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Sunday, July 01, 2001

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For DD, it's history

SANJAY KHAN is fast becoming the chief electronic custodian of India's history. And Doordarshan remains the only channel that mounts elaborate historical dramas, while its satellite competition busies itself with tiresome sitcoms and equally tiresome marital infidelities. Of course DD is heftily underwritten by the exchequer to do that, and does not always offer value for the taxpayer's money. Its current Sunday morning series on the life of Mahatma Gandhi is so basic in its production qualities as to be an insult to his memory. If someone came in from outside and watched only this, they would not know that Indian television production has acquired any sophistication at all.

Khan and his brother have brought us over the years a number of television dramas that at least attempt to recreate spectacles from past history. After "The Sword of Tipu Sultan", "Akbar the Great", and "The Great Maratha", you now have the 104-episode "1857 Kranti", which began last month and has completed five episodes. It airs Saturday nights at 9.30 p.m. on DD National. It holds interest, if only because it is such a refreshing change from the other fare on offer.

In recreating India's first war of independence the serial attempts to re-create the British attitude towards the Indian princes and chieftains, and the revolt of May 10, 1857, at Meerut under the leadership of Mangal Pandey when the East India Company ordered Bengali soldiers to serve overseas. Khan's argument is that while India's first war of independence in 1857 is not more than three pages in any school textbook, his production is a semi-fictionalised account of a much wider span of events that led up to the events of 1857.

If you go by the production company's statements, they are spending on an average Rs. 20 lakhs an episode. Some of it shows, though the opening montage of various slayings depicted in the course of the serial is a composite testament to bad acting. The episodes themselves are interesting to watch, as the personalities of both the Indians and Britons in the story are recreated. Khan has a thesis which he is exploring in this serial: were the British strong, or were the Indians weak?

In the episode in which Peshwa Baji Rao is exiled in exchange for a pension, Lalit Tewari's rending of Baji Rao is a nuanced one, whereas General Malcolm (spelt Malcam in the serial) played by Ali Khan in a brown mustache, is a bit of an archetypal Bollywood Brit. The dialogues are not bad: the Peshwa worries about his place in history as he surrenders, and his wife reminds him that history does not have a heart.

When people speak in English, there is a Hindi voice-over. Hindi subtitles would have been better. Khan is also busy producing another serial - "Maharathi Karana", from the Mahabharatha.

* * *

Goodbye Ruby, with your delicious Canadian Hindi, your early morning chirpiness, and your bright outfits that were a daily plug for designer Suneet Varma. Tomorrow morning you will make way for sermons from the Krishna Consciousness types, a far cry from the chit-chat with film stars , models and cricketers, the fond birthday greetings to the Rinkis and Babloos of this world, and the general bonhomie that made up "Good Morning India" on Star Plus. The sunny decor of this breakfast show was the inspiration for half a dozen clones on other channels including the Southern ones. But it is being banished because while it cost money to produce, it failed to make enough. Despite being around for five years. As the official from Star put it, it did not stack up.

The folks at this company have decided that Indians are not quite ready yet for breakfast TV. There is not enough of an audience for it, and therefore no advertisers to speak off.

In the relentless world of market-driven television, that means off with your head. Bhajans and religious discourses still have a place. They have wider appeal in a country with mass audiences and single TV homes, and in any case they cost quite little to mount.

The coming week sees a general reorganising of what the network is offering. Prannoy Roy and his 9 p.m. news go off Star World and onto Star News at 9 p.m., and the pattern of news in the evenings on this channel is changing. Instead of the alternating Hindi and English bulletins there will now be separate bands: Hindi from 5.30 p.m. to 8 p.m., and English from 8p.m. to midnight. The exception is Star's Hindi news at 8.30 p.m.. Bollywood news is shifting from Star Gold to Star News at 6 p.m., and there will now be two consolidated bulletins for Sports News--at 7.30 p.m. in Hindi, and at 11.30 p.m. in English.

Star Plus now sheds any programming that is not straight entertainment with the exception of "Aaj Ki Baat" at 11 p.m.. Is that because they do not want to fiddle with Rajat Sharma, given his connections with the Prime Minister's Office? No, says Star's programming chief Samir Nair. It is because "Aaj Ki Baat" is the "best performing news show on satellite television". Better than anything on Zee News or "Aaj Tak". Really? Apparently. Being on an entertainment channel obviously helps.

* * *

Even as space shrinks in the mainstream media for issues which do not interest the consuming classes, the Internet is stepping in to fill the void. The drought may be only intermittently covered on TV and in newspapers but the Akal Sangharsh Samiti in Rajasthan has set up an electronic discussion group to post information regarding the dharna in Jaipur on the drought situation in Rajasthan. The dharna began on June 14 outside the State Secretariat in Jaipur and its main demands are continuation of drought relief works until the next harvest, and provision of 10 kg of grain per person per month through the public distribution system (PDS).

The economist Jean Dreze, who is part of this initiative, says the Akal Sangharsh Samiti is an all-Rajasthan network of nearly 60 grassroots organisations independent of any political party. In an article written for the Hindu and also put on the new e- group list, he describes how about 300 labourers and small farmers have come from far and wide to join the dharna, for varying lengths of time, and how new insights on the drought situation emerge every day as farmers and labourers from different districts share their experiences. By starting this e- group the Samiti is using the Internet to create a concerned support group for a movement that is upholding the right to food. To join it you have to send e-mail to

Similar discussion groups exist for other issues which would not find enough space in the mainstream media. There is one on community radio, and the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi mails out postings on the issues that are making news in the area of pollution and environmental activism. You have to send mail saying "subscribe" to There are also electronic publications such as Bytes for All, which carry articles on efforts to bridge the digital divide. To subscribe send e-mail to


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