Bye-bye modernity, hello regression

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Trend setters: After the Asiad telecast, Doordarshan came out with a host of teleserials that were instrumental in defining and shaping ‘entertainment’ for the country

It was the mid-1980s, a time when India was battling the wounds of a pogrom that had shaken its very roots as also addressing perhaps the biggest political crisis since independence: the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The country was rife with a political uncertainty that had all the potential to prove disastrous for the Indian economy, which was still a fledgling compared to global players. We were a nation fresh out of hosting the historic Asian Games of ‘82, a mammoth affair that gave us recognition on an international platform and also gave a push to the sluggish momentum of development.

This development also meant laying the foundation of Doordarshan as an entertainment channel, breaking away from its existing image of being merely a drab government mouthpiece showing poorly produced programmes for farmers or an occasional classical recital.

After the Asiad telecast, Doordarshan came out with a host of teleserials that were instrumental in defining and shaping ‘entertainment’ for the country.

Many fondly remember the period as the ‘golden era’ of television. We were still rooted in middle-class values, yet aspired to be above the rest. Every family had its own struggles, and serials of the era beautifully depicted them. In an age when daily soaps are being churned out in wholesale by production houses, names of serials like Hum Log, Buniyaad, Tamas and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi conjure up warm, vivid memories that are fresh even after over three decades. They may be past their telecast date but the plots and the issues they touched upon remain relevant today for the simple reason that these serials talked about the common man and his trials and tribulations. They were synonymous with real life and everyday situations, as mundane as price rise and the kitchen budget.

Steeped in realism, the scripts instantly struck a chord. Unlike the Singhanias, Oberois, Bajajs, Basus, Viranis of the K, M, P alphabet series, characters in these serials were simple, like Badki of Hum Log or Babuji of Buniyaad. And so were their woes: friction in a joint family, a daughter past her prime, or finding happiness in trying times. Though the audience was limited, DD serials came with a social message without sounding preachy — of hope, equality, better life, the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the necessity to maintain the society’s moral fabric.

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“Since serials were to be telecast only once a week, the script was written succinctly and crisply, maintaining the quality of the serial. Writers had a lot of say in the finished product. They were not under any pressure to tweak the story as per demands of TRPs. That is why the content was of high quality,” says film director Rajeev Bhatia, who started directing serials way back in 2000 when the K-series was only beginning to change the face of Indian television.

“It was believed that a good script was the most
essential ingredient to make a serial popular and hit, and only a writer could make or mar the fate of a programme,” says scriptwriter Kunal Pruthi, who tried his hands on serials but moved to short films as he felt “creatively shackled” writing for daily soaps.

The economic boom of the 1990s ushered in a new era for India and sprinkled some of its gold dust on television industry as well. The decade brought in more entertainment options as cable TV started making inroads in Indian households. Channels like Star TV and MTV introduced us to a culture which we had known only through our NRI cousins. Soap operas like Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful and Dynasty, gave us a peak into the western world. Zee TV and DD Metro came out with serials that were far ahead of their time, and talked about women’s empowerment and human relationships.

These programmes were never prudish or regressive. Zee TV offered Tara — a story of three friends striving to have a career and balancing both professional and personal life. The main protagonist’s affair with her boss (played by Alok Nath) was shown very subtly, without making it look ‘dirty’. Neena Gupta’s Saans on Star Plus and Dard on DD Metro talked about infidelity and how a young woman married to an old man falls for a guy her age. Deepti Naval’s women in Thoda Sa Aasman (DD1) tried to carve a niche for themselves in a male-dominated society, putting up a brave front against domestic violence, a cheating husband, and a possessive boyfriend.

To the horror of the current audience that has been fed on the staple diet of saas-bahu dramas, dropping thalis, husbands coming back from the dead completely transformed (thanks to plastic surgery), this content may be “too bold or crass”, but in reality took women out of their kitchens. Ajai Sinha’s Hasratein and Astitva on Zee TV audaciously attempted bold themes like the relationship between a man and his mistress, and the love story of an older woman young man, and all of them were well received by the audience. The characters had their flaws and imperfections. The other woman or a working woman was not devoid of moral values, unlike most of the serials today where a working woman has to be a cleavage-showing vamp, for instance.

At a time when we are becoming increasingly vocal, and aware of social concerns like women’s emancipation, and gender equality, our television is taking us back to the Stone Age. If the woman of today is at par with her male counterpart in real life, the women of Ekta Kapoor, and Rashmi Sharma, need a man as a crutch to validate their identity. “There has been a paradigm shift. Marriage, and being the ideal bahu, is the only ambition of a female protagonist in any current serial. Directors know that these sacrificial lambs are modelled on quixotic idealism but they are indisposed to experiment with something more plausible. Much of this reticence stems from the fear of losing TRPs for they mean moolah. And as cash registers ring, creativity is the first thing that is laid to rest,” laments Bhatia, whose first movie based on honour killings in Haryana, Pagdi, won him three national awards.

“It is a case of demand and supply and both are inter-related,” he adds. “It would be biased to shift complete responsibility to production houses. Since we have to come out with episodes every day, and serials sometimes stretch to a decade, writers do tend to take creative liberties, mildly put, a lot of times. There is also a dearth of good scriptwriters.”

It is often said that fiction and fact overlap each other — that one mirrors and inspires the other. But in the likes of K-series, this no longer holds true. For how many of us have seen the daughter-in-law turn literally into a fly-on-the-wall or a horrified husband discover his wife to be a snake? Welcome to TV serials 2.0.

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