The one-for-all channel

Posted on August 22, 2015


Doordarshan Chennai turned 40 recently, which is as good an excuse as any to talk about what Doordarshan meant and what it means today.

This Independence Day, I was thinking about Doordarshan. In the late 1970s and early 80s – that’s when many of us got a television set, something that resembled a crate with closing doors; some of these doors even had a locking mechanism, as if to prevent a cat burglar from making away with the cathode ray tube – August 15 meant that we’d see Manoj Kumar walking around a field with a plough slung on his shoulder, the way an action hero would carry a rifle. The song he sang – Mere desh ki dharti – was, to my generation, the musical equivalent of the twelve-times table, a droning chorus that went on and on, but today, I look back at it with some amount of wistfulness. It’s not the song itself. It’s what it represented, the fact that you had to listen to it because it was August 15.

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A few hours of programming every night was all one had, and whoever was doing the programming made sure that we were being shown what was “good for us” – it was the spinach model of television programming. So on Independence Day, we got to watch a special edition of songs – along with Mere desh ki dharti, we’d get Chhodo kal ki baaten, with its refrain of “hum Hindustani”  and Jahan daal daal par, with its segue into Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu… A few years later, we got Mile sur mera tumhara, that ode to national integration with a blockbuster cast. On Eid, DD-Chennai, which recently completed 40 years, would show us Ellorum kondaaduvom, the song from Paava Mannippu which depicts a Muslim celebration, and Nalla manadhil kudiyirukkum Nagoor aandavaa. Christmas would bring Christmas songs, the end of December would be marked by New Year songs.

This may make it appear that I’m talking about tokenism, but it’s actually a kind of egalitarianism – a pre-TRP-era television-programming model that ensured a bit of everything for everyone, putting the “broad” in “broadcasting.” Of course, the majority interests were catered to the most, which meant the programmes were mostly in Tamil and English and Hindi, the languages you still find on the yellow signs in the local train stations. But Sunday afternoons would be reserved for regional-language films, and the language would change every week. Sitting in Madras – not Chennai – we were being exposed to Malayalam and Assamese and Punjabi films. And along with Chitrahaar, which only screened Hindi songs, and Oliyum Oliyum, which only screened Tamil songs, there was Chitramala, which featured six or seven songs in different languages from across the country.

There were programmes for women (Manaimaatchi), for children (Wonder Balloon), for men (the very pointedly titled Men and Matters, as if women did not matter; but then, that wasn’t a very enlightened era in these matters), for farmers (Vayalum Vaazhvum) – there was even a programme for viewers, called Edhiroli, TV’s answer to the newspaper’s letters-to-the-editor column. You’d be right in pointing out that this model of programming existed only because there were no other channels – once those other channels arrived, nobody went back to Doordarshan. When Star Plus was beaming up slick and racy episodes of Baywatch and Moonlighting and The Wonder Years, who’d switch to DD programmes, whose production values were like Nirupa Roy’s wardrobe? The DD model worked only because of its captive audience. Once those viewers were set free, once they were given a choice, they shifted loyalties to channels that showed programmes that they wanted to see, not the ones they had to see.

That doesn’t sound like a bad thing, at all – except when you consider that when we are given a choice, we usually choose pizza over spinach. When I had only Doordarshan, I watched whatever was shown – including programmes like Expedition to the Animal Kingdom and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Despite my primary interest in all things cinema, I was watching science shows too. Today, these programmes would air on separate science channels (Discovery, National Geographic), which means (if I were a kid) I’d be faced with the choice between watching something heavy and interesting, or a favourite film for the 28th time, and I’d probably end up choosing the latter. Of course, there’s more than just TV today for “entertainment” – games, phones, games on phones – which makes me feel sadder for good, old DD.

I know there are those who say DD should be given a makeover, hepped up to attract urban audiences, but I think it’s too late. To most of us, DD is just a name from the past, a cobwebby repository of Lalitaji ads and Nukkad episodes, an excuse for nostalgia pieces like this one, a channel whose remote-control number-sequence  no one remembers – it’s not so much Doordarshan as something-that’s-been-shown-the-door-darshan. I don’t watch much TV anymore, but sometimes, while flipping channels, I’ll land on DD and see a documentary about chikankari embroidery or the poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi and end up with a mix of feelings – sad that no one will be watching these shows, and yet immensely touched that the channel continues to be the brave little soldier fighting a lost war.

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