Like in many other areas, the opening up of Indian television has provided viewers with a plethora of options. Viewers today are spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding what to watch on TV.
There are umpteen channels now of every category, be it movies, news, sports, entertainment, infotainment, lifestyle, etc. And although we may not have reached the American level of genre-specific niche television channels (such as the Sci-Fi Channel, Mystery Channel, Comedy Channel, etc.), there are ample indications that we are well on the way there, thanks to channels like Star Cricket, Cartoon Network, History Channel, etc.
But as the old saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. So the question is, has the liberalization of Indian television spawned a rat race to start channels without having quality content in place?
Days Gone By
Let’s briefly flash back to my childhood days of the mid-80s and the early 90s. These were the early days of Indian TV, when state-owned Doordarshan (a.k.a. DD National or DD 1) was the only broadcaster in a country still besotted with socialism. Of course, if you were lucky enough to live in an Indian metro, you could receive DD Metro (a.k.a. DD 2) too as a bonus!
But unlike other public sector monopolies, DD’s monopoly over TV did not result in poor quality of service (read programming). Far from it! What actually happened is that the best producers and directors across the nation had no choice but to produce content for DD, and that led to what was indisputably the golden era of Indian television.
Serials such as Shrimaan Shrimati, Nukkad, Flop Show, Circus, Fauji, Tehkikaat, Reporter, Karamchand, Janki Jasoos, Ek Do Teen Char (Famous Five/Secret Seven rip-off), Chunauti, Byomkesh Bakshi, Sigma, Katha Sagar, Dada Dadi Ki Kahaaniyan, Honi Anhoni (similar to The Twilight Zone), Vikram Betaal, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Rajni, Udaan, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Surabhi, Turning Point, Superhit Muqabla, Chitrahaar, Ramayan, Mahabharat, etc. will remain eternally in our memory as irrefutable evidence of this golden era.
But the bonanza didn’t end with just TV programmes. Even educational and entertaining fillers were produced with elaborate thought and fairly good quality. Particularly, the fillers produced by the Films Division, National Film Development Corporation and Lok Seva Sanchar Parishad, such as Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, Ek Chidiya Anek Chidiya, Baje Sargam, Purabh Se Surya Uga, etc.
Heck, even the advertisements were unforgettable! I vividly remember ads like Bajaj bulbs, Laxman Sylvania, Rajdoot, Surf, Nirma Super, Gold Spot, Liril soap, Dhara oil….
Cable Era Dawns
The early 90s saw the introduction of Cable TV. We got our cable connection in 1992 with a luxurious 3 channels – BBC, Prime Sports and Star TV! And very soon, Indian cable channels like Zee TV and Star Plus followed, joined later by Sony Entertainment TV.
After the arrival of private Indian TV channels, there were a few memorable and original programmes in the initial years like Campus, Commander, Hum Paanch, Grihalakshmi Ka Jinn (probably inspired from I Dream of Jeannie), The Zee Horror Show, Wah! Kya Scene Hai, Saanp Seedi, Anchor Ek Minute, Tol Mol Ke Bol, Philips Top 10, Movers & Shakers, Antakshari, Just Mohabbat, Banegi Apni Baat, etc. More recently, there were programmes like CID, Aahat, Boogie Woogie, etc. that were introduced after 2000 (and some of them are still going strong!) and were quite good too.
Saas Bahu Aur Sorrow
But then, the era of saas-bahu soaps dawned, and with it brought the decline of quality and creative television. Ekta Kapoor & Co.’s unchallenged reign over the airwaves spanning several years completely switched me off television – for the first time, I really began to believe it was an Idiot Box!
If a channel wasn’t playing some stupid soap, it would be showing some equally, if not more, mediocre comedy serial whose director thought people hopping like monkeys and screaming supposedly funny dialogues hysterically constituted genuine humour.
The only creative channels were the music channels like MTV and Channel V, which gave us some genuinely creative humour in the form of programmes like MTV’s Fully Faltoo and Bakra, Channel V’s Simpu Singh and Santa-Banta, etc.
Rebirth (or Reboot?)
But the last couple of years have given me some hope. There has been a gradual, marginal improvement in the quality of TV programming. And there have been attempts to get more creative and innovative with scripts, resulting in fairly watchable serials like Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin (probably the first Indian serial to inspire an American remake, Ugly Betty), The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (which inspired a hundred copies), Ladies Special, Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, etc. Personally, I am a big fan of the Taarak Mehta…, but more on that in another post.
And it must said that the newer entrants like Sony TV and SAB TV have been leading the resurgence here, leaving the veterans like Zee TV and Star Plus far behind (which is rather sad because these two channels have given us a lot of great quality content in the initial years of cable TV).
Sony TV has twice attempted a makeover with serials like Ladies Special and Bhaskar Bharti (copy of Lalola) in 2009, and Rishta.com and Mahi Way in 2010. I was quite disappointed especially when Rishta.com‘s first season ended, and am eagerly awaiting the second season.
SAB TV, on its part, has been bringing in refreshing stuff like Taarak Mehta…, Mrs. & Mr. Sharma Allahabadwale, Papad Pol – Shahabuddin Rathod Ki Rangeen Duniya, Lapataganj – Sharad Joshi Ki Kahaniyon Ka Pata, etc. While I don’t watch each of these serials regularly, I really appreciate SAB TV for having given a chance to down-to-earth and non-controversy-based serials like these to prove their content model on national TV.
These are programmes that have something different to offer, and have a strong storyline and good content to back up the actors, without having to rely on stupid jokes, bitching, etc.
What Lies Ahead?
I well and truly hope that the resurgence continues and, in the years ahead, we get even better programmes like we used to in the good old days. It’s been a long time since we saw a good detective or mystery series on Indian TV. I would love to see a new generation Honi Anhoni or Tehkikaat pretty soon. And what about a desi X-Files, Ally McBeal or Friends?