In 2020, with the country in a lock- down, public broadcaster Doordarshan has turned the clock back. It has dug into its formidable but rarely updated archives and pulled out TV serials dating back to mid-eighties. Thirty-six years ago, in 1984, the hugely talented Hindi writer Manohar Shyam Joshi scripted a low cost but extremely popular serial for DD by the name of Hum Log.
It ran for 154 episodes and opened the flood gates of audience popularity, advertising on TV, sponsorships (ranging from the deserving to the highly dubious) and led to a frenzy of talent spotting among young and old wannabe stars.
But the brightest star was Joshi himself. He followed it up with another hit based on the Partition named Buniyad. The two blockbusters were followed by slick comedy serials like Karamchand Jasoos, Shreemanand Shreemati, Dekh Bhai Dekh. Who can forget the magical Malgudi Days!
This was truly DD’s golden period. In 1987, Ramanand Sagar launched Ramayana that had 87 episodes and on Sunday mornings when it was aired, streets emptied out with people of all communities, yes, both Hindus and Muslims among others huddling before the small screen. Serials and even comedies based on epics, mythology and religion emerged as the biggest money spinners. In 1988 Mahabharat, another epic based serial with 94 episodes, was launched. It was scripted by redoubtable Rahi Masum Raza, writer of memorable Hindi novels like Adha Gaon.
By early 90s, some of the regional best sellers were also turned into serials, two among those were Premchand’sNirmala and Shivani’s Krishnakali. 1997 saw the big (520 episode) serial Shaktiman, a Desi superman played by Mukesh Khanna, who was soon seen modelling for biscuits to health drinks on TV.
Then to match Pankaj Kapoor as Karamchand Jasoos, came VyomkeshBakshi, a seri- al based on a ‘Khanti Bong’ investiga- tor, created by Satyajit Ray. All these serials are now running on DD National in an unending loop with Ramayan leading the pack. It has ended now (after the last episode showing the killing of Ravana was broadcast twice, ostensibly on public demand, killing good old Ravana twice).
The unending loop is only broken by the daily briefing in which Lav Agrawal and Punya Salila ji, two Joint Secretaries from the Health Ministry and the MHA respectively, read out the day’s health news (mostly bad) about COVID in English and in Hindi, in their best Babu monotones.
A recent PIB release gushed that never since its inception in 2015, BARC had recorded the kind of viewership ratings that Ramanand Sagar’s tacky old serial has garnered in this second coming. But in the age of Netflix and WhatsApp, Tik Tok and Instagram, what is driving people to watch these old serials?
The enforced immobility and the captive audience created by the lock- down are factors. But the larger reason is the all-pervasive fear of dying, fear of being bereaved, fear of losing jobs, fear of losing money, missing out on exams, on travel and on admissions to prestigious courses. Is binge viewing of old serials helpful ?
The jury is out. My mother’s teacher Hazari Prasad Dwivedi had coined a term Itihaski Shav Sadhana. The metaphor came from the Tantric ritual in which the seeker would sit astride the dead body of a Brahmin and bring it alive in order to answer questions and grant boons. A Shav Sadhana of these serials raises several thorny issues. The question of copyright for example.
Late Manohar Shyam Joshi’s gentle and erudite widow had asked me when I was on the Board of Prasar Bharati for a set of cassettes of her husband’s serials, Hum Log and Buniyad. I tried and tried but was told by Babus that DD had handed over all copyrights to the producers. I was told that DD would neither be able to hand over copies of the serials nor pay any royalty for any future re-runs.
The question ‘Why’ was never explained satisfactorily. My late mother’s novel Krishnakali, serialised by DD, also met with a similar fate. It was to be directed by Amol Palekar. He in fact recorded interviews on her and her work. The serial itself disappointed us and one could not help thinking that Amol had perhaps not directed it himself but handed it to a member of his team. The serial has since been shown several times.
But at no point did DD get in touch with us, and of course there was no payment for repeat tele- casts, not even the measly payments as per DD rules. Let the Vetal speak! Let Vetal explain if cassettes of Hum Log and Buniyad could not be made available to the widow of the writer then, how are they being tele- cast again and without any re-telecast royalty paid to copyright holders? Let Vetal’s questions be answered! (The author is the Group Editorial Advisor of National Herald)