Sevanti Ninan presents an unofficial history of India’s tryst with television.

In the beginning, television was earnest.

It was determined to educate, first the general populace in a handful of villages around Delhi, then, with the weighty intervention of Vikram Sarabhai, farmers in 80 villages, also around Delhi. The people running TV knew just a tiny bit more about the medium than the people receiving it, but they meant well. Engineers doubled as cameramen, editing equipment did not exist, so recording a skit meant that you started again from the beginning if somebody goofed. They learned on the job. Teleprompting meant the announcer scribbled reminders to herself on her hand. If the nation was grateful for these improvised ministrations, it is not recorded.

Sarabhai thought big and he thought rural. He wanted to reach the most difficult and least developed areas of the country first. So the next target was 2,400 villages in six states in six languages. It created history, and the people at the top were pleased. The village folk were bemused. When the novelty wore off, they went back to their daily chores. The official evaluation showed that in the year it lasted, 39 per cent of the people in the experimental villages never viewed even a single programme. But, what the heck, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment was the first of its kind in the world, and we can keep claiming that till kingdom come.

In the beginning television was educational.

It sought to compensate for India’s dismal rural schools. Unfortunately, TV needs electricity to run. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it was not. But the kids liked this new thing which had their teachers bumbling around trying to figure out what their role was supposed to be when the idiot box came sporadically to life and blared lessons. The children began to ask questions, they got the school lab cupboards opened, TV was forcing teachers to attend classes regularly as they had to provide feedback. But, mercifully for the teachers, all well-intended experiments come to an end. Even if it was sporadically revived later, in other parts of the country.

Early on TV discovered its noble role as a Development Communicator.

The initial goals were modest, you told people not to spit in public places, to wash their vegetables before cooking them, to plant trees. Then came the Emergency and the Twenty Point Programme where planting trees acquired the status of a mantra. Doordarshan Kendras competed with each other to produce quickies on each of the 20 points and telecast them. Mercifully, most of India had not acquired television sets as yet.

Early on, it became The Great Employer.

When the Emergency brought with it the need for a propaganda machine, TV was hastily expanded to Calcutta, Madras, Lucknow. There were hardly any TV hands around so you sent radio professionals. But since entire Kendras offered opportunities for all kinds of employment, never mind skills, politicians woke up joyously to the possibilities it offered for their kith and kin. The broadcaster was, after all, a government department, ripe for those two hardy -isms, adhocism and nepotism. Once you’ve got in, you stay till retirement.

During the Emergency Doordarshan was born and rapidly discovered its true vocation.

Lack of experience has never been a constraint for anybody feeling purposeful within Doordarshan. Lessons on censorship and propaganda were quickly learned. Sanjay Gandhi and his five point programme had to be promoted, Jai Prakash Narain was to be blacked out, the only films to be shown on Doordarshan were those of film stars who had supported the Emergency. A huge opposition rally being organised? Telecast “Bobby”, just at that time. Alas, people attended the rally anyway.

Halfway through those fifty golden years, Indian television discovered colour, and then sponsorship.

The country’s scientific advisors thought colour TV was not a good idea, it would make development communication non-serious. But I and B Minister Vasant Sathe went to what was then Ceylon and found to his mortification that even they had colour TV. Finally, getting the Asiad clinched the issue. Much has been written about the warm and touching saga of “Hum Log”, telecast through 1984-85. Less about its success in selling Maggi 2- Minute Noodles. Advertising had discovered television. In years to come, it would reorder the medium to serve its purpose.

There is no greater patriot than television.

It fought militancy in Kashmir and Punjab. Doordarshan spawned a genre known as sarson di saga, in which brave tales were told of families that fought back the dark intruders. Independent producers were able to make some money producing these, even as people in Kashmir and Punjab, miffed at this insult to their intelligence, turned to Pakistani serials.

Loyalty demands censorship. You don’t tell people that the Prime Minister has been assassinated because it might undermine the State. You don’t show that the Babri Masjid has fallen because it could spark riots. When Rajiv Gandhi was killed, DD did not interrupt a programme on birds to announce his death because by then, he was not the Prime Minister, he was a mere opposition leader.

But censorship spawns competition.

In 1991 Nalini Singh’s booth capturing footage for Doordarshan had the Cabinet Secretary and the Home Secretary of the Government of India trying to decide if it should be shown.

But everything Doordarshan declined to show appeared on video news magazines. They prowled the countryside in search of stories, took the camera where DD didn’t, covered riots while Doordarshan’s camera teams regularly fled violent situations because they would have to face the music if their cameras were destroyed. DD’s news division would later buy footage from other camera people present. Karan Thapar, Madhu Trehan, Tavleen Singh and others interviewed anyone willing to make controversial statements within government, or outside.

Television discovered religion.

With “Ramayan”, then with “Mahabharat”, then with “Krishna” on DD2. Zee TV picked up where DD left off, so did all the others that followed. Religious channels followed at the beginning of this decade, NDTV Imagine and Colors reinvented the same epics, exactly two decades later. Everybody made money on god sagas, including NRI academics who hotfooted it to India to write books on the subject.

It discovered women.

In the beginning there was Kalyani in “Udaan”, loveable, believable, emulate-able. Then came Rajni who quickly acquired a fan following. “Hum Log” had brought us a bossy grandmother, doormat mother, plucky daughters. “Humraahi” brought us more pious role models. Then came “Tara” on Zee. Neena Gupta gave us “Dard”, and “Pukar”, and on satellite TV, “Saans”. “Tulsi” reinvented India womanhood, Jassi restored normalcy.

Television has spawned women producers who, for a while, laughed all the way to the bank. Ekta Kapoor listed her soap factory on the stock exchange. And decades after Doordarshan’s efforts on behalf of the girl child, the atrocities against her are being spun into hard cash. Who would have thought you could turn child brides, servant girls, and aborted foetuses into money spinners on television? If a social problem is not mitigated, do the next best thing: exploit it commercially.

And everybody discovered news.

What began quite sedately with Neeti Ravindran, Tejeshwar Singh, Prannoy Roy, Vinod Dua and S.P. Singh, has now acquired a life of its own. NDTV made it a soap box for the chattering classes, India TV reinvented it as a horror genre, Zee News made it a platform for solving marital dilemmas. Down south, TV9 makes flood victims in mid-water perform for the cameras, while Sun TV and Jaya TV have taught others in the business not to be squeamish about Using Television. TV news is India’s vicarious new reality.

In the beginning we were truly a mass audience. Alas, no longer.

We watched “Buniyaad” and “Chitrahaar”, and cricket and Mile Sur, and the Torch of Freedom. We watched (or switched off) when Doordarshan showed us documentaries on public sector zinc factories or the uni-gauge conversion of Indian Railways (and failed to get the spelling of gauge right). We listened to Prime Ministers and Presidents at critical moments in our history.

Then came Ridge and Brook via satellite uplink from Hong Kong, followed by MTV and Channel V, Sun TV and ETV and Zee and Star. We splintered into many audiences driven by language and interest and class. Sometimes we watched the same ads but in many languages. The only thing that now unites us on TV is disasters of the 26/11 kind.

Because, even Indo-Pak cricket matches are no longer every Indian’s cup of tea. We’ve learnt to be unpredictable. Good luck to all you media buyers out there.

The author is a Delhi-based media-critic and columnist.