New Delhi: Wanting a Max Factor make-up stick in the 1980s, which is when she started working as a television actress, meant calling her friends abroad and requesting them to send it to her by courier.
Although Joyshree Arora, famous for her role as Bhagwanti in India’s first TV serial Hum Log, could afford foreign brands, the socialist economic policy India followed in those years kept even such small luxuries off the country’s shop shelves.
“And it’s not like shipping was easy, fast or cheap then," says Arora, who is now in her 60s, and appeared in Hum Log at a time when television, restricted to one channel aired by state-run Doordarshan, wasn’t associated with glamour.
When acting in Hum Log, which aired in 156 episodes spread over 17 months, her wardrobe consisted of four saris, which she had to launder repeatedly.
“Life both on-screen and off-screen was so simple," she says.
In Hum Log, Arora played a member of a lower middle-class family struggling to achieve upward mobility and move to the ranks of the middle class.
“Then the difference between lower middle-class, upper middle-class and rich was very distinct, both on TV as well as in the society. Today, there is no middle-class or lower-middle class on TV. Everyone is rich with palatial houses," she says.
Until 1983, television in India focused mainly on education and agriculture, with entertainment restricted to a weekend movie and a weekly half-hour show of film songs.
Hum Log, which started airing in 1984, was India’s first long-running TV series, akin to a soap opera, a genre that’s the most popular on multiple general entertainment channels that proliferated in subsequent decades.
According to a 2010 study, titled Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television by Shoma Munshi, division head social sciences and professor of anthropology at the American University of Kuwait, “More than one-third of India’s billion inhabitants regularly watch Indian television soaps."
Hum Log became famous for its realistic representation of the lives of ordinary Indians of those days. Arora says the country has changed and the aspirations of people are more close to being realized today.
“These days even if you look at slums or jhuggi jhopris, there are many families which have the best of electronic goods available. Lallu (a character in Hum Log) had the dream of going abroad. Now some way or the other, people go," says Arora.
After acting in Hum Log, Arora also acted in drama series Buniyaad.
The soap opera genre really took off on Indian television only after the liberalization of the economy in the early 1990s, first on Doordarshan and later on private channels like Zee, between 1992 and 1996.
“At that time, the TRP (television rating point) business was just not there. Now every soap starts off with a wonderful storyline, but then god knows what happens to it," says Arora, in a reference to how TRPs influence the plot of TV shows.
Doordarshan had a monopoly on Indian television until 1991. With the opening up of the Indian economy, the media landscape changed. Local channels mushroomed and international broadcasters such as Star TV and CNN began beaming in India through satellite.
“The shift from the state-controlled media where Doordarshan was the sole player in the field with a total monopoly to the opening of the media to private channels was accompanied by the shift to the market, and global capital spearheaded and guided by the state," according to a paper titled State, Market and Freedom of Expression: Women and Electronic Media, by feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, published in 2000 in the Economic & Political Weekly.
The proliferation of TV channels in the 1990s meant more opportunities, more work and more money for actors.
Arora now works in shows being aired by several private channels, including Star TV. “Now you have so many channels and so many serials that you are spoilt for choice. I received ₹ 500 per episode when I started. Money is definitely better for the actors," she says.
This is the eighth part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.