Untold stories of the Doordarshan years

BY Jai Chandiram| IN Opinion | 14/09/2009
The DD years have been exhilarating and fun, we dared, we fought, we often won. Innovation was a necessity for achieving dreams and impossible realities.
JAI CHANDIRAM who spent 35 years in Doordarshan, looks back on the broadcaster’s 50th anniversary.

In  1961 I returned from studying theater, television and development of children to join All India Radio's new TV division as a casual. School Television was scheduled to begin at the end of the summer. I found myself setting up laboratories in the studio, rehearsing teachers, researching and helping writing scripts. Narender Kumar was the producer but as he wasn't around I found myself rehearsing in the absence of the producer and recording the first television science lesson with Mr. Thapar a teacher, from Modern School.

 

Experimenting with lights for demos on the nature of light, we found that the studio window between 4:00 to 4:20pm gave us the rays of the sun to go through the prism and demonstrate VIBGYOR. What an achievement, catching light and going live!  The technical staff, Madan Mohan, Mr. Desikachar and others were fully involved in finding solutions to record these simple experiments. Remember, we had few recording facilities, the big 2" tape recorders, the huge cameras and no air conditioning. Cooling was improvised with ice slabs in bath tin tubs and by switching off lights, one by one and power cuts didn't help in meeting deadlines. To supplement the lights in the studio I would get extra lights from my Uncle's car repair workshop. (Little did the car owners know what useful education was being done by their cars!)

 

Innovation was a necessity for achieving dreams and impossible realities. The spirit of adventure, exploration was exciting and a driving force. After partition, the schools were in shambles, new curriculum, untrained teachers, no proper science laboratories; a story which remains unchanged .The emphasis in television was on science, language, social studies and maths programs. We also added, English with the help of British Council.

 

The reception at the school level was erratic as there were constant power breakdowns, but nothing could dampen our enthusiasm, passion and dedication to do 'good' and serve our country with exciting programs. It hurt when the class teachers were not viewing the lessons as they were jealous of the TV teacher who had time and facilities to prepare and the harassed class teacher was held up as a 'poor' teacher. As we were not able to have regular reception in the schools, we put in repetitions, widened the curriculum with enrichment classes. The project was constantly under review and research headed by Dr. Paul Neurath and Manadakni Khandekar who gave us regular course corrections. Eventually the research  did show that there was a change  for the better.

 

The TV lessons were a role model  for class teachers , children were asking questions , getting the school lab cupboards opened and above all the television was forcing teachers to attend classes regularly as they had to provide feedback . The systems design and the large coverage of the project made the School Television an impressive project in its time. Hagerstown, USA was the model we were following and we were far ahead in quality and coverage. Our greatest problem remained erratic power supply, which crippled the effort and impact of programmes in the school.

 

During this  time , we also started the Teleclub programs to make better use of the TV sets in the schools. This was the first time the community was getting together to view moving pictures and get information on health and civil studies. Visiting the lamp lit teleclubs in schools and in Panchayat ghars to get the feedback from the community was an education.   The women sat separately and the children were our most consistent and loyal audience. The women in veils spoke about washing hands and cutting vegetables after washing as new information. The 'hardcore' programs were the usual, 'do not spit'. Nobody stopped spitting, but there was awareness that it should not be done in public. Little did we connect that spitting is part of our and Chinese health culture, but we were western educated and so did what we thought was, 'right and the best'.

 

This attitude was to change drastically as we were humbled during SITE when we discovered the richness in our peoples' indigenous knowledge systems and experiences .In our arrogance it took a while to respect the 'uneducated' .When news was presented research in Daryaganj households showed that women updated their knowledge of current events and became 'powerful' in their ability to communicate with the family gaining 'respect'.

 

 

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On a personal note we were a bit of an oddity in television, convent educated, smoking and quick and clever in our work. Many of our colleagues could not come to terms with us and we were termed as 'fast.' A Hindi magazine had glamorous coverage of the women in television both on screen and off screen. We were  amused and surprised with the tabloid headlines, 'Jai ki shyam nahi guzarti jab talak woh ek ghooth ne piliye'. (Jai's evening is not made until she has taken a swig.)  I may have mentioned to the reporter that my grandfather waited for me to come home and take the first sip from his glass as we exchanged the day's happenings. What colourful reporting!!  This kind of reporting didn't make our lives better in the office where more scurrilous stories were circulated . We of course had to laugh it off and become more cautious in everything we said and did. Never getting into a crowded lift as the liftman had the pleasure of brushing the door shut across our chest. We learned to join our voices with the nascent women's reporting and movement, later to be labeled as feminist.  Women protests against sexual harassment never made it to news , so we created programs that covered the issues from various aspects in a series mode for many days .

 

 I left the school television project to do further studies and returned to an eventful election schedule.  Mrs. Gandhi had won the election, we were shooting in small cabin in the garden in her house, the drums were playing and above the din Mr. Dilip Mukherjee asked"You have outdone your father in these elections'. Mrs. Gandhi lashed out 'Don't compare me with my father , I am an individual in my own right'. Stunned silence.  Sharda Prasad signaled to stop the camera, my eye signaled to the camera man to continue. This was a historic moment, and after ten deep breaths we continued the filming. Later, in the evening, the ominous phone call, 'Please edit'. I pleaded; I begged but had to put the film in the archive.

 

I vowed we would use this piece in Mrs. G's obituary. The archives were destroyed in a fire and Mrs. Gandhi's death was too tragic and heartrending so that footage remained un-aired.  There was another incident in which Mrs. Gandhi wearing her designer CD glasses was visiting the Gir Forest. There was a pride of twelve lions and  Mrs. G was squinting her eyes trying to count the cubs and the big cats, The Forest Officer was carefully directing her gaze and like an excited kid Mrs. G was counting 1 2 3 4 … oh I see it 5…..  I thought this was an aspect that few people have seen of Mrs. G and rushed the tape to the news room in Delhi …only to be told it wasn't 'news'.

 

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Former PM Rajiv Gandhi had been attacked in Sri Lanka. Mr. T N Seshan who was also the security in charge came to watch the tape in the newsroom. We suggested that as we had an exclusive coverage we should use it in slow motion and show how agile Rajiv was in ducking the gun. Mr.Seshan refused permission and we had only a glimpse of this news on air .Later, talking to journalists who were present during the incident, they told me that they had asked President Jayawardene if he had seen the 'attack' from his position. President Jayewardene apparently said 'that from where he was it appeared that the young soldier was having a 'sun stroke', the journalist observed, 'it liked like a gun stroke sir'!

 

The morning transmission started with a bang, we had recorded some of the segments and made a pilot. The last segment was a cartoon by Laxman .None of us had bothered to look at the detail in the edit room … when it went on air it burned up the wires as the cartoon was not very complimentary to Rajiv Gandhi, but luckily heads didn't roll .

 

Mine was a career that kept me seventeen years out of Doordarshan, in FTII as Head of the Television Division. I had an opportunity  to work with Girish Karnard and the young directors and actors who made it big later, This was the time of David Dhavan , Kundan Shah , Sayeed Mirza,Raman, Mayank Trivedi and many others . Their hero was Kewal Kapoor who acted as a clerk in Shukulji's serial on 'Aisa bhi hota Hai'!

 

The proud FTIII students and future film directors were offered to get acquainted with television production and the resistance was palpable as the young students felt that working in television was a come down and not worth getting to know .Later, after graduation they all found themselves working on serials and documentaries for DD!

 

 DD's greats were Kabir Bedi in the earlier days and his magazine show was later taken by Prannoy Roy. Prannoy grew up in covering the budget and elections and later news on DD3. .Karan Thapar came into Indian television from London with a searing opening that made it to Parliament . Khula Manch in its first six episodes hit the headlines before it got aired .  George Fernandes was asked about Coca Cola … the ministers complained to Rajiv Gandhi 'why should George speak about Coca Cola when it did not fall into his ministerial jurisdiction?' When I informed Mr.George Fernandes in Bangalore that I was being asked to edit this segment, he gave a press briefing spilling  the beans and got front page coverage .I pleaded  with the 'authorities' that since the matter  was  in the open we need not edit that segment after all. But I had to reluctantly follow instructions. Another story was that a popular TV anchor keen to host Khula Manch showed his ire by telling an MP that the show had planted actors to raise questions in Khula Manch.  DD had hired an agency to invite a range of people to represent the 'janta'. The janta was a farmer, who had some theater links …. And so the story went around that DD does not carry the voice of the people in Khula Manch and plants actors to raise safe questions.  Headlines, front page and Amita Malik went to town on the story. I lived this nightmare as Karan gleefully got full publicity for the show, a great training ground as he applies the same technique even today.

 

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 During SITE I was in Pune training all the staff for DD's biggest experiment in development television. These was exciting times for DD as we were growing fast and FTII TV training gave us an opportunity to work with fresh students who were from different fields dancers, musicians, theater wallahs, sports and current affairs. Some of these outstanding students have contributed to environment and dry land farming and actively influenced policy on genetically modified seeds and its impact on small farmers including issues of loss of seed sovereignty. PV Sateesh now trains the grass root farm women to make their own programs for television and radio. The Deccan Development Society women are non-literate farmers who have trained farmers around the world on television production and share their rich knowledge in farming including their understanding of non- cultivated food. Brilliant work, much admired.

 

 Laxman Gowda our graphic artist is now a world renowned painter, sculptor and continues to work in many media . During SITE they engaged the school children with working with clay and I still posses a cow made by the children. Documenting the rich arts of India was another contribution as many of these arts and crafts are now corrupted. In Children's programs we worked with the Bedi brothers, who happily, brought snakes, ducks, donkeys, turtles to familiarize the children with the animals and overcome their fear of the wild .Great story tellers they enthralled the children with their photographs and stories. Sheel was the compere and she was another great story teller. Children used to send us letters as they wanted to be on the show, so we decided to tell them that now they could talk to Sheel on the phone … a red phone and a number was repeated during the programme.Only at the end of the show we had to tell the children that it was April Fools Day, the PBX didn't stop ringing and many children were delighted with being made a fool of.

 

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Arafat kissed Mrs. G on full camera during NAM shocking and delighting us. DD was the 'serai' where every visitor  came, Marlon Brando,  Prime  Minister Trudeau, J. Krishnamurti, who in their  interviews were intimate and not time bound, so we could be more exploratory of their lives and views. 

 

 The Asian Games were an achievement coordinating sixteen venues live and with recorded inputs. The side show was that the Chinese refused to march as we had included the Lion Dance in the opening ceremony. The Chinese felt we had stolen their dance and we had no right to show the dance .We were equally vociferous that it was a part of our culture from Arunachal Pradesh. The claims by China continue to raise hackles even today on related issues!

 

My stint is Ahmedabad was another high. I was sent on a punishment posting for no known cause. I grew working with the giants, Prof Yashpal, Dr. Chitnis, Kiran Karnik and BS Bhatia. These were troubled times  so I initiated research  on  coverage  of violence on television and its impact on other communities and retaliation .The research was revealing and made a change in the way we focused and covered communal violence .The other exciting thing was getting AMUL to direct their programmes to women on animal husbandry. The women were the real caregivers to the cows and buffaloes and the shift in the program focus from men to women made a tremendous impact. Community and development programmers were an exciting platform and it was an enthralling experience in all aspects.

 

DD3 an imaginative channel, looking at the best in India in culture, sciences, literature was labeled as a 'thinking person's' channel. By labeling DD3 as exclusive the press made sure DD3 would not get watched. BITV also started with a similar premise and also unfortunately had a short life. It is heartening that many of the programs continue to be screened regularly on the DD bouquet of channels. Literary discussions with Tarun Tejpal, remarkable humour in CY Gopinath's serial, 'Nothing Serious' continues to surprise and delight. The stars introduced in this serial dominate the serials on many of today's commercial channels.

 

The New Year's programme made gentle fun of the 'chutput firing across the border', the shortage of water in a shower scene shot Satyajit Ray style, and there was gentle humour in a segment on a fierce fight to win the prize for the deepest pot hole in Delhi's roads. This was humour not of the Jaspal Bhatti school but more akin to  the cartoons of Laxman! 

 

 The DD years have been exhilarating and fun, we dared, we fought, we often won, and we escaped the vigilant eye in the sixties with a play in English on homosexuality camouflaged as"friendship'  "Dostana" style.

 

 

(Jai Chandiram joined Doordarshan as a casual employee in 1961, became a regular employee in 1968 and retired in 1996 at a deputy director general.)

 

 

 

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