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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

Antennas, rukavats, Chayageet, foreign films and memories of DD

One nation, one screen, one channel. Here’s what it taught us all

art-and-culture Updated: Oct 21, 2019 06:55 IST
Janhavi Samant
Janhavi Samant
Hindustan Times
A scene from Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, which captured middle-class life with subtle but memorable humour.
A scene from Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, which captured middle-class life with subtle but memorable humour.
         

It’s 1982. Black-and-white images flicker in a darkened living room in Vasai. Pre-teens are raptly watching East European girls doing gymnastics at the Asian Games. And the hot topic of discussion is how brilliant these performances would look in colour. A couple of years later, we know.

We watch Sharon Prabhakar in a perm, shiny jacket, miniskirt and hideous disco finery, singing Papa Don’t Preach. Shiamak Davar is in shiny baggy pants, doing his cover of We Didn’t Start The Fire. Until satellite television arrived, Doordarshan was the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian TV. It introduced India to:

A weekly playlist for the nation: On Wednesdays and Fridays, one glorious hour was devoted to film songs, new and old, on Chhayageet, Chitrahaar or Showtheme. I remember dancing to them in front of the TV – someone in your family definitely did it too. Their parents probably asked them to dance on the side as well, so as to not block their view of the screen! Who curated those playlists? Chahunga Mein Tumhe Shaam Sawere (Dosti) was followed by Jab Chali Thandi Hawa (Do Badan), and Yaadon ki Baraat Nikli Hai (Yaadon Ki Baraat) with no logic whatsoever. But given they were the only way to watch those songs, no one minded.

Lessons in perseverance: In the ’70s and ’80s, the TV set was a source of entertainment in itself. Picture wobbly? Thump the side. Sound a bit off? Slap down hard on the top. Anything could affect the picture quality. On our terrace, a vindictive crow would fly past once in a while and dislodge the antenna, or worse, sit on it and disturb the transmission. One family member would be dispatched up four storeys to adjust the antenna, while another stood by the main door, one eye on the screen, to relay instructions loudly to the antenna-adjuster: “A LITTLE TO THE LEFT!”

The sights and sounds of cultural diversity: Doordarshan saved its best curation for its national Programme of Dance and Music. This is where a Punjabi viewer could watch Odissi dance. Where Goan viewers could marvel at the costumes and moves of chhau. Where most Indian viewers had their encounters with Rabindra Sangeet, bhangra, Dashaavataram, rudra veena, ghazals and jal-tarangs. The culture hour was the first stage for legends like Kanak Rele, Mallika Sarabhai, Pt Birju Maharaj, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Shobha Gurtu, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Alia and Pankaj Udhas. If you wanted to witness plurality, this is where you started.

News with views: In the ’80s, if your family wanted to be clued in, you’d have dinner facing the 9 o’clock news. We were not allowed to receive or make calls while the news was on! And long inclusiveness was fashionable, there was the News for the Hearing Impaired on Sunday afternoons – even that we watched with great interest. There was an odd phase when DD had a weekly bulletin in Sanskrit as well!

Do you remember Telematch? Watch a clip here 

Foreign developments: In the mid-80s, DD broadcasted The World This Week on Friday at 10pm, immediately after the national English news. It was India’s view of the world outside. Prannoy Roy would recap global political developments for half the show. The other half was dedicated to cultural events: the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants, the Grammys, Oscars, Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages and Michael Jackson’s transformations. Doordarshan brought to India Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, The Old Fox, Star Trek, German Telematch games, Fireball and Yes Minister – if you watched them, you were cool.

English lessons: My dad forced us to watch Sabira Merchant’s What’s the Good Word? and Sidharth Basu’s Quiz Time – when TV became an educational tool.

Late-night TV: While the kids slept, my parents watched Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic The Marriage of Maria Braun, with my dad covering my face with the blanket every time an ‘adult’ scene came on. For a brief while, Doordarshan telecast the best of world cinema, uncensored, on Friday nights. We also caught up on the classics: All Quiet On The Western Front, Bridge On The River Kwai, Citizen Kane, Escape From Sobibor.

Multilingual medleys: Sunday afternoon, regional hits played on every screen. There were subtitles for Meghe Dhaka Tara (Bengali), Saamna (Marathi), Sagara Sangamam (Telugu) and Swayamvaram (Malayalam). And if you just wanted a quick shot of India’s linguistic diversity, Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, featuring 14 languages played practically every day in 1988.

Living with interruptions: Imagine a particularly suspenseful scene. Detective Karamchand is about reveal the identity of the murderer and… the TV goes blank! A placard saying: Rukawat ke liye khed hai and Sorry for the interruption appears. Anxious viewers would debate furiously over who the culprit could be, as we waited for the rukawat to be resolved. We often wondered what kind of disaster must have struck Doordarshan. Lost power? Lost the next reel? Lost the newsreader to a mosquito bite? By the time transmission resumed, Karamchand would be over.

Lessons in mourning: When a political leader passed away, Doordarshan was ready with special programming. We felt deep sorrow when this happened, not for deceased person, but because TV, our entertainment, ceased to entertain. Mourning could stretch from two to 13 days of extremely frustrating programming: devotional and spiritual music engulfed in a cloak of sadness. Everyone wore white. Ghazals sounded longer every time they were repeated. Even the instrumental music – santoor, flute, veena and sitar set against a visual of a sunset – made you re-examine the cycle of life and death, if only out of boredom.

(Janhavi Samant’s book Faaltugiri & Other Flashbacks rewinds to a childhood spent in the Bombay of the 1980s and 1990s, much of it watching TV)