Doordarshan Kendra, Thiruvananthapuram, begins its 30th year this week. The pioneers rewind to the days of Malayalam’s first TV channel

On January 1, 1985, the then Chief Minister, K. Karunakaran, flipped on the transmission switch and so began the television revolution in Kerala. As Doordarshan Kendra, Thiruvananthapuram, enters the 30th year of transmission this week, joie de vivre fills the air at its vast studio complex at Kudappanakkunnu, where everyone is busy filming the new set of shows that Doordarshan Malayalam a.k.a. DD is bringing out, especially for the occasion. Beneath the buzz, though, the staff of the Kendra – some of who have been there since Day One – look back on the decades with pride and a sense of achievement. After all, in this age of jazz and gloss that goes on air in the name of entertainment, it would not have been easy to uphold DD’s socio-development ethos through people-oriented programming.

The Kendra, which now employs more than 380 people, started off with just seven producers – T. Chamiyar, John Samuel, C.K. Thomas, G. Sajan, Baiju Chandran, M.A. Dileep and S. Venu, led by Station Director K. Kunhikrishnan, who was earlier a deputy director at DD’s Chennai station.

“None of us had ever seen a TV before we were sent to the Film and Television Institute, Pune, to learn television production! It was an intensive five to six month course, where we were introduced to each aspect of news and documentary production,” says Sajan, now, assistant director (programmes). “Almost all programmes aired these days have some sort of an existing model. We had none – no stock footage, no prepared documentaries… nothing. It was a classic case of jumping in feet first. We had to literally create everything from scratch, by trial and error,” adds Baiju, also, assistant director (programmes).

Apart from them there were also five production assistants (director Shyamaprasad was one of them), and a handful of technicians such as cameramen V.G. Joseph and Sivarajan, news editor E.K. Krishnan Nair and station engineer P.R.S. Nair. The first set of anchors, of which only Hemalatha remains, was recruited later on. Together the bunch changed the face of broadcasting in Kerala.

“We used to conceptualise and fine tune our ideas for programmes even as the Kendra’s building was being constructed around us. There were just a few pillars then and we used to sit on the floor and work. Everyday, an elderly woman who was part of the construction crew would take pity on us and bring us water in a mud pot from a nearby house,” recalls Baiju. Gradually they started making programmes. One of the first such programmes was visualisation of Edasseri Govindan Nair’s Poothapattu, directed by late actor Narendra Prasad, and featuring, among others, late actor Murali,” adds Baiju.

DD Malayalam started off with a one-hour slot from 6.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m., immediately followed by a 10-minute news bulletin, before switching over to the national network. “We started functioning out of a make-shift studio at Kudappanakkunnu, a month or so before the launch. The equipment was untested as were the people but all of them were enthusiastic. On the first day there was a three hour live telecast of the inaugural function at Tagore Theatre, for which we brought in technicians from Mumbai,” says Kunhikrishnan. The next day they telecast a children’s programme – the visualisation of G. Sankarapillai’s play Oru Koottam Urumbukal, followed by the ever first telecast of the news, anchored by Kannan and produced by Baiju.

The team went on to score many firsts. Whether it is the now ubiquitous live telecasts, field reporting, spot stories, nightly news bulletins, panel discussions, quizzes, an audience research unit, agriculture shows, programmes on health, talk shows, investigative reports, environmental issues… these pioneers seem to have done it all. And all this armed with rudimentary technology – an ageing Black and White OB van from DD Jalandhar with equipment that was cranky at best. “We used to travel across the state in search of stories in vehicles rented from the Kerala State Tourism Development Corporation. After shooting an event, we had to physically send the reels back to headquarters as quickly as possibly in time for the nightly news. Sometimes we’d hand them over to someone who was travelling to Thiruvananthapuram or we’d go to the nearest police station and they would send it off to the next police station and so on and so forth in relay style till it reached the Kendra,” says Chamiyar, who is now the Station Director.

Over the years DD Malayalam has managed to build up an impressive archive of programmes, particularly documentaries and interviews of famous personalities, from literary greats such as Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and Lalithambika Antharjanam to cinema legends such as Ashok Kumar and Pran, eco-activists such as Sunderlal Bahuguna and just about everyone in between. “We’ve interviewed politicians but they’ve always been personality interviews rather than political documentaries. A memorable one is that of former Chief Minister C. Achutha Menon, one of the only instances where the politician sat for an interview,” says Sajan.

The studio was then black and white, while some of the cameras were in colour. “This meant that the news broadcast would have some visuals in black and white and some in colour!” says Baiju. It also meant that those facing the camera couldn’t wear white shirts, because the reflection would make their faces black. “We solved the problem by asking them to cover their shirts with a shawl,” explains Baiju.

The pioneers believe that it was the camaraderie they shared that kept them going and which has made DD stand out from the crowd when it comes to “depth, accuracy and character” of the programming. “Yes, we do have the operational limitations that come with being a Government run enterprise and there have been instances where we have had to step back as the market became dominated by entertainment. But we are proud of the fact that DD is still the only channel that has balanced programming, which caters to all cross sections of people, from technocrats to senior citizens to women, children, farmers, students and so on,” says Sajan.

Fact file

In the beginning Malayalam programmes that originated from the Kendra were available only in and around a 15 km radius of the station. After six months or so the range was extended to 80km. The full-fledged programme production centre at Kudappanakkunnu was commissioned on January 1, 1985.

DD’s popular Malayalam news (Varthakal) went on air on January 2, 1985.

Regional networking within Kerala became fully operational on October 24, 1993

On January 1, 2000 DD Malayalam became a 24-hour satellite channel