Saturday, July 14, 2007

Idiot Box: Memories from the 1980s

Religion is the opium of the masses – Karl Marx.
Karl Marx did not know about Ekta Kapoor – Anonymous.

There is one irrefutable fact about my old age. As of now, a greater part of my life has elapsed in the age of solo-channel television. It is expected to change soon but as of now…
Though I have taken to the multi-channel entertainment and complicated remotes with a vengeance, the old fogey in me still pines for the good ol’ days of Doordarshan where one actually looked forward to a particular time-slot every week and if one missed that, there was no hope of catching a repeat. I liked the overall concept of planning one’s life around Khandaan and seeing the familiar logo of Richardson Hindustan before almost every show.

Sridhar Kshirsagar was the director of the series, which was rumoured to be a copy of Dynasty (probably because the name was an exact translation). But since the only access to Dynasty was through the terribly grainy & erratic transmission of Bangladesh TV, nobody ever got down to identifying plot similarities.
The director – despite the super successful debut – did only one more serial (to my knowledge) which was a sort of a thriller with Radha Seth and Benjamin Gilani playing a problem solving duo.
Khandaan gave us a phenomenal number of stars – Neena Gupta, Mohan Bhandari, Vivek Vaswani, Shernaz Patel, Sujata Mehta – probably second only to Buniyaad. Every Wednesday evening at about 9 PM, everybody congregated to watch “Badalte rishton ki anokhi dastaan – Khandaan” (spoken in the Harish Bhimani baritone) with its tantalizing pictures of high-society Bombay, the super-rich in their swanky mansions and their convoluted lives. There was very little business shown and no mention was ever made as to how these terribly rich people got terribly rich. Rather, it had rebellious children, adulterous husbands, spoilt brats and other monstrosities making all of India feel that the problems of rich were no different from theirs!

While on the topic of dynastic sagas, there is nothing to beat the two Manohar Shyam Joshi opii – Humlog and Buniyaad.
Hugely long (by those standards), the first one ran for some 78 episodes and the second for 104. Started off as weekly series, both of them got bi-weekly slots and gave ‘glued to the sets’ a whole new meaning.

Apparently, Humlog was commissioned to be a message for family planning as it had a veritable avalanche of misfortunes befalling the central family. I doubt if it worked because when the entire nation started to shed tears at the plights of Lalloo, Nanhe, Chhutki, Majhli and Badki, not having such a lovable brood was surely not on their minds! And of course, we cannot forget Ashok Kumar popping up at the end of each episode with his small speech of recap, sermon and preview which was watched just for the curiosity on how he would fit in Humlog at the end of the talk – and in which language!

From Baseswar Ram’s DDA flat, Buniyaad went right across the border with Ramesh Sippy and Indian couch potatoes came into being.
This time, stars were made of Alok Nath (Master-ji, still going strong) and Anita Kanwar (Lajo-ji, who vanished into thin air). While a new lease life came to the careers of Kiran Juneja (later becoming the director’s wife), Kanwaljeet (the first superstar of Indian TV), Mazhar Khan (only role of consequence after Shaan), Vijayendra Ghatge, Dalip Tahil, Sony Razdaan and the lot. For about a year, Haveli Ram, Raliya Ram, Veerawali and their broods were completely addictive.
In faraway Calcutta, rumours floated on how the book on which Buniyaad was based (is there one?) is available in Delhi and how everybody in Delhi knew the entire story beforehand!
And the story itself was quite a ‘page-turner’… Pakistani refugees, illegitimate children, family conspiracies, lots of emotions added up to one hell of a dynastic saga as it held eyeballs like no other.
That way, Humlog was a lot like Ramayana with its linear, simple narrative. Buniyaad, with its sub-plots and multi-layered narration, was a bit like Mahabharat.
Even now, I can still visualize the blue CP logo of Colgate Palmolive turning round and the red-brick-background of the titles appearing to the tune of “Tere mere jeevan ka yahi buniyaad…

What I miss most from those days of television are the comedies.
The best of the lot has to be Kundan Shah’s Yeh Jo Hain Zindagi – which made stars of all four characters. Shafi Inamdar, Rakesh Bedi, Swaroop Sampat and most hilariously, Satish Shah just ruled our Friday evenings with their zany problems. Eventually, the show brought on other characters as the earlier ones exited. Farida Jalal made her comeback to showbiz as the lovable Chachi in this serial and aunts became cool again! But like all good things in life, the punch of the initial days had fizzled away.

Nukkad – the other ‘funny’ – ran for a shorter period but managed to pack in a whole lot of quirky underdogs. It is quite amazing how the serial never left the street-corner-under-a-flyover set and managed to be engrossing week after week. Though it must be said that, given the budget constraints, the set managed to be very realistic. The cycle repair shop, the teashop and the paan stall below the row of chawl houses were all bang on! And of course, Guru, Khopri, Radha, Teacher-ji, Kalabaaz and Kader-bhai turned out to be completely real as well.

Sai Paranjpe (of Katha and Chashme Baddoor fame) gave two very funny serials – of which I remember only the name of Ados Pados. One was a love story between a rich girl (played by the director’s daughter – Winnie Paranjpe) and a poor (painter) boy, facilitated by the grandfathers. The other was a relationship between a son and his father (Amol Palekar) in the funny surroundings of an apartment block. Apart from the main stories in both of them, they managed to pack in a whole lot of sub-plots as well.

One very intelligent comedy was Mr Yogi (a.k.a Yogesh Patel a.k.a Y I Patel) – story of a US-returned Gujju-boy (Mohan Gokhale) looking for a wife according to the zodiac. 12 episodes to check out one girl each – and one to wrap it up! 13 episodes and we are done.
On the other hand, nowadays it takes one full episode just to show one tight slap with the multiple camera angles and musical zooms!

One genre completely missing from today’s television is the intelligent detective series. I emphasise on intelligent because what goes on in the name of mystery series nowadays is usually a nostril-flaring nincompoop thrashing confessions out of all the usual suspects till he reaches the correct one!
The ultimate Indian TV detective is – of course – Karamchand with his intelligence and idiosyncrasy getting along famously. His signature mannerisms – especially his response to the standard “Sir, you are a genius” – developed quite a bit of a cult following. When he returned recently, the episodes had stretched to an hour though the depth of the mysteries had not, so old-timers like me were disappointed and fans of CID just moved on to the trailers of Aashiq Banaya Aapne, I guess!
And yes, the new Kitty was no match for the forever-on-the-brink Sushmita Mukherjee. (Did you know that she is Keshto Mukherjee’s daughter? Well, now you do!)

One under-rated ‘detective’ show was Barrister Vinod – with Parikshit Sahni in a wig so shiny that it looked as if a gramophone record had been stuck on! Along with his assistant Neelam, the good barrister took up cases to defend people accused of murder and solved them neatly with the help of a little bit of detection, a wee bit of legalese and a whole lot of bonhomie. This one followed a set pattern of investigation in one episode and courtroom denouement in the second.

In the whole recap of the best of the times, it is time for me to make a confession on behalf of my family. Along with the above examples television excellence, we managed to watch a few execrable ones as well and we remember those ones better!
Karamchand had started when I was quite young (around Class V, I guess) and being a late night slot (and me being a notorious late-riser), I was often barred from watching it.

However, when I was a little older, a serial called Quile Ka Rahasya (Mystery of the Fort) started. It was about a group of friends who stumble upon an apparently haunted fort. Any non-believer who visits the fort returns with a bloody palm-print on the back and they die within 14 days. This reasonably interesting premise had a lot of promise – of an interesting horror/thriller show. But it turned out to be such a boring mish-mash of comedy and melodrama that we did not miss a single episode. We religiously assembled in front of the TV set and vilely abused the actors, makers and financiers of the show without a pause!

If you think this was the pits, you ain’t heard anything yet! Kanwaljeet Singh appeared in the title role of a serial called PC 1008, where PC stood for Police Constable. He was meant to be a do-good problem solver.
The serial turned to be the debris of bad acting, terrible dialogues and hilarious set design. Courtroom scenes were held in what was obviously an office, with the judge sitting on a revolving chair behind a corporate style desk!
But the absolute mind-boggler turned out to be the supremely irritating title song, which went something like “Pissi pissi pissi pissi (in a sing-song voice) One Zero Zero Eight (in a baritone)”. The written word becomes so helpless in situations like this as not even an infinitesimal part of the irritation can be conveyed through writing!

Which brings me to the crowning glory of my television watching life.
Since it is a Bengali serial, the appeal may get slightly limited but then, cinematic genius shines through the barriers of language!
Chowdhury Pharmaceuticals starred Moonmoon Sen and George Baker along with other stalwarts of the Bengali screen. In a casting coup, it marked the small screen debut of Congress politician Subroto Mukherjee (who later became the Mayor of Calcutta) as hero.
In an even more daring coup, the serial was supposed to have an extensive sequence in a swimming pool featuring the lead pair. Moonmoon Sen was obviously a natural in swimsuits but the semi-balding paunchy Subroto-babu promised to be a novelty like no other.
In a very early example of a ‘leak’, a small screen magazine called Television (from the Aajkaal group) published a whole lot of pictures from the shooting with both the lead players in scantily clad glory! The West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee screamed blue murder and bludgeoned Subroto Mukherjee. As if our pants are not getting taken off often enough, they reasoned. Think what will happen if Mamata Banerjee decides to follow suit, they threatened. So Subroto Mukherjee ‘requested’ the producers of the serial to edit the offending sequence and it only appeared partially and in the recap sequence of the later episodes.
This was only a part of the 360-degree hilarity of the serial. The story was about the Chowdhury family whose family business was in manufacture of hydraulic pumps (obviously not, see the name of the serial – silly!). So, the patriarch dies, mess is unearthed, faithful family retainer turns devilish, power struggle for inheritance ensues and serial collapses in a bloody heap!
With sub-plots copied from Robin Cook and Arthur Hailey, Moonmoon Sen pouting from Lalbajar to Ludhiana and Subroto Mukherjee hamming more than a sausage factory – the four of us used to fall off the chair laughing and later mimicking the scenes! One landmark dialogue “Rupa, don’t be shentimentaal. Be practicaal” by Subroto Mukherjee is still fondly remembered by us.
We were more than a little embarrassed at the enjoyment we derived from serial until we read an obituary of Satyajit Ray by Victor Banerjee. Apparently, on a flight back from Delhi, Ray told Victor that he was rushing back to catch the latest episode of Chowdhury Pharmaceuticals! He even acted out some of his favourite scenes, ordered Victor to watch the serial regularly and pronounced that it was better than anything Chaplin had ever produced!
Armed with this certificate, we proudly proclaimed our allegiance to all and sundry, became devout followers and still find great joy in discussing the abysmal vocal pitch of Subroto Mukherjee.

Evidently, a family that watches bad TV together, stays together!
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