Flashback. A white lace doily is gently taken off a large Weston TV set that looks like a wooden cabinet. Colour bars in black and white. The sad DD signature tune (so well evoked by Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). Krishi Darshan. The news read by that impassive woman with a flower in her hair whom I had a crush on. Secrets of the Sea by Jacques Cousteau. Chitrahaar. The Sunday movie. Hum Log, Buniyaad, Ramayan. The eerily deserted backlanes of Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar on a Sunday morning when Mahabharat was on—from every window, the same soundtrack. It was the single highest watched TV show on the planet at that time.
It was 1989. I had just graduated from film school. My first job was a freelance assignment for a gentleman who called himself the “Father of Indian Television”. He operated from a garage in Greater Kailash. I was to write and direct a documentary for Doordarshan on the Cleaning of the Ganga project in Varanasi. It took me two months of hard labour, for which I was paid Rs 5,000. It was a great business model—for him.
Since nobody cared for quality and I needed the cash, I was churning out two, even three documentaries in a month. Who commissioned them, why, and when, if ever, they aired, remains a mystery.
My other option was to work in a “video magazine”. In a censored, controlled environment, where the “news” on DD was little more than a government press release, Newstrack (from the India Today Group) broke new ground. Every month, they would do hard-hitting stories and circulate them on video cassettes which you could subscribe to, or borrow from the lending library. Here are the stories Newstrack covered in its April 1989 issue (90 minutes): Afghanistan: On the spot report from Kabul on Soviet pullout aftermath; Ram Jethmalani: Ace criminal lawyer cross-examined; Haji Mastan: reveals the mechanics of the underworld; Child Labour: Children burdened with premature adulthood; Zoonie: Muzaffar Ali’s multi-crore film starring Dimple.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
In late 1990, I met Raghav Bahl, who was then co-anchoring Newstrack with Madhu Trehan. He had started Delhi’s first studio using Betacam—the latest video technology at that time. I could work on the new equipment if I got in the business.
I would go door to door to small shops and businesses all over Delhi and make my pitch. The deal was, for a mere fraction of what it would cost them to make an ad for national TV, we would not only write, produce, direct and edit the ad, but also put it on Newstrack. We called it “Classified Video”. Miraculously, we made enough to survive.
Trendsetters: The quirky character from Channel V, Quick Gun Murugun, made his way into a movie in 2009.
Next, we started BITV with a mandate to make a Business-News Video Magazine. We made a terrific pilot episode and just as we were about to launch, Rajiv Gandhi was tragically assassinated in May 1991 and the project was shelved. There followed a frustrating time when we were drawing salaries and doing no work. We were young, hungry, ambitious, impatient and at the prime of our working lives. The Gulf War had already shown us the future. The satellite revolution was at our doorstep.
In sheer desperation we put our life savings into two pilot episodes—India Business Report (a weekly business show), which we sent to the BBC, and The India Show (an entertainment and lifestyle features show), which we sent to Star Plus. Then we sat back, crossed our fingers and prayed very hard.
God was kind. Both were selected from among hundreds of contenders—many of them print media giants. Two little fellows from Delhi were suddenly making India’s first indigenously produced content for satellite television. We were in the game. The new company was named TV18. It was 1993.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The wave of liberalization set off by then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and the good Doctor transformed our lives—as it did many others of our generation. The television scene had opened up like a long dammed river. There was an explosion of channels, shows and formats.
Star Plus, BBC, MTV. Baywatch, Beverly Hills, 90210, Wonder Years on Star Plus. Game shows, talk shows, world-class news from CNN and BBC. It was manna falling from the heavens—literally.
Sales of TV sets boomed. Cable lines criss-crossed the country, looping across trees and over walls, snaking their way into every living room from Ghatkopar to Guwahati. A newly awakened India was awash with new images, new aspirations.
Zee TV, launched by Subhash Chandra in 1992, provided Hindi content. With production values far cheaper than the American and British shows, Zee nevertheless gained the enormous advantage of language—and broke even in the first year of operations. Of the early Zee shows, I remember Saap Seedi, India’s first “reality game show”. Soaps like Banegi Apni Baat and Tara became household names. Daily soaps like Shanti were just starting.
In 1994, MTV parted ways with Star TV and Channel V was born. Quirky, outrageous, and speaking an entirely new language, it quickly defined the youth culture of the age in a way that the “imported” MTV never could. Quick Gun Murugun and Mind It! became a cult. Pepsi’s Yeh dil maange more campaign was a huge catalyst. Bollywood followed. And soon enough, emerging India’s language of choice became Hinglish. It was an enduring change—and we owe it entirely to television.
Meanwhile, as premium programme producers for a content-hungry industry, we were on a roll. We shifted offices every year. At one point we had a sign in our lobby that said “Trespassers will be Recruited!”
We went from two people to 200 in less than three years. We had shows on every channel in every conceivable genre. We discovered Cyrus Broacha and launched him on a show called MTV-U. We did India’s first glamorous talk show Nikki Tonight. We did India’s first music countdown show, Public Demand. We did Bhanwar—a highly acclaimed docu-drama series. We did good shows and bad shows. We were on a treadmill. We had to run just to stay where we were.
Camera attendants became cameramen in less than a year. Anybody who could handle a machine became an editor. Scripts were written and rewritten in one hour. There was always a queue for edit machines and shooting units and there were many sleepless nights as an army of youngsters competed against each other to meet impossible deadlines and internal quality controls.
While all this sounded good, the reality was a little different. Channels held up payments for six months and more. As a capital- and cash-hungry business we were feeling the pinch. Intense competition was driving down prices. Good people were hard to find, and harder to keep. We were producing shows that earned us a small margin—and we did not own the rights to any of our shows. We had to change the business model.
The transformation from a content producer to a broadcaster is as painful and rewarding as the metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly. We were tiny cogs only dimly aware of the massive global mergers and acquisitions that affected our fate. Our long and fruitful relationship with the BBC got us a contract for a daily show with Asia Business News (ABN) with whom we founded a joint venture but which was soon taken over by CNBC. Once again, our lives hung on a fine thread. Once again, the gods were kind and we got the contract.
CNBC-TV18 was launched from a makeshift studio in a hired auditorium where “runners” on beaten-up Bajaj scooters would ferry tapes every half-hour to the nearby VSNL headquarters for uplink—to give the appearance of it being “live”.
In 2000 we did a hugely successful IPO that gave us wings. It was a fitting finale to a momentous decade.
So what was the enduring contribution of TV in the 1990s? It gave India new dreams and aspirations. It gave us a new language. And it created a whole new industry.
Between then and now TV has become overhyped, clichéd, regressive, aggressive, protectionist, progressive, investigative, escapist. It corrupts, corrodes and deifies. It enables, enlightens and entertains. It reflects who we are and what we are becoming.
Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri (or RayC as he is popularly known) is co-founder and executive director of Network18. He is currently working on his first feature film.
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