That ’80s Show

Doordarshan’s early venture into high-culture entertainment is a glimpse into the world of pre-liberalisation middle class

Parikshit Sahni in ‘Zameen’.
01 August, 2012

IF YOU WATCHED TELEVISION IN INDIA in the mid-1980s, you might remember seeing a half-hour episode of a Hindi series in which an impressionable young man is spooked out of his wits by a delightfully wicked Pallavi Joshi in twin plaits and spectacles. Or one with Saeed Jaffrey as a cheery dhaba owner betrayed by his fetching young wife? Waheeda Rehman as a Goan landlady acquiring a taste for feni in her old age? A thoughtless Benjamin Gilani loving and leaving an achingly young Supriya Pathak?

If any of these rings a bell, you’ve probably watched some part of Katha Sagar, a hugely popular series that aired on Doordarshan in 1986. The TV series was released in February as a DVD box set by Reliance Home Video and Cinevistaas Ltd (the original producers, then called Cinevista Communications). To watch Katha Sagar today is to get a glimpse into another country, a pre-liberalisation India whose urban middle class was a very different creature from the one it is today. These eight DVDs are part of a potential archive, not just of Doordarshan’s early adventures in programming, but of an entire era.

Established in 1982 by Prem Kishen, son of Hindi film actors Prem Nath and Bina Rai and himself an ex-actor, Cinevista spent three years producing corporate and advertising films. In 1985, when Doordarshan invited private producers to submit tenders for serials, Prem Kishen was one of the first seven to apply. His proposal, to adapt 21 internationally renowned short stories as 28 half-hour television episodes (eventually expanded to 37 stories over 44 episodes), would become Katha Sagar.

Looking back from within the highly saturated media landscape we now inhabit, the single-channel, bureaucratic media universe into which Katha Sagar emerged seems almost inconceivably bare. Yet it was also a tremendously exciting space. The possibilities for a new mass medium in a third world country seemed immense. Indian officialdom was just beginning to conceive of television as more than a tool for literacy, and to expand the state’s pedagogical ambitions to include, for instance, the broadcasting of

high culture.

In 1986, daily television broadcasting in India was barely two decades old. In 1956, a UNESCO grant of $20,000 had facilitated a pilot project in India to study the use of television as a medium of education, rural upliftment and community development. Television broadcasts began in 1959 as part of All India Radio (AIR), with a weekly half-hour service beamed from Delhi. Only in 1965 did this become a daily service. Bombay introduced a broadcasting centre (kendra) in 1972, followed in 1973 by Srinagar and Amritsar, and Calcutta and Madras two years after.

Supriya Pathak with Benjamin Gilani in ‘Sannata’.

Doordarshan only emerged as independent of AIR in 1977, and the ‘National Programme’, a daily two-hour sequence of news and entertainment telecasts, first aired on 15 August 1982—the same day that colour transmission in India also began. In November that year, the Asian Games being held in Delhi were telecast in colour: a showcase for the modern Indian state’s simultaneous achievements in sports and technology.

Under Indira Gandhi and Vasant Sathe—her “globe-trotting minister for information and broadcasting”, in media observer Sevanti Ninan’s words—television became the recipient of huge ideological and financial investment from the state, and grew by leaps and bounds.

The most crucial part of this growth was the satellite-led expansion in transmission. In 1982, India had 16 transmitters that could reach only eight percent of the population. By 1991, there were 523 transmitters with the potential to reach 80 percent of Indians. Next was the rise in ownership of television sets. According to media anthropologist Purnima Mankekar, the number of television sets in the country increased from 5 million in 1985 to 35 million in 1990.

Once transmission had expanded to reach major cities, writes Ninan in Through the Magic Window: Television and Change in India (1995), the first rush of ‘sponsored programming’ began. For the first 20 years of its existence, Doordarshan had shown either educational and instructional programmes covering health, agriculture and “other practices based on modern knowledge” produced by its own kendras, or films and film-based programmes—a Hindi feature film on Saturday evenings, Chitrahaar on Friday nights. It was only in the early 1980s that Doordarshan began to allow private companies to produce fictional programmes for prime-time broadcasting. The first of these shows was Hum Log, a soap opera about an ordinary lower middle-class family, which began airing in 1984. The first 13 episodes had a strong family planning focus, but when 40 “viewing clubs” set up by the government expressed their distaste for the family planning sermons, Hum Log became less message-oriented. It went on to run successfully for 17 months, with more than 156 episodes, and its sponsor Maggi 2-Minute Noodles became a huge commercial success.

By 1986, sponsored television serials on Doordarshan had become immensely popular. The biggest television success of 1986 was the Partition-era drama series Buniyaad, written by Manohar Shyam Joshi—the same Hindi novelist who had so successfully scripted Hum Log. Buniyaad was co-directed by Ramesh Sippy—of Sholay fame—which suggests that television’s potential to reach a mass audience was beginning to be recognised by Hindi film producers.

But Katha Sagar—which producer Prem Kishen has described as competing “neck and neck with Buniyaad” and achieving “67 percent viewership” (67 percent of those who had access to television)—had a tenor different from anything that a mass Indian audience could watch in 1986. The biggest movie hits from that period thrived either on tacky violence or weepy melodrama, while Buniyaad was a full-blown family tearjerker (though it seems almost subtle in comparison to the grotesquely over-the-top sagas that are now the norm). In stark contrast, Katha Sagar, at least in the beginning, attempted a genteel realism.

This formal adherence to high culture—the realist cinema of the Indian New Wave had also defined itself against popular melodrama—extended to the content, too. The name ‘Katha Sagar’ (‘ocean of stories’) drew on Somadeva’s 11th century compendium of tales, Kathasaritsagara (‘ocean of the streams of stories’). But the 37 stories that Katha Sagar dramatised in 44 half-hour episodes had nothing to do with the Sanskritic tradition. They were adapted from European short stories written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their authors were part of an established canon familiar to the Indian English reader (often in translation). You could find them in textbooks, in bound grey-green library volumes, and in crumbling anthologies on grandparental bookshelves if you were lucky enough to have any.

With nine episodes based on his stories, French writer Guy de Maupassant towered over Katha Sagar. Leo Tolstoy (with six), O Henry (with five) and Anton Chekhov (with four) followed close behind. In the next rung of popularity were HH Munro (known by his pen name, Saki), Ivan Turgenev and Paul Heyse (with two stories each), followed by Arnold Bennett, Nikolai Gogol, August Strindberg, Honore de Balzac, Karoly Kisfaludi and Bjornstjerne Bjornson (with one each). Only two episodes out of 37 were based on stories written by women: ‘A Cup of Tea’ by Katherine Mansfield and ‘Lulu’s Triumph’ by Matilda Serrao.

The first 10 episodes were directed by Shyam Benegal, who by 1986 had already gained national and international fame with New Wave films like Ankur, Nishant, Mandi, Bhumika, Trikaal and Kalyug. Earlier that year, Benegal had made his first foray into television with Yatra, a series commissioned by Indian Railways that took as its fictional setting the real-life Himsagar Express on its weekly journey from Jammu-Tawi to Kanyakumari. With Katha Sagar, he entered slightly different terrain, working with writer Ved Rahi to present a series of classic tales adapted to Indian settings that would be recognisable to the then overwhelmingly urban, middle-class Doordarshan audience.

The memorable episode with Pallavi Joshi in plaits, for example, was adapted from the famous Saki story, ‘The Open Window’, about a timid protagonist with the beautifully dopey name of Framton Nuttel, whose innocuous social visit to an aunt’s friend at a “rural retreat” ends up being somewhat counterproductive for the “nerve-cure” he’s there on. In Benegal’s KathaSagar version, ‘Ek Khula Hua Darwaza’, Harish Patel plays the central character, a nervous engineer-type posted to a remote semi-forested area where he doesn’t know anyone. The episode opens with Patel going to visit an old friend of his aunt, and finding himself in an unfamiliar living room in the company of the 15-year-old resident niece. The niece, discovering that the guest is both new and nervous, proceeds to spin a ghostly story around an open glass door that looks out towards the forest. The brilliant performances—Patel as the gullible buddhu, being steadily stricken by terror, and Joshi as a teenage girl whose mischievousness is not bubbly but bookish, so rare a creature on the Indian screen as to be non-existent—are crucial to the telling. So is Benegal’s direction, which keeps things light as a feather: the only hint that Joshi’s story might be fictitious is the wicked glint in her eyes. And Ved Rahi’s adaptation adds touches of brilliance, like making ‘Ayega Aanewala’, Lata Mangeshkar’s classic ‘haunting melody’, part of Pallavi Joshi’s narration.

Pallavi Joshi in ‘Ek Khula Hua Darwaza’.

Benegal also used another well-known Saki story: ‘Dusk’, in which a certain Norman Gortsby, sitting in a London park at twilight, has an interesting encounter with a younger man. Ved Rahi takes the Norman Gortsby character from ‘Dusk’—a man “not disinclined to take a certain cynical pleasure in observing and labelling his fellow wanderers as they went their ways in the dark stretches between the lamp-lights”—and makes of him a paan-chewing Kulbhushan Kharbanda in white kurta-pyjama. The clothes, the paan, the suggestion of tightfistedness—all gesture gently to his background. Nothing is directly stated, but by the time an irritable Kharbanda turns away a hopeful chana-seller with the words, “Dekhte nahin paan kha rahein hain? (Can’t you see I’ve got a paan in my mouth?)”, most Indian viewers would have pretty much plotted him as a Baniya shopkeeper.

Again, Benegal achieves a lightness of touch that’s perfect for Saki. And yet the adaptation has a kind of pleasurable excess: it is as if Rahi and Benegal have taken that suggestive description of Gortsby’s people-watching as imagining the lives of others, and turned it upon Gortsby himself.

The two O Henry stories that Benegal chose to adapt—‘The Last Leaf’ and ‘A Service of Love’—are both set in the world of artistic aspiration. In the first, adapted as ‘Kalakriti’, we have the pleasure of seeing Supriya Pathak and Neena Gupta play art students who move in together. Gupta appears in the second story, ‘Chaahat’, too—as an aspiring singer who sets up house with her young painter husband. There is something utterly charming about these characters, the young women in particular: they seem ambitious without being cutthroat, independent-minded without being revolutionary. In the small space of half an hour, we see both their aspirations and their vulnerabilities. If Pathak’s character in ‘Kalakriti’ reveals a streak of morbid irrationality that almost turns life-threatening, the protagonists of ‘Chaahat’, however talented in art and joyful in love, must deal with the prosaic but inevitable problem of money.

Neena Gupta in ‘Chaahat’.

That no young couple can live on love and fresh air was also the point of Anil Ganguly’s ‘Roti aur Pyaar’. Ganguly, a filmmaker with weepies like Kora Kagaz and Tapasya to his name, chose to adapt August Strindberg’s well-known 1907 story ‘Love and Bread’—but he found it necessary to make a significant change. He did away with the couple’s careless extravagances (strawberries and ptarmigans, caviar breakfasts and impromptu carriage rides) and attributed to them a simpler—and more forgivable—lack of foresight. The thoughtless luxuries of the original protagonists were simply unimaginable for the salaried middle-class folk who watched Katha Sagar.

That audience was perhaps more likely to identify with the old clerk of ‘Nayi Sherwani’, whose salary is so meagre that he has been getting the same old sherwani darned and patched for decades. Confronted by an impending winter and the mockery of his colleagues, the old man finally gets a new sherwani made—only to be robbed of it the next day. He approaches one big afsar after another, only to be told to “come through proper channels”. Broken, the old man dies. That is where the tale might have ended. But it is what happens next that makes it truly memorable: people begin to be robbed of their overcoats by a figure who looks just like the dead clerk. One day, the cruellest afsar’s sherwani is taken from him. The spirit does not appear again.

Om Puri in ‘Nayi Sherwani’.

Nayi Sherwani’ is a superb piece of television drama. It transplants Gogol’s tragedy of poverty and officialdom from 1840s St Petersburg to 1980s Srinagar in a manner that’s utterly convincing—from the pokey little government office, with its brash young clerks who have nothing better to do than make fun of the old copyist to the crabby old tailor who has to be wooed with a bottle of alcohol. The copyist himself—his social awkwardness, his trepidation and his final collapse—is brought brilliantly to life by Om Puri.

Waheeda Rehman and Satish Kaushik in ‘Sauda’.

Benegal, being who he was, succeeded in drawing in the best possible acting talent. Not only did he recruit several fine actors from the parallel cinema world of which he was a part, such as Om Puri, Supriya Pathak, Neena Gupta, Pallavi Joshi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, but he also managed to cast some major Hindi film stars in what may have been their first-ever appearances on the small screen. ‘Chai ka Ek Cup’, based on Katherine Mansfield’s devastating tale ‘A Cup of Tea’, stars Sharmila Tagore, Iftekhar and Suresh Oberoi, while ‘Sauda’ cast Waheeda Rehman as the lead.

The appearance of the filmstar in the television serial already had a precedent in Hum Log, which the anthropologist Veena Das uses to argue for the intertextuality of the Indian soap opera as a genre. Hum Log, she suggests, participated in a didactic developmental discourse about unglamorous lives, but simultaneously drew on a connection with the world of Hindi films via the presence of veteran film actor Ashok Kumar, who appeared at the end of every episode as himself, providing a real-life social commentary on the serial’s fictional events. (Ashok Kumar appeared in Katha Sagar, too, in a single episode.)

Certainly, the appearance of a film actor—no matter if it were a character actor like Iftekhar, or an ageing heroine like Sharmila Tagore or Moushumi Chatterjee—would have given television viewers a certain frisson; the sense of familiarity bred by the television screen interrupted by the glamour and hauteur of the film world. And watching Katha Sagar today can still create the same sensation in viewers. One such pleasant casting surprise is to be found in ‘Ward No. 6’, Benegal’s adaptation of Chekhov’s deeply disconcerting story about a psychiatrist whose desire for intellectual company drives him to spend more and more time with a mental patient. The middle-aged psychiatrist—oppressed, misunderstood, gradually losing control of his life—is played by a very young Irrfan Khan.

Irrfan Khan (centre) in ‘Ward No. 6’.

AFTER BENEGAL, the directorial baton passed to Kundan Shah. Shah had acquired his reputation in 1983 with the satirical masterpiece that remains his best known work—Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro—and was soon to come out with the tragicomic television serial Nukkad, co-directed with friend and filmmaker Saeed Mirza. In Katha Sagar, though, his work was significantly more melodramatic. He directed ‘Maria’, based on Paul Heyse’s ‘The Fury’, in which a poor Muslim boatman becomes obsessed with a beautiful young Christian woman (played by a stiff but stunning Kitu Gidwani); ‘Bahut Der Kar Di’, based on Chekhov’s ‘The Grasshopper’, in which a tiresome Moushumi Chatterjee ignores her loving doctor husband (Ajit Vachani) for a tiresome Marc Zuber; and ‘Gehra Zakhm’, based on Karoly Kisfaludi’s ‘The Invisible Wound’, in which Vachani transforms brilliantly from the mild, long-suffering husband of ‘Bahut Der Kar Di’ to a paranoid, suspicious one.

Another of his episodes was called ‘Ek Bhool’, based on Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Lion’s Share’, in which a man is so stricken with guilt for something he did years ago that he endlessly indulges his younger brother, turning him into a monster. The younger brother shamelessly romances the girl the elder one hoped to marry—a young Urmila Matondkar, ridiculously made-up and dressed in a heavy sari, looking like a 16-year-old trying to get into an A-rated film screening. The production quality is undoubtedly awful. But it’s not clear whether the grand marbled house whose inhabitants take foreign vacations (the ultimate sign of wealth in pre-liberalisation India) but continue to have red plastic chairs as furniture was an art department oversight, or a stroke of genius.

There is, however, one among the Shah-directed episodes of Katha Sagar that feels more indisputably like genius:

Dushman’, based on O Henry’s ‘Squaring the Circle’. O Henry provided his tale with its own introduction, calling it “an account of the fate of a Kentucky feud that was imported to the city that has a habit of making its importations conform to its angles”: New York. Ved Rahi’s adaptation turns Kentucky into Punjab. New York, of course, becomes Bombay.

Benjamin Gilani in ‘Dushman’.

“Nature,” wrote O Henry, “is lost quickest in a big city. The cause is geometrical, not moral. The straight lines of its streets and architecture, the rectangularity of its laws and social customs, the undeviating pavements, the hard, severe, depressing, uncompromising rules of all its ways—even of its recreation and sports—coldly exhibit a sneering defiance of the curved line of Nature.” Shah’s direction sticks close to the grain of O Henry’s thought, adding a touch of visual comedy reminiscent of French director Jacques Tati’s Play Time (1967)—a film that was also about the ridiculous, alienating artificiality of modernist urban spaces.

The plot of ‘Dushman’ is simple: the tehmat-clad Balwant (Benjamin Gilani in a wonderfully unexpected role) arrives in Bombay to search for his enemy, who is employed in a factory there. Robbed of his money, he wanders bereft through an unpronounceable city, from “Prayll” to Nariman Point, buffeted by the crowd, rebuffed by angry bus conductors, and unable to speak the language, literally and metaphorically. In one tragicomic scene, he orders a thali, but is so appalled at the small quantities of each item that he returns it uneaten. “You call this curd?” he says angrily to the waiter. “Jaaman kehde hain inne, dhai nhai!” (Jaaman is the teaspoonful of fresh culture used to set curds).

Seen through the village yokel’s eyes, the city is a strange place inhabited by strange creatures: the cigar-smoking gentleman, the lady fixing her make-up in the lift, the man swaying to the inaudible beat of his walkman, all oblivious to the world around them. Wherever Balwant goes there are streams of people stretching away in every direction, but none who will speak to him: “Koi usse baat kyon nahi karta? Kya woh mar chuka hai? (Why does no one talk to him? Is he dead?) By the time he finally encounters his old enemy, he is so profoundly lonely that he falls upon his countryman with tears of joy.

As part of an ensemble film called Mumbai Cutting, made in 2008 but due to release later this year, Shah made a silent short titled Hero, in which Deepak Dobriyal tries unsuccessfully to board a Mumbai local train. The choreographed visual comedy of Hero and Balwant’s predicament in ‘Dushman’ both seem to echo Edgar Allan Poe’s classic description of the city crowd as a phalanx of moving automatons in ‘The Man of the Crowd’: “By far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied, business-like demeanor, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on. Others… were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around… If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion.”

BARRING ‘DUSHMAN’, the episodes Shah directed were disappointing. The direction and the acting was slipshod, and the stories reinforced conventional morality. ‘Maria’ as well as another episode called ‘Bhulava’ feature discomfiting taming-of-the-shrew narratives, while ‘Bahut Der Kar Di’ paints Moushumi Chatterjee’s character as profoundly unsympathetic: the spoilt wife who ignores her good, hapless husband until it’s too late.

The directors who came after Shah, Anil Ganguly, A Salam and Ramesh Gupta, upped the patriarchal morality quotient even further. Foolish and treacherous women feature often. Ganguly’s ‘Woh Ek Ladki’ involves the comeuppance of a girl who jilts her loving suitor because he’s poor. In Gupta’s ‘Anjaam’, Saeed Jaffrey’s dhaba owner is betrayed by a traitorous wife. Elsewhere, there is the woman as victim—betrayed by one man, waiting for the benevolence of another: Neesha Singh in ‘Sahara’ and Archana Puran Singh in ‘Nayi Fasal’ (both sadly unbelievable as village belles) gratefully accept the offers of men who wish to be fathers to their illegitimate children.

Saeed Jaffrey and Dina Pathak in ‘Anjaam’.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these characters; they may in fact have been more recognisable to most Indian viewers than the quietly independent young women of Benegal’s ‘Kalakriti’, ‘Chaahat’ and ‘Ek Khula Hua Darwaza’. But none of them has the same spark, or nuance. In some ineffable but definite way, we have retreated from the possible to the tragically familiar.

These later episodes also lack the gentle humour and quiet devastation that Benegal so effortlessly brought to the series. Under Anil Ganguly and A Salam, Katha Sagar grew heavy-handed and dull, wasting even such casting coups as Shammi Kapoor (in ‘Dard’) and Utpal Dutt (in ‘Zamana’).

Shammi Kapoor in ‘Dard’.

The last 10 episodes—directed by Krishen Sethi, Satyen Bose and Ved Rahi himself—managed to recover some of the series’ lost charm, using a rotating cast of talented actors like Saeed Jaffrey, Sulabha Deshpande, Parikshit Sahni and Beena, as well as Ajit Vachani and Supriya Pathak. Sethi capably directed seven episodes, of which the most memorable was ‘Zameen’, based on a Tolstoy story called ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’. The dependable Parikshit Sahni surpassed himself here, making us believe fully in his metamorphosis from a man who goes from being the contented tiller of a small field to a megalomaniac with an unquenchable thirst for more land. But it is Saeed Jaffrey—as the chieftain of an ostensibly unworldly tribe whose unorthodox means of selling land seems too good to be true—who stays in your mind long after: a small man in a flowing red robe, egging Sahni on with his unreadable eyes.

Zameen’ was also memorable because it was shot largely outdoors—superbly so, by cinematographer Ashok Mehta, who had already shot Benegal’s Mandi and Utsav, and would go on to shoot Saudagar and Bandit Queen, among many other films. Watching Mehta’s camera track a sweating Parikshit Sahni up and down the hill paths of the terrain he hopes to make his own, one suddenly realises how rare it is for a television screen to transport you anywhere but into another room, a walled-off space very much like the one in which you sit watching it.

There were other boundaries that Katha Sagar traversed with an ease that seems surprising today. It moved easily between the rural and the urban and between the poorest and richest sections of society, though the urban middle class milieu did dominate the series—perhaps unsurprising, since the core of Doordarshan’s target audience in the 1980s was the urban middle class, with its access to television. Also, as Sevanti Ninan points out, production facilities had not expanded to match the accelerated spread of transmission technology, and “the result was that Delhi programmes, both local and national, were transmitted throughout the country”.

This Delhi-centric bias was most obviously revealed in the fact that programming in Hindi was beamed to several cities where the language was not commonly spoken. But a programme like Katha Sagar also had a strong ‘national integration’ component. ‘National integration’ was a stated goal of television’s earliest Indian advocate—the scientist Vikram Sarabhai—a goal to be achieved by “exposing” inhabitants of one part of India to the culture of other parts. The setting of Katha Sagar episodes in Goa and Kashmir, Punjab and Bombay, must be seen as part of this imperative. The conscious creation of narratives of Hindu-Sikh amity (especially in Punjab) and Hindu-Muslim amity, as well as of a whole teleserial set in Kashmir (Gul Gulshan Gulfaam, also produced by Prem Kishen) came just a little later.

While it is wonderful that Reliance Home Video and Cinevistaas Ltd have put together these 37 episodes in a single box set, they have been rather lax in terms of actual execution. The sound quality is extremely uneven, and the picture is often grainy. The accompanying literature, too, leaves much to be desired. The details listed on the back cover do not match the brochure inside; the information on the directors, writer, cinematographers and so on is sorely limited. This is a great pity, because while Benegal and Shah are well-known, the others are not. The 16-page brochure tells us nothing about Krishen Sethi, say, or Ved Rahi: who they were, what else they may have written or directed. A box set such as this would have benefited enormously from a ‘Making Of’ documentary. Interviews with the translator-writer Ved Rahi, the various directors and cinematographers, and some of the actors that might have told us something about how and why these stories were chosen, the process of adapting them to Indian milieus, perhaps even something about sets and locales, shoots and budgets. And if such a documentary was made impossible by budgetary constraints, interviews could have been conducted and printed as part of the brochure, rather than wasting several glossy pages reprinting Maupassant and Chekhov bios that can be found on Wikipedia.

As it currently stands, this eight-disc collection (with 19 hours of programming) feels like raw material. It contains no effort either to document Katha Sagar for the unusual creative collaboration it was, or to place it in the critical context of 1980s India, where television was seen as a potentially unifying force rather than the deeply segmented field it is assumed to be today. Dipping into it may well be fun for Supriya Pathak fans, those who want to track Irrfan Khan’s early career, or those who are simply nostalgic for the 1980s. But properly curated, it could have been the beginning of that Doordarshan archive we so sorely need.