by Suresh Subrahmanyan
I cannot quite make up my mind if having 145 television channels to choose from which my service provider offers is a winning deal, or to turn the clock back to our grainy black and white sets of the ‘70s when all you had was DD1 and 2. Those 145 channels, incidentally, include over 75 channels in languages like Marathi, Assamese, Urdu, Punjabi, Oriya, French and Japanese – all double Dutch to me. Coming back to Doordarshan, DD1 was concerned with the news and current affairs. The news dwelt extensively on agricultural production numbers while current affairs involved four people sitting round a table discussing, you guessed it, agricultural production numbers. Riveting stuff, if that’s your bag. Sometimes, just for the sake of variety the same four personages would discuss industrial production numbers, which could get quite exciting. Particularly that bit about how India could become self-sufficient in iron and steel at the present output rate, thus precluding the need for imports and the consequent saving of precious foreign exchange. The panellists were pleased as punch, and we shared their joy. It is not every day that the prospect of import substitution through buoyancy of domestic production came to gladden our hearts.
If that was not entertainment enough, DD2 was launched with the avowed intent of providing us with light entertainment. Which generally meant Chitrahaar, 30 minutes of film song sequences from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then we were regaled byKrishiDarshan, a programme devoted to farmers and their cultural and social milieu, interspersed with a film song sequence featuring Manoj Kumar or Sunil Dutt ploughing the fields, singing a memorable agrarian number with nationalistic fervour (‘Mere desh ki dharti’) through the dulcet voices of Mohammad Rafi or Mahendra Kapoor. In the background, a bevy of bucolic belles dressed to the nines (in a uniquely cinematic agrarian fashion) and swaying rhythmically to the tune and to the swaying wheatfields. If we got lucky, Saira Banu or Mumtaz would put in a glamorous ‘village beauty’ appearance and Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhosle would join the playback ensemble to complete the delightful duet.
Weekends meant a double scoop of delight. One feature film each on Saturday and Sunday on DD2. India came to a grinding halt during weekend evenings, not unlike what happened when Mahabharat was aired a couple of decades later. Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor held sway, entertaining us with ‘Guide’, ‘Ram aur Shyam’, ‘MeraNaam Joker’ and similar hits. On Sunday afternoons, a regional feature film was screened, and the offering was invariably a Bengali or Malayalam award winning film, which by definition meant a film that moved at snail’s pace, instantly put you to sleep given the post prandial timing of the programme, and the barely readable and rapidly moving subtitles doing little to enhance our understanding of the proceedings, if at all we were watching. With due apologies to Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and their ilk.
Today, with my TataSky remote, all I do is switch from Shah Rukh to Aamir Khan, KamalHaasan to Rajini, Rajdeep Sardesai to Nidhi Razdan, think better of it and switch to the much quieter WION, all in the space of a couple of minutes. Then there’s CNN and BBC for world news. And if there’s no live tennis, international cricket or Premier League football on offer, I switch to Netflix (a paid for service) where again I am inundated with a plethora of family serials, movies and documentaries. A long playing serial like ‘The Good Wife’, ‘Suits’ or ‘Madam Secretary’ has the infinite merit of keeping me going for weeks on end with a fairly decent quality of production. Even on Netflix the choice is so vast that a coin toss is what decides which serial or movie to watch.
One final word on sports telecast. One notices a lot of sponsored kabaddi on some of the sports channels, with well-known film stars and sports personalities backing their teams. I have no reliable information on how many people are actually watching this uniquely Indian contact sport. I certainly do not watch kabaddi, and I am not being toffee-nosed. I am unable to come to grips (pun intended) with several overweight pahalwans grappling and groping each other in order to prevent the opponent from crossing a demarcated line. A quick word on rugby. In my humble view, it’s a ridiculous sport where the team moves forward towards the opposition goal, while constantly throwing the ball backwards to your team mate. To say nothing of kicking the ball whenever it takes a player’s fancy. When I say ‘ball’, it’s a loose description for a strange object that is oval in shape and wobbles whenever you try and kick it. To say nothing of constantly falling over each other during the scrum and so on. Hardly surprising, therefore, that almost every humongous rugby player looks like he’s just walked into a brick wall. I am reliably informed that kho-kho, a kind of kabaddi’s poor relation, may very well be introduced in the near future, in a major push towards promoting indigenous sports. I shan’t be holding my breath.
Then there’s the science, nature and animal category spread over yet another basket of channels. Many of these programmes are brilliantly photographed and are truly captivating. But then, where’s the time between ArnabGoswami’s shenanigans and Virat Kohli’s heroics? To say nothing of the Prime Minister’s periodic tete a tete, and Manchester United squaring off against Manchester City? And for some unfathomable reason, whenever I do switch on to one of the animal channels, it is invariably a lion and his mate in the middle of the sweaty throes of the mating season! Good for the propagation of the species, I say, but we could be spared the X-rated graphic action. It’s a puzzle why the channels think it’s perfectly kosher for children to watch programmes featuring our dumb chums in frenzied intimacy, but get all cagey and coy when it comes to humans getting fresh with each other. A clear case of double standards.
From the ridiculous to the sublime. Lest we forget, there’s a huge bouquet of religious channels on offer, covering just about every single faith. Priests and pastors of every description occupy slots in a series of channels where lectures, bhajans and even live telecast of famous rituals are made available for the devout. Add to this the fitness and yoga channels and you are assured of televisually cleansing your body and mind. Once again, we have no viewership figures to confirm the number of people actually watching these preachy programmes, but I guess it’s comforting to know they are there.
In the final analysis, watching television these days has become more stressful than it was in the earlier days. I have friends who are sports freaks, and want to watch Wimbledon and an India – Australia ODI overlapping at the same time. So they record the tennis and watch the cricket live. And woe betide anyone who lets the cat out of the bag that Federer beat Nadal in the final. All hell will break loose. That game has been reserved, post facto, to be enjoyed over the wee hours of the night and morning, before the newspapers can arrive and spoil the fun.
They say multiple choice is a great boon. That may be true if you are writing an exam with a selection of five alternative answers to ‘tick the box’ from. But when it comes to figuring out what to watch on the idiot box, I would like to lock myself up in a time machine and travel backwards to the sixties and seventies. The Sivaji Ganesan / Savithri starrer ‘Navarathri’, is a good place to start. Alternatively, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ will do equally well.
Footnote: After finishing my first draft of this article, I decided to stroll across to one of these new-fangled coffee bars to de-stress. To my simple request of ‘one hot coffee, please’, the waiter returned with ‘large, medium or small, black or white, ordinary of decaf, with or without whipped cream, almond or cinnamon flavoured’ – at which point I thanked him politely and walked out. Crossed the road to the modest Sukh Sagar hotel where, standing up I consumed a delicious tumbler of hot filter coffee for Rs.10/-, and no questions asked. I was out in five minutes, fully satiated and saved myself Rs.90/-.