Movers and shakers of the early days of Doordarshan
The stalwarts of the national channel who made path-breaking content - progressive and diverse - for the channelUpdated: Oct 18, 2019 18:13 IST
Director Shyam Benegal worked on Katha Sagar, Yatra and Bharat Ek Khoj for Doordarshan. “I decided to do a series on the two longest train journeys in India – one from Kanyakumari to Pathankot Cantonment and the other from Jaisalmer to Dumduma in Odisha,” he recalls. “We had the whole train to ourselves.”
The show was sponsored by the Indian Railways, and Benegal chose passengers and actors from different parts of the country, travelling from one place to another by train. “I would pick them up from the point of departure and drop them at their destinations, and the travel fare was on me. And that’s what delighted them all,” he says, with a laugh. Local, folk musicians were picked up from different parts of the country in a similar way.
“I got to see the country through the lens of this series. In Rajasthan, we would take a break between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur stations, spend around five hours on the sand dunes, especially during the full moon nights and shoot performances for my show. Villagers would gather around to see the shooting and the entire scene looked like a mela from a distance.”
Back when there was no competition, producing TV shows was a liberating experience. “We never thought of competing. It never occurred to us. Hence, all the concentration was on our work.”
The national broadcaster needs someone with fresh thinking in terms of content and presentation, he believes. “There’s a pool of talent in the country. All we need to do is stop chasing the international trends and create a niche of our own,” he says.
‘There was no red-tapism at all’
Thirty-five years ago, a carrot-crunching, dark-glasses wearing detective, solving crimes with wit and grit, captured the imagination of the nation. Karamchand, and his assistant, Kitty, remain two of Doordarshan’s best-remembered characters, even though the show ran only for 39 episodes.
Pankaj Kapur, who played Karamchand, says that today, people still associate him with the character. Karamchand became to India what Sherlock Holmes was to the West. It was a time when phone dials were round and his assistant Kitty, played by Sushmita Mukherjee, knew exactly what number was being entered on the rotary dial depending on the number of signal pulses it used. It was these small bits that made the show stand out.
Kapur has fond memories of working with DD. “One time, I had a meeting with the then director general of DD for an extension for Karamchand. It took hardly five minutes for him to say ‘Go ahead’,” says Kapur. “Here was a channel that understood creativity, didn’t care about TRPs and had absolutely no red tapism.”
Kapur also went on to work on many other shows on DD National, including Neem Ka Ped, Kab Tak Pukaru and Phatichar, some of which he says, still make for great viewing in 2019. “My role in Phatichar was a character who escapes from the pages of a book being written and continues life out of print,” he recalls.
‘Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan was the mother of India’s talk shows’
Tabassum started her career as a child artist in films. She didn’t find much success as a heroine. But her career in television more than compensated for that. She hosted Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, in which she interviewed film celebrities, from 1972 to 1993! This was long before Koffee With Karan or Rendezvous with Simi Garewal hit our TV screens.
Over the years, the show featured a galaxy of actors, from Amitabh Bachchan, Tanuja, Sohrab Modi to Nutan, RD Burman, Shatrughan Sinha, and many others.
“I tell people that it was the mother of talk shows in India,” says Tabassum, now 75 years old.
As a show host, Tabassum was known for not putting her guests in uncomfortable situations. There were exceptions though, she says, recounting one of the show’s most popular episodes in which she interviewed filmmaker Kamal Amrohi. Before the interview, he told her he wouldn’t be comfortable answering questions about his equation with his wife, Meena Kumari, but he was all right with talking about her acting. Tabassum surprised him by asking about Meena Kumari as a wife during the live interview. Amrohi didn’t lose his cool and replied calmly, “You can either be a good wife or a good actor.”
Financially, the talk show was not exactly lucrative. She was paid Rs75 per episode when the show began; by the time it got over after 21 years in 1993, the amount had gone up to Rs 750. But the goodwill she earned doing TV was huge.
“In India and abroad, I often meet people who tell me that they miss my presentation style and command over the language,” she says.
Tabassum believes that DD should work on its presentation. “These days, a lot depends on marketing and outreach,” she says.
At the moment, her YouTube channel, Tabassum Talkies, keeps her busy. On the show, she narrates stories of famous film personalities, which only someone with her institutional memory can do. She knows what Google doesn’t.
‘I’d be thrilled to host a single reboot’
Bits of snappy general knowledge, common man participants and an engaging host holding it all together – you’d think we were talking about Kaun Banega Crorepati.
However, back in the ’70s, these were also the ingredients that made up India’s first English-language game show, a word-guessing game called What’s The Good Word?. This was a time when English was the language of the future, the sound of success. And who better to learn it from than a self-professed word-nerd, Sabira Merchant?
“I am passionate about language and I think it came through in the programme,” says Merchant, who hosted the show for 15 years. The show ran from ’72 to ’86, as monochrome screens turned to colour. If you were a walking, talking thesaurus, you’d rock it.
You certainly weren’t in it for the money. Winners got book coupons. But each time you won, you’d be invited back for the next episode to be challenged by two new teams. “Some people would come on for eight, nine rounds, because they were so good,” recalls Merchant.
Live demos were an added feature. A chef would bring a bunch of veggies and contestants would have to guess if they were being “chopped”, “sliced”, “diced” or “julienned”. “Eventually there were other game shows, and DD didn’t want to spend money to update the set or to give out good prizes,” says Merchant. “By the mid ’80s, we couldn’t still be holding up the score on placards,” she adds.
That failure to evolve is probably what’s holding back DD today. “To stay relevant, DD has to be focused, and do new things all the time,” she sighs. If and when there is a revival though, she says she’d be thrilled to host a single reboot of the show, 21st-century style, on a flashy stage with savvy young people. What’s the good word for that? Nostalgia.
‘It was the only channel, it did a good job’
Saeed Mirza, co-creator of Nukkad, one of Doordarshan’s most- watched shows, says talking about the channel brings back warm memories of many shows including Buniyaad, Mahabharat and Ramayana. “It was good to see one channel offering a healthy mix of programmes for viewers of all age groups. If we look at the role TV had to play back then, DD did a good job,” says Mirza who started his career as a documentary filmmaker, and then went on to make some of the best of India’s arthouse films. Along the way, he worked for DD as well.
That DD could not catch up when cable TV left the audience spoilt for choice was bound to happen, he says.
“Times change, people change. Everything is so aspirational now and TV caters to that. Things anyway never remain the same in any society. It’s difficult to put a finger on any one thing and say that was responsible for the channel’s dip in popularity,” he says.
‘We ruled the heart of the nation’
Does the name Sharad Dutt ring a bell? He was the man with the baritone who used to co-host the readers’ feedback show on Doordarshan called Aap Aur Hum. Dutt retired in 2007 as Additional Director General after serving for almost four decades. Having worked in various departments, Dutt has great insights into DD as well as many stories to tell. “The technical staff was very good. The status of a news anchor was that of a celebrity. Till the time we had a monopoly, we ruled the heart of the nation,” says Dutt.
He had first-hand experience of a variety of challenges the channel faced over the years. On June 2, 1988, when actor Raj Kapoor died, Dutt was asked to produce a one-hour show to be telecast that same night at 10pm. He was filming for the show till 7.30pm, which left the channel’s director general panicking. “I asked him to go home and relax,” he remembers.
Instead of making the 60-minute cut at one go, Dutt and his team of editors made four portions which were telecast in quick succession. “Everyone wondered how we delivered the show when we were so pressed for time,” he says.
With the advent of cable television in the early 1990s, DD’s popularity started waning. “The shows on general entertainment channels such as Star and Zee were much bolder. And on news bulletins, their anchors appeared quite modern. At DD, female anchors had to wear saris and they were not even allowed to wear big earrings,” says Dutt about the gradual but inevitable change.
People running the channel seem to think viewers will settle for substandard content... It needs an increased budget if it wants better directors and producers to make shows for DD.Amit Masurkar, film director, Newton
Private channels make regressive content. DD can differentiate itself by greenlighting diverse, engaging and entertaining content. I don’t think DD should work for TRPs and profit.Amit Sharma, film director, Badhaai Ho
There was a time when DD had progressive and thoughtful shows such as Tamas and Shanti. To make itself relevant today, the government should allow people such as Shyam Benegal to run the show.Hansal Mehta, director, Aligarh
The government should try to show the current generation what DD meant for the previous generation. This can be done through an OTT platform. Millennials should know about the progressive shows of the 1980s.Vinay Pathak, actor
The people in government should seriously reassess what went wrong with DD. A lot can be achieved if they stop making DD a government agency and make it a channel.