Once upon a time, in the 1970s, we used to sit and stare. Out of the window, at the ceiling, into a book. Alternatively, we’d stare at the transistor radio listening to BBC’s Test Match Special, Binaca Geetmala or Forces’ Request.
By the early ’80s, we’d begun to stare at the TV set and Doordarshan (DD), which in those days were one and the same thing. Government-run DD could produce a Krishi Darshan, but entertainment? Nah. So the TV set was respectfully draped in a table cloth and admired as an object d’art.
Mid-1980s, DD’s sponsored programme brought television to life for the first time: we laughed (Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi), we cried (Buniyaad), we even worshipped the box (Ramayan and Mahabharat).
This was the golden age of Indian television and it bound us together every evening: one family, one nation, one channel, one culture.
So nothing, but nothing had prepared us for what was about to happen.
In 1991, DD broadcast the Gulf War, CNN’s Peter Arnett went live from Baghdad and within a year, our TV screen, like the Iraqi capital, exploded into action. So much so, that in 1998, we watched a very different “Desert Storm”, in Sharjah, courtesy one Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.
The economic reforms of 1991, and the liberalised access to communication technology, allowed foreign media companies entry into the country and Indian companies’ entry into television. And, as if by magic, our lives were transformed, utterly as the space invasion colonised our homes.
Consider this: television was introduced into India in 1959, but we had only one national channel for over 30 years, which sporadically burst into life. Twenty-five years later, weonly have 24×7 TV. We’ve gone from 1.2 million TV homes in 1992 and 14.2 million in 1996 to 168 million and 149 million C&S homes in 2014, according to KPMG.
There are now over 800 licensed channels — there was one in 1991 — with every genre of programming and some we didn’t know: entertainment, music, sports, news, lifestyle, spirituality, property, etc. The first 24×7 news channel began in 1998; by 2014 there were 400 and counting in more than 15 languages.
And that TV set in a wooden cabinet with beetle antenna for grainy black-and-white pictures from terrestrial towers? Banished. Vanished. Now it’s LCD, satellite transmissions with cable and DTH HD telecasts, online, mobile, laptops and tablets. We’ve left Nukkad’s cronies’ corner for Netflix’s House of Cards, pay per view, streaming, etc.
Content has adapted, accordingly. When it began in the early and mid nineties, TV was a liberated, cosmopolitan space. It targeted the urban, English-Indian with American and British serials: sexy Baywatch, steamy Dallas with paramours and the paranormal (X-Files).
Simultaneously, the homegrown Hinglish of Zee, DD2, Sony, MTV pursued “Make in India” much before Narendra Modi thought of it, producing local derivative shows in every genre: sitcoms, soaps, quizzes, thrillers, horror, reality, countdowns, satire and sci-fi (Hum Paanch, Banegi Apni Baat, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Philips Top Ten, Byomkesh Bakshi, Aahat, MTV Bakra, Captain Vyom).
Rapid satellite and cable penetration into the heart of India by the late ’90s, saw TV fiction move away from daring urban dramas like Tara, Hasratein (1994) or Saans (1998) where women wanted more than a family, to the K serials (2000 onwards) of the joint Hindu parivar where all that women wanted was the family. Overnight, saas-bahus appeared everywhere as competition drove channels to imitate Kyunki, Kahani, Kasautii, thereby reducing viewing choices.
Tulsi and Parvati symbolised “Indian values” and shot to the top of the viewership charts. Was it a cultural backlash against the decade (and decadence?) of the 1990s’ liberalisation and liberation, which anointed Tulsi, Parvati and Prerna and canonised “Indian values”? Possibly. It’s worth recalling that the Balaji Telefilms’ K formula matched the growth of a Hindu consciousness, the rise of the BJP through the 1990s and the Vajpayee years.
Equally, as the aam aadmi gained access to TV and the BJP’s “India Shining” lost lustre, the K serials made way for social and rural dramas like Balika Vadhu (2008). Today, the demographic dividend has driven TV fiction towards a younger generation but with the parivar very much intact.
If TV preserved India’s culture, it also reflected the aspirations of an increasingly young India in the era of economic growth. Captain Vikram Batra spoke for millions when he echoed Pepsi’s Yeh Dil Maange More! (1998). The reality/ talent hunt was TV’s response. It may have begun with Zee’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Sony’s Boogie Woogie, but it was personified in Kaun Banega Crorepati (2000). We now have numerous song and dance competitions and, of course, Bigg Boss.
The green shoots of 1991-92 have grown into what is arguably the biggest TV revolution of them all — news TV. Prannoy Roy’s The World This Week (DD National) and The News Tonight (DD2) and SP Singh’s Aaj Tak, ignored the government press release style of DD’s news bulletins and gave us the news instead.
In the south, Asianet, Sun, Eenadu etc., had news and current affairs before Star News was born in 1998 as a 24×7 news channel, (Aaj Tak became one in 2000). And with it were born news stars led undoubtedly by Barkha Dutt and the likes of Rajat Sharma and Rajdeep Sardesai, who swapped print for the picture tube.
Today, it’s all the rage with a new channel launching almost daily, worryingly by those who have money to spare: chit fund owners, builders, political parties and, of course, industry (Reliance owns CNN News 18). It’s a conflict zone with loud, chaotic battles over irreconcilable differences of ideology, caste, creed and religion — Arnab Goswami take a bow.
However, the spread of news TV across the country has given voice to a thousand opinions in every language and in every region, making it, perhaps, a truly democratic arena where everyone and everything can be challenged or put on media trial.
The open skies of television have been especially empowering for women. TV favours, feeds and follows female likes and dislikes — hence, the dominance of TV soaps. To illiterate, uneducated women in a feudal society, it has offered an entry into an unknown and often forbidden territory. They watch news. They watch IPL as well as TV soaps.
Has this access helped women negotiate their lives? Not really. Every day, TV news reports a rape. TV fiction has kept women firmly at home, bound by the feudal order. Transgress it at your own risk. So a wonderfully frank account about a married woman’s desires outside marriage (Aadhe Adhoore on Zindagi) did not find an audience.
Twenty-five years’ space odyssey has been a curious phenomenon: it has united the entire world into one global audience but the more technology has changed, and spread, the more it has splintered us: today, no two people necessarily watch the same content in the same room.
That one nation theory of the ’80s is a million mutinies now. Only when India plays cricket are we, perhaps, united before the TV screen as we were in the Mahabharat days: the 2011 World Cup final was watched by over 130 million viewers. In fact, sports on TV is, perhaps, the most significant unifier.
In 1993, when this journey started out, we were in shock and awe of the wide, wide world of television. Now, it’s just another electronic toy.