DD turns 60: Here are15 iconic shows you can binge-watch even today
Viewers did not have any other channels to watch then, but the serials were made by the best and the brightest in the businessUpdated: Oct 18, 2019 22:09 IST
A generation remembers watching Doordarshan (DD) serial, Mahabharat, with the entire family on Sunday mornings, almost like a ritual. We are past the era when TV was a community experience. With the coming of satellite television in the early 1990s, DD saw its viewership dip. As the satellite revolution penetrated small towns, this audience declined further. With the arrival of OTT platforms, DD pretty much fell off the nation’s consciousness. Its shows no longer create any buzz, like they did once upon a time. Yes, viewers didn’t have any other channels to watch then, but the serials were made by the best and brightest in the business and many have stood the difficult test of time. Our pick of a few of the best:
If you want to know what India was like in the 80s, look no further than Hum Log for that bit of social history. It also belongs to the era when TV content was about spreading developmental messages. Made on the lines of a Mexican television series, Ven Conmigo using the education-entertainment methodology, Hum Log tackled social issues like family planning, empowerment of women, alcoholism and drug abuse. A middle-class family with problems is, in short, the story of Hum Log (1984), and most of India’s. Hum Log, which began on July 7, 1984 and ended after 156 episodes on December 17, 1985, was the pioneering ancestor of today’s soaps. Author Manohar Shyam Joshi created a compelling portrait of a lower middle-class joint family -- the alcoholic Basesar Ram, his self-sacrificing wife Bhagwanti and their five children. This was the national network’s first serial drama series. Actress Seema Pahwa, who played the eldest daughter, Badki, feels its plot is still relevant as ground realities in city peripheries, rural areas and small towns, where Indian mainstream cinema is now sourcing its stories from, remain unchanged. “The middle class still stands in queues for trains; daughters are still difficult to marry off; dowry is a reality; and the ambitions of children do get thwarted. It is only for a certain class that India is changing or has progressed; 85% of Indians would love to watch such a serial. It’s their life after all.”
If the Battle of Britain is the quintessential ‘English heroism’ story (to be a hero is to fight the good fight), Partition is the Indian subcontinent’s. Partition was a tragedy that birthed two nations, India and Pakistan, and it resolved nothing. Tamas, a 1988 television film directed by Govind Nihalani, is based on Bhisham Sahni’s novel on the subject. Its taut storytelling is about the calamity that envelopes the life of a young Dalit couple as they are used in a plot to let loose a bloodbath, and the ensuing communal madness. These are events that should have been history by now, but aren’t. Tamas, as a story and a serial, will always be relevant for this reason.
“They are like a box of Indian sweets in a highly-coloured container that conceals a range of delectable treats, all different in a subtle way, but each one clearly from the same place,” says writer Alexander McCall Smith of RK Narayan’s Malgudi stories.
And DD telecast the series, Malgudi Days (1987), comprising 39 episodes on its very special world, the world of carefree schoolboys, and not just of a village in south India, but any village. The plot revolves around Swami and his friends Mani, Shanker, Somu and Rajam, and their escapades in and out of school. Who doesn’t remember, and, therefore, returns to his/her childhood? The appeal of Malgudi Days is that it transports us to a time when things were less complicated.
Khandaan cast every big name in TV in its time — Neena Gupta, Mohan Bhandari, Jayant Kriplani, Girish Karnad, Shernaz Patel, Tinu Anand. Aired on every Wednesday at 9pm, it told the story of a very rich industrialist family, and the highs and lows of the much-better-off middle class. Neena Gupta, who made her TV debut with the show, played a complicated business tycoon . It was India’s tamer answer to The Bold And The Beautiful.
Shernaz Patel, fresh out of college, joined the cast 20 episodes in, playing a nurse who got married to one of the sons in the family. “It was my TV debut and I loved every minute of it. The highlight of my character was that I wasn’t accepted by the family and how finally I achieve that,” she says. “My character was pregnant and I remember taking the bus, and strangers started congratulating me for my on-screen pregnancy! We were mobbed everywhere. On Wednesday night, in my building, if you went down the lift all you could hear is the Khandaan theme song.”
“Shreedhar Kshirsagar was a fabulous director,” Patel says. He insisted on long takes, and filming took a good three days per episode. A very large portion was shot in Bangalore, which was not very common around that time.
“It looks dated but I think it’s still relevant,” she says. “It is because of the content. It is a family saga with highs and lows of relationships, which we all can connect today. The only difference is, unlike today’s shows, the story and script were written and re-written. The dialogues were well thought out.”
Thirty years ago, retired armyman Colonel Raj Kapoor decided to make a coming-of-age show based on the lives of trainee commandos. The 13 episodes of Fauji found a national audience for its insider’s view of military life.
But that’s not why you know Fauji. You know it because of Lieutenant Abhimanyu Rai, played by a young, gangly, dimpled Shah Rukh Khan. This was not his first TV stint (he had appeared in a two-episode role in Doosra Keval, another 1989 DD show), but it was his first break.
Khan stole hearts with his charming, lopsided smile and adorable stutter. Rakesh Sharma played his cool, brooding older brother Major Vikram Rai. A Kannan played Major Narayanan, ending training sessions with the signature quote “Koi shak yaa sawal?” Vikram Chopra was Varun “I say, chaps” Chauhan.
If you’re watching today – it’s streaming on Amazon Prime – look past the dated pacing and production quality. Look past the acting too – most of the actors are stiff. You’ll find a heartwarming, earnest narrative peppered with instances of male bonding, romantic interludes, team banter and a non-jingoistic war sequence thrown in.
And you’ll see exactly why India fell in love with Shah Rukh Khan. He wasn’t even the first choice for the role. Anupama Chopra’s book on the star, King of Bollywood, says that he only bagged Abhimanyu’s role after Colonel Kapoor’s son, Bobby (who was also the cinematographer) backed out.
THE SWORD OF TIPU SULTAN
Why watch the historical drama now? For its opulent sets, historically accurate costumes and king-sized budgets – all rare for the time. For the show’s own history – some time during filming, an on-set fire claimed 52 lives and left the lead actor and director Sanjay Khan with 65 per cent burns. Nearly 13 months after hospitalisation he returned to complete his show.
But mostly to remind yourself of what Tipu Sultan, the last Indian ruler to valiantly resist British rule – used to mean to India. His legacy is now mired in controversy. Some see him as a treacherous tyrant, many still revere him as the Tiger of Mysuru.
The show, based on a novel by Bhagwan Gidwani, was an instant classic. Khan, now 78, remembers the fire. “On the first day of shoot after recovery, I was so weak, I needed a crew to help me mount the horse, my left leg was half numb, I could not feel the stirrup under my foot,” he recalls. But with 200 horsemen behind him, armed with naked swords and lances, Khan knew better than to risk a fall. “That is the moment that gave me back my self-respect as a man. If I had allowed my duplicate stuntman to do it, I would have been like a rabbit running helter skelter.”
Khan says his loyalties will lie with Tipu to his dying day. “The service he gave to his people is the ultimate proof of his benevolent nature,” he says. “I intend to tell his story again.” There will now be new fires to fight.
A MOUTHFUL OF SKY
This is a whodunnit mystery with a bit of I-Know-What-You-Did-Last-Summer suspense, and a whole lot of drama. But that’s not the reason to watch it today.
It depicted the preoccupations of India’s sophisticated young upper-middle class and high flying professionals. Still not the reason to watch it.
It is replete with exaggerated crashing thunder, forced acting, unflattering camera angles and a mournful theme song playing too loud, too often. Obviously not the reason to watch it.
It debuts a young, hot Milind Soman, alongside Rahul Bose, Neesha Singh, Ranjeev Mulchandani, and Shiuli Subaya, playing five friends who reunite 13 years after their MBAs at the Management Institute of India (MII). There’s something sinister about the reunion; each one thinks the other has summoned them to the old, abandoned, MII guesthouse. As events unfold, we are let into a deadly incident that took place during their college days, to which our protagonists think they were the only witnesses.
The show, directed by Mahesh Bhatt, Anand Balani and Ajay Goel, also featured Samir Soni as the main villain, Kamal Siddhu, R Madhavan, Simone Singh, Soni Razdan and Ayesha Dharker, in the course of its 252 episodes.
“On one hand you had Hum Log, set in the heart of the country, which represented a traditional lower middle class family,” says Soni. “On the other was this Westernised, urban look of India. The extremes existed simultaneously. Today the bridge is narrowing. So it’s interesting to see how that played out 24 years ago.” That, finally is the reason to watch.
YE JO HAI ZINDAGI
Hilarious, episodic, and one of those shows that so effectively captured middle-class life that you wondered whether you were laughing at the characters or at yourself.
Ranjit (Shafi Inamdar), his wife Renu (Swaroop Sampat) and Renu’s unemployed brother Raja (Rakesh Bedi) live in a tiny apartment in Mumbai. And everything seems familiar even today: calculating one’s budget before visiting a restaurant, forgetting anniversaries, spinning lies to avoid annoying visiting relatives, unemployment, harmless flirting, neighbours who steal newspapers, and mistaken identities.
Satish Shah played a different character in every episode, totalling more than 50 by the time the show wrapped up. He’d been a lawyer, priest, milkman, psychiatrist, blackmailer, thief, colonel, Ranjit’s father, Raja’s boss, playwright, eccentric professor – and he played them all with tongue firmly in cheek.
This is before TV comedy turned bawdy and forced. And this is what makes it watchable 35 years later.
Sampat says she enjoying working on this show more than anything she’s done. “I was the only woman from the main crew but all of us became best friends,” she says. She says that in small towns, there was less traffic in the evenings as people would be home watching the show. Her friends abroad waited eagerly and paid high prices for bootleg cassettes. “One of my acquaintances called me up and thanked me because her husband would be back from work early than usual just to watch the series,” she says.
It’s still hard to find good Doordarshan shows that revolve around children. So Amol Palekar’s Kachchi Dhoop remains a breath of fresh air. Written by Chitra Palekar, and based on the novel Little Women, it chronicles the joys and sorrows of a single mother and her three young daughters - played by Bhagyashree, Shalmalee Palekar and Purnima Pathwardhan – as they navigate life.
Even in 2019 the show is hashtag-relatable. The warm, slice-of-life narrative zooms in on the distinct personalities of the girls, how they spend their days, their friendships, their ambitions and struggles. The girls and their sidekick, Shanky, use their mother’s pots and pans to create music. They team up to teach the youngest how to ride a bicycle. It makes you nostalgic about your own carefree childhood.
Of course it’s a show about good values – but not the clumsy binary of today’s over-dressed soaps. The mother strives to raise her girls into independent but compassionate women.
Amol Palekar says that he made it because there was a dearth of good entertainment for children. “After seeing the pilot, I was given the prestigious Friday night slot for Kachchi Dhoop,” he recalls. “I wanted a Sunday morning slot, but the channel didn’t have one. So I went to Delhi and convinced them to create it. That’s how Kachchi Dhoop came to be aired on a Sunday morning and later, shows like Mahabharat and Ramayana were aired during the same slot.”
Nukkad (1986) was Indian television’s first, and, perhaps, only serial of the street. “The 26 characters in the show were not showy or successful in any way but they had verve, great lines, and well-developed personalities,” says Saeed Mirza, who co-directed it with Kundan Shah.
It had Guru (Dilip Dhawan) – he ran an electrical shop, and, was, in effect, the group leader; the lovable alcoholic, Khopri, (Sameer Khakhar); Maria (Rama Vij); and Kaderbhai (Avtar Gill), the owner of the local restaurant. “A Nukkad re-run would work because, at its core, it is about a group of people who hang out together, trying to help each other. Friends to Tarak Mehta ka Ulta Chashma – are all built on the same story,” says actor Pawan Malhotra, who played cycle mechanic, Hari, in the serial.
Back in the early 90s, daily soaps were almost non-existent. Junoon changed the game. It starred popular faces like Mangal Dhillon, Shashi Puri, Archana Puran Singh and Neena Gupta, and revolved around two rich, rival households – the Rajvansh and Dhanraj clans.
A jilted lover’s tale kick-starts the enmity between the families and the rift gets worse and more vicious as both sides scheme to right real or imagined wrongs. For 1990s viewers, it was irresistible – the show ran for five years, becoming the longest-running Indian TV programme of the time.
In 2019, it might seem a little kitschy and melodramatic – the show actually dims the lights to indicate lovemaking. But there are several reasons to watch it now. The plot twists are unexpected – unlike the predictable ones today. The characters are unusually well written for a daily show. And the title track is catchy, even today. Above all, who doesn’t like to see that deadly cocktail of revenge-jealousy-ambition play out on screen?
“Junoon was path-breaking in its casting, the way it was written, directed and presented to the audience,” says Archana Puran Singh. “It was based on reality and this resonated with an audience that was keen to view real drama on television. The show was shot in real locations, unlike today’s TV serials. Junoon would fit well in the web space today.”
GUL GULSHAN GULFAAM
It’s 2019, Kashmir has been closed off for more than two months. But one show from nearly 30 years ago offers a peek into Kashmiri life, and how much of it hasn’t changed.
Across 45 episodes, it follows the life of a family that lives on Srinagar’s Dal Lake and rent out three houseboats named Gul (Flower), Gulshan (Flower garden) and Gulfam (Gardener). Then as now, survival is tough. Terrorism is an ever-present threat. Will they make enough from this tourist season to survive? And for us watching, where can we buy those gorgeous quilts and overcoats so we can support their artisans?
Parikshit Sahni, who played the family’s patriarch, says the role was an easy one, given he was raised in Srinagar. “It is my home. I knew their language, their traditions, their concerns” he says. “They do not consider anyone as outsiders. They are extremely loving. They knew I was Balraj Sahni’s son, so I was loved all the more.”
Even then, security concerns meant they had to shoot some episodes in Bombay. It will be a while before videos of Kashmir move past the newsfeed and into an epic story.
“Main samay hoon,” announced a deep voice at the beginning of every episode of the mammoth 94-episode Mahabharat, produced by veteran filmmaker BR Chopra, which began in 1988. The greatest epic ever told went on to achieve great popularity on the small screen. Made firmly in the calendar art style with glittering tinselly costumes and cardboard sets, the show was lifted to sublime heights by Dr Rahi Masoom Raza’s brilliant dialogues.
With a PhD in Hindi literature from Aligarh Muslim University, Raza was a foremost Hindi poet and novelist, with pathbreaking works such as Adha Gaon and Topi Shukla. He brought the full weight of his literary talent to write memorable dialogues, in the process even inventing words such as Pitashri and Matashri. He was targeted by Hindu fundamentalists who wanted to know how a Muslim was being allowed to write dialogues for a Hindu epic. Raza, who hailed from Ghazipur in UP, said, “Why can’t I write the dialogues? Am I not a son of the Ganga?” So, watch the show today for its unforgettable writing.
Ghalib who? The poet himself found an unusual way to address that question: “Poochtein hain whoh ki Ghalib kaun hai, koi batlao ki ham batlaen kya (They ask who is Ghalib. Now tell me how do I respond to this?)”
But why watch a 31-year-old show about a man who was born 222 years ago? Because the man and his poems are still necessary and timely in a world that finds new platforms to pull itself apart with hate.
The Doordarshan show, uploaded on to YouTube, still has tens of thousands of views – from fans old and new. This is where to watch Naseeruddin Shah as Ghalib, delivering lines by the poet and screenwriter Gulzar. This is where to view Ghalib’s timeless take on religious bigotry. This where to enjoy songs sung by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh – they just don’t make music like they used to.
Neena Gupta, who played Ghalib’s muse, Nawab Jaan, is happy about the afterlife of the show. “Ghalib’s poetry will be relevant forever,” she says. “The younger generation knows very little about him and the show is a wonderful way to get to know his work.”
BHARAT EK KHOJ
Based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, The Discovery of India, Bharat ek Khoj (BEK) was a 53-episode drama spanning a 5000-year history till independence from British rule in 1947. Directed by Shyam Benegal in 1988, it is the best visual crash-course of India’s history. Another pull is that it cast the who’s who of India’s best actors in their youthful prime – Naseeruddin Shah as Shivaji; Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Akbar; Om Puri as Ashoka. In DD’s early years, when fiction content had not yet begun, the idea was “not to zone out the audience but to engage them”, says actress Meeta Vasisht, who played Suhasini, Chandragupta Maurya’s love, in one of the episodes. Vasisht says the serial is being discovered by youth on YouTube. “There has been a turning away from TV and there is a spirit of re-discovering old DD serials online which proves the timelessness of such serials,” she says.
--With inputs from Poonam Saxena, Madhusree Ghosh, Annesh George, Dipanjan Sinha, Aishwarya Iyer, Natasha Rego, Vanesa Viegas, Mansi Joshi, Paramita Ghosh, Cherylann Mollan.