy Roy’s The World This Week. With better production quality and burrowing heavily from its anchor’s personality, news reading, for the first time, became glamorous.
TV series on the Indian epic might come and go, but this was the mother of all TV series on the Hindu epic Ramayana. Directed and produced by Ramanand Sagar, this was the TV series that had it in it to make a one–day India-Pak cricket match look secondary. Primarily based on Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tulsi Das’ Ramacharitmanas, this series would launch Arun Govil and Deepika Chikalia as the face of Lord Rama and goddess Sita for millions of Indians.