It was a whole new world that opened up with soaps, films and news readers.

Not many know that television made its debut in India in 1959, although on a limited scale.

To start with, it was just another government department, where the telecast hours were short and the quality of programmes poor. Its intention was to propagate government policies and to project the government and its leaders in a favourable light. Called Doordarshan (DD), it promised and provided family entertainment at a time when such a pursuit was restricted. It was also a time when all action by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry was bound by red tape, and when the bureaucracy often dictated terms to constrict creativity. But infant DD survived, because, occasionally there were flashes of creative brilliance.

Ravi Shankar composed DD’s signature tune, Sonal Man Singh, Jagjit Singh and Bismillah Khan performed for it, Shah Rukh Khan made his debut on it and who can forget the great moment when India won the 1983 Cricket World Cup? DD had even persuaded Khushwant Singh to appear in a fancy dress in a New Year Eve programme! DD had held the nation in thrall during the one-hour telecast of Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Ramayan’ and B.R. Chopra’s ‘Mahabharat.’

Serials, soaps and sit-coms

For about 15 years (from 1980) Doordarshan held sway. It was a period of unforgettable serials, soaps and sit-coms. Added to these were key sports events such as the Delhi Asiad and the Indian cricket team’s forays abroad. Like many others, I did not have a TV set at that time, and often watched the popular shows at a neighbour’s flat. One of the major boosts for Indian TV was the live telecast of cricket matches between India and Pakistan held across the border in 1978-79. The quality of relays from Pak TV was excellent, with the young and handsome Imran Khan being a crowd puller.

The Centre, thanks to some prodding from Rajiv Gandhi, got a big boost when it allowed the import of coloured TV sets minus customs duty to popularise the Asian Games held in Delhi. So one watched the champion athletes in splendid colour. But there were goof ups too. An example would be when DD interrupted tense Wimbledon finals to telecast the national news, leaving the viewers feeling frustrated.

Cinema, of course, added to DD’s popularity. The most eagerly awaited weekly programme was ‘Chitrahaar’ a 30-minute show of popular movie songs including selections from the ‘golden oldies’ of the 1950s and 1960s. The programme was soon adapted to the regional channels.

Who can forget Tabassum grilling top ranking film stars, directors, music makers and singers in ‘Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan’ for a fee of just Rs. 75 per show? She probed the personal and professional lives of celebrities without being offensive.

It was movie time on Sunday evenings and though the choice of films was often debatable, it kept most people at home. Family entertainment, both serious and comic, was the DD formula. The weepies included Ramesh Sippy’s saga on partition, ‘Buniyaad,’ which took viewers into the world of Alok Nath, Anita Kanwar (Lajoji), Soni Razdan, Dalip Tahil and so on. Intelligently conceived and brilliantly acted, ‘Buniyaad’ was emotional, but never melodramatic or loud. Another epic saga was ‘Hum Log.’

A great sit-com featured the antics of the Verma family (Swaroop Sampat, Shafi Inamdar, Raakesh Bedi) in ‘Yehi Jo Hain Zindagi.’ It was clean fun, where the comic situations were natural, and the cast and direction perfect. No wonder the DVDs of the serial sold in lakhs.

‘Nukkad’, based on the lives of a group of footpath dwellers, was endearingly realistic but with a comic touch. ‘Khopdi’ was TV’s answer to Bollywood’s eternal drunk, Keshto Mukherjee and one could never get enough of him. ‘Rajni’ offered a hopeful message and made one think. Played brilliantly by the late Priya Tendulkar, Rajni became the common man’s heroine.

DD was also about NEWS. For those millions, who were accustomed to the voices of Melville de Mellow, Surjit Sen and others reading the 9 p.m. English news, the switchover was a bit difficult. But soon this was overcome. With minimum visuals, they did make an impact. The news readers had to battle flies, mosquitoes and other insects that would infiltrate into the sets. News coverage got a lot more sophisticated with ‘The World This Week’ presented by the suave Prannoy Roy and produced by Appan Menon. It was our weekly window to what was happening in the world.

Less entertaining, but perhaps more useful, were programmes such as ‘Krishidarshan’ and ‘Amchi Mathi Amchi Manas’ which attracted the rural audiences. From an entertainment point of view, the epics, ‘Ramayan’ and ‘Mahabharat,’ perhaps strengthened national integration as they were watched by almost everyone regardless of class, creed and religion. Speaking of national integration, who can forget the contribution of Naseeruddin Shah and Gulzar in ‘Mirza Ghalib?’

Fifty long years! Despite frequent technical glitches and poor presentation, DD did offer something new, fresh, entertaining and informative. Monopoly is definitely not recommended, but look at the 24-hour cable TV channels and the kind of fare they dish out. News anchors with attitude, advertisements that interrupt programmes at crucial junctures, imitation of cheap and vulgar talk and reality shows. All these and more, make one fondly recall the good old Doordarshan days.