Doordarshan must buck the trend of TRP-chasing to become again a platform for award-winning Indian cinema, writes C.S. VENKITESWARAN.

According to the so-called golden rules of market logic, competition spurs variety in content and quality of production. But if one looks at the history of Indian television, one can’t but think without a tinge of nostalgia at the era when Doordarshan was the only television we had and monopolised our tele-visual world. Maybe, the only thing we do not miss will be their news broadcasts, which were boringly statist than balanced or investigative. All over the world, the very idea of news was radically transformed by the entry of live telecasts and 24x7 news broadcasting, the constant and instantaneous flow of which was something unimaginable to a generation used to scheduled bulletins by very composed and mature news ‘readers’ and ‘presenters’. It was also a time when content was considered king, which in the globalised and privatised era, gave way to scale and reach. But other than news, what about the variety and quality of content in Indian television today? Has the entry of private satellite channels and their endless proliferation actually translated itself into plurality in content and more fulsome representation of our cultural diversity?

The most unfortunate effect of the ‘opening up of the sky’ was upon our public service broadcasting. Unable to withstand competition from private channels, Doordarshan itself seemed to lose faith in its strengths and began aping private television in programming and content. Instead of setting benchmarks in quality, authenticity and commitment to the non-negotiable values of democracy and pluralism, it began to see itself as just another player in the market, vying like all others to capture eyeballs. It was caught between State and Market, and mired in an identity crisis of sorts. In a cursory comparison of the quality of tele-serials and other cultural programmes then (culture and entertainment didn’t mean just ‘cinema’ then) and now, the fall is strikingly glaring. Serials like Buniyaad, Nukkad, Tamas, etc. were narratives that connected with the collective memories and aspirations of a nation, compared to the saas-bahu variety we are flooded with now. Likewise, in cultural programming too, there was always an attempt to keep in mind the linguistic and socio-cultural diversity of our country.

One such major initiative of Doordarshan was its telecast of award-winning films during the weekends and, most importantly, on Sunday afternoons. This weekly screening of films from all languages across the country, subtitled in English, gave the average Indian viewer for the first time an opportunity to view the best of Indian cinema. This rendezvous with stories from different parts of the country was also a weekly reminder about the plurality of our culture, diversity of our polity, and the unevenness of our economy. It also gave the filmmaker a rare and momentous opportunity to reach out to a national audience, where the whole country watched a film at the same time. This programme gave the cineastes and filmmakers in the country a taste of contemporary Indian cinema beyond the allotropic vision of commercial mainstream that revolved around the same pan-Indian formats and formulae. But for this telecast, the Indian middle class would have never had a chance to watch these art films that otherwise were featured only in film festivals or film society screenings, as they very seldom made it to the commercial theatres even in their own respective States.

But by the mid-1990s, when the heat of globalisation began to be felt and the competition between television channels became severe, Doordarshan chose to make a retreat from such ‘unviable’ programmes that did not figure favourably in TRP ratings. It was a big blow to the independent and art filmmakers who worked from outside the commercial mainstream. With the withdrawal of the public service broadcaster from the scene, they were virtually left without any exhibition outlets; apart from closing off one of their major revenue sources. The justification for the discontinuation of the national slot was the establishment of the network of DD channels in all regional languages, which supposedly made a national telecast of regional films redundant or unnecessary. But what actually happened was a splintering of the national audience or, in other words, a further linguistic division of television audience where ‘regional’ audience were forced to hook on to ‘regional’ channels that showed films and programmes in their own language. Such navel-gazing of sorts, in effect, took away an inter-cultural film viewing platform at the national level, for the filmmakers as well as the film viewers all over the country.

During the last decades, many groups and associations of filmmakers have pleaded with Prasar Bharati and the powers-that-be in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to reconsider this matter and to take a proactive stand towards art/serious films and filmmakers in the country. Most of the time such appeals fell on deaf ears, and was always postponed for reasons of unviability, competition and the bounden duty to entertain TRP ratings. One of the last such appeals was led by filmmaker, Onir (Save Indie Cinema Campaign) and was signed by several filmmakers, actors and technicians like Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Shabana Azmi, Jahnu Barua, Rituparno Ghosh, TV Chandran, Nandita Das and Rasool Pookutty. They pleaded with the Ministry to re-look at the policy in the context of the celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema and also the crisis in the field of exhibition resulting from the rise of multiplexes that are unaffordable both to the common man and to serious, offbeat films.

At last Doordarshan has responded to this plea favourably, promising an appropriate slot to award-winning films. But it has not come into practice either at the national or regional levels. It is in this context that the initiative of Doordarshan Kendra, Thiruvananthapuram, becomes exemplary. DDK has launched a weekly slot for classic films at 10.00 p.m. every Saturday with a repeat show at 11.00 a.m. on Sunday. Starting with award-winning NFDC productions, they intend to extend their repertoire to more films. Most importantly, in an attempt to reach out to a larger audience, they are showing these films with subtitles in Malayalam. The telecast of ‘Classic Theatre’ started April 27, 2013 with Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala. This comes as a welcome relief to the audience who are force-fed with endless inanities, round the clock through television. One hopes that the other DD Kendras too will wake up to their role and stature as a public service broadcaster.