The Innocent Nineties

Written by  //  April 23, 2011  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  3 Comments

[Desi nights in London, Doordarshan ads and ruing the loss of innocence only to rediscover it in the unlikeliest of places. Parag Sayta, a corporate lawyer in London goes down television’s memory lane via Hamara Bajaj, Buniyaad and Mile Sur Mera Tumhara]

Over the past two years that I have spent in London, some of my fondest memories have been at mehfils (the closest English word, “gathering”, doesn’t somehow do justice) organized by one or another of my fellow Indian travelers in the Old Blighty. These mehfils, arranged on many a cold, gloomy Saturday evening when the yearning for all things Indian was at its maximum, attracted many of us children of India growing up in the nineties like moths to a flame.

These evenings followed a typical pattern: general chit chat was followed by kebab and sharab (or for the few much derided and pitied teetotaler vegetarians like yours truly, coca-cola and paneer tikka). As the evenings progressed and the victual delights began to take effect, nostalgia took over and our attention turned to common memories we could reminiscence about. It usually was old Hindi songs or television clips (mostly Doordarshan clips from “back in the day” before cable television took over) or, when the relevant connoisseurs were present and in the “mood” to explain things to us plebeians, Urdu poetry or Indian classical music. It was heady, exhilarating stuff: on the odd occasion, I even fancied myself a bon vivant.

The solid core of my batchmates from law school were invariably present, often with their friends or colleagues (also fellow travelers raised in the India of the ‘90s) in tow. The guests enjoyed these evenings as much as regulars. If it were just the usual law school bunch that savoured these mehfils, the camaraderie and joviality could be explained away by pointing out to our common law school past. But it was as if we all felt connected by a bond: our collective thoughts coalesced around treasured recollections. It was our mutual, shared past and we felt one with it.

Out of all the pleasurable evenings, the ones which left their deepest impression on me were those when the focal point of our attention was old Doordarshan television clips. These truly stirred strong sentiments as thoughts long locked up in the memory bank came tumbling out. We lustily sang Jungle Jungle Pata Chala Hai in unison; smiled when we saw the Hamara Bajaj advertisement; argued over the moral dilemmas of Karna while watching a clip from that magnum opus TV series, the Mahabharata; listened to Mile Sur Mera Tumhara with goosebumps and moist eyes. We debated over our favourite TV serial: Dekh Bhai Dekh and Zaban Sambhal Ke were frequently mentioned; whereas older, more sagacious heads plumped for dramas like Udaan, Buniyaad and Hum Log. Eventually, we would happily settle on the unanimous favourite Malgudi Days and eagerly hunt for our favourite clips on YouTube.

Back in India for a six week break, with recollections of those evenings swarming my brain, I decided to give Indian television another look. Over the past several years, my television diet (meagre as it is), has consisted of sports, news and the odd show on the History Channel or National Geographic. The bulk of Indian cable television targeting Middle India: the umpteen serials dealing with saas-bahu machinations and the reality television drivel occupied the periphery of my consciousness, something which I duly dismissed as background noise. Recently, I decided to take a closer look. Fifteen minutes of browsing through the channels left me exasperated. “Is there anything in here that I may like?” I wondered.  A glance through the listings of the top three channels yielded no surprises: cumulatively, of the twelve shows on primetime television (8-11 p.m.) there were eight saas-bahu “family” dramas and four reality shows (two singing competitions; one dance competition and one show where, as it turns out, brawny men and skimpily clad women, each of them scowling, plot and conspire against each other).

I understand that the race for maximum eyeballs and the pressure of moneymen has compelled television companies to chase the lowest common denominator. But doesn’t emerging, vibrant Middle India sometimes yearn for a serial which offers the simple joys of a well told story (a la a Buniyaad or a Hum Log) or captures the hopes and aspirations of small town India the way Udaan did or even the joyful innocence of Malgudi Days? Or are these memories forever banished from its collective consciousness?

A chance conversation with my mother a few days later reignited my interest. She (entirely without my prompting) mentioned that she had started watching Doordarshan Bharati of late which has several excellent programmes. She gave the example of dramatized version of a Munshi Premchand short story set in small town India that she thoroughly enjoyed. Delighted by my fortuitous discovery, I decided to look for the channel and found it buried under an abyss, deep enough so that no one could stumble upon it.  The channel does have some truly wonderful programmes: there are dedicated shows for various strands of Indian classical music, qawali and ghazal shows, classical dance shows, besides serials (some of them re-runs of popular ‘80s and ‘90s shows) and dramas like the Premchand short stories. I even enjoyed watching the news: the laid back, factual style of reporting was a refreshing change from the hyperventilating anchors running sensationalist “breaking news” stories.

One idyllic afternoon, I was engrossed watching Doordarshan Bharati when my brother, seven years my junior and unabashedly a child of 21st century India walked in. “Bhai, can I check the IPL score?” he queried. Spell broken, I handed him the remote control and got up. As he was flipping channels, I slowly, deliberately walked out.

3 Comments on "The Innocent Nineties"

  1. aandthirtyeights April 28, 2011 at 4:04 pm ·

    Ah. And I thought I was the only geriatric who tuned into Bharati religiously for each classical music programme 🙂

  2. Gopi Warrier June 12, 2011 at 7:58 am ·

    I am surprised you missed out ‘Nukkad’ among the popular programs of the 1980s. It has a left-of-the-center theme and a cast of very talented yet lesser-known actors.

  3. Jayant October 7, 2013 at 9:56 am ·

    But that still doesnt change the fact that you have a personality of an inanimate object..

Comments are now closed for this article.