Doordarshan broke regional barriers and united India
Audiences from across the country ended up becoming a part of a shared national experience.
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Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a small town in Maharashtra, an Andhraite boy was humming a Bengali song during the school assembly. Like thousands of Indian children, this boy, yours truly, used to participate in what was called "regional" song ritualistically every morning.
Most of us learnt Marathi, Bangla, Malayalam, Tamil and Assamese songs phonetically and even though one barely understood what the words conveyed or one knew what they meant. While this went on for five days a week, the weekends meant a different kind of ritual when a part of the regional song experience was repeated during the regional language film shown on Doordarshan (DD) on Sunday afternoons or late nights.
Like the school assembly that introduced many children to different Indian languages, the regional film slot on DD initiated millions of Indians to the different cinemas of India.
In a strange combination of limited access to cinema and an impressionable age for the ones who grew up in the 1980s and perhaps up until the mid-1990s the regional cinema slot on DD was an unparalleled portal that opened up new worlds.
Curiously enough this was also one of the very few outlets that parents would never feel the need to chaperone as the films were shown at particular time slots depending on their content. The ones that were slightly violent or were perhaps thematically more suited for a grown up audience were telecast at night on the weekends.Nayakan (1987)
Usually, the films shown would be the ones that won National Awards and this was perhaps one of the first platforms where the brilliance of a Mani Ratnam, an Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a Satyajit Ray, and a Jahnu Barua to name a few was revealed beyond their usual audience.
Shown with English subtitles, the films, intriguingly enough were at times also devoid of any breaks, which was a departure from the Hindi films telecast on Saturday evenings made them appear more, for the want of a better expression, artistic. If you ever wondered why the 1980s' generation hailed Mani Ratnam as a genius or found Mohanlal and Mammootty far better actors than the rest then you could credit DD’s regional cinema slot to a great extent.
One of the biggest reasons why DD managed to have an impact on the young ones in the 1980s was the abject lack of alternatives when it came to television.
Barring the towns that were geographically closer to Pakistan or Bangladesh border where they the antiquated television antennas would catch their signals and one could enjoy Dhoop Kinare or Bakhra Kishton Pe or a Runa Laila performance depending on where you were based, DD was the only source of entertainment.
In the absence of any other platform, DD became the common carrier and as a result viewers from across India ended up becoming a part of a shared national experience.
The foundation that DD laid was much like the impact that TV signals had in the 1950s' US where “the last vestiges of isolation” were shattered. Yet today hundreds of regional channels beaming thousands of hours of local fare have no takers beyond those who understand the language.
What could be the reason for this?
Could it as simple as the missing English subtitles that made you understand what the images meant? Growing up in Agra in the 1980s and 1990s filmmaker Atul Sabharwal (Aurangzeb, 2013) might not have experienced seminal classics like Nayakan (1987), Agni Natchathiram (1988) and Thevar Magan (1992) at an young age had it not been for Doordarshan and its Sunday afternoon or late night slot.Thithi (2016)
These were the films that shaped the then aspiring filmmaker’s consciousness and Sabharwal believes that in this day and age films like Thithi (2015) or Court (2014) would have the same impact on some young boy or girl watching them in far-flung hinterlands of India provided they understood what was happening. The big-ticket releases now come subtitled to cinemas in metros, but what about places that are not fashionable or commercially viable to theatrically release a Thithi or Court or Sairat (2016), the Nagraj Manjule directed Marathi blockbuster that has been critically acclaimed as well.
Dubbed versions of regional films especially Tamil and Telugu first appeared following the successful Hindi debuts of southern stars such as Kamal Haasan and Nagarjuna in the 1980s and then finally become a viable business proposition post-Roja (1992). Now, they are a staple when it comes to some movie channels on television but it is this writer’s opinion that much of the magic is lost in translation. It is hard to imagine that any television channel would have the same unifying quality that Doordarshan once enjoyed.
Perhaps access has become so easy now and in the absence of the physical existence of film on a television screen in the truest sense of the word, does one really need an umbrella like DD? Maybe not. But then it was not just about the subtitled movies really. It is about someone in Himachal Pradesh getting to know more about someone in Kerala without stepping out of their living room and vice versa. It was about singing songs that you were never taught and in the process becoming one with someone across the length and breadth of India.