From 'Udaan' to 'Anupamaa': The lost years of Indian television

How Hindi general entertainment channels lost the plot and let down their audiences over the years.

Neena Gupta, actress (Photo: AFP)
Neena Gupta, actress (Photo: AFP)

By Kaveree Bamzai

Published: Sat 18 Sep 2021, 1:33 PM

Last updated: Sun 19 Sep 2021, 3:38 PM

In her book Sach Kahun Toh, Indian actor Neena Gupta writes about how her TV show was suddenly taken off the air, after delivering a massive hit in Saans (Star Plus, 1999).

Ekta Kapoor, producer. (Photo/Twitter)

Ekta Kapoor's Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was launched and things changed overnight.

"She had a new format, she tapped into a new kind of market (and audience mindset), and her shows ran every weekday instead of once a week," she writes.

"I was once the darling of Star and now I have been dismissed without even a proper explanation," she adds.

Similar scenes were playing around this time in other boardrooms across Mumbai, with Vinta Nanda's Tara (1993) being taken off the air from Zee TV when Chandraprakash Dwivedi took over.

It was the highest rated show when it was cancelled, along with Raahat, satellite TV's first daily series, Ummeed and V3Plus.

All of them were capturing eyeballs and doing very well.

All of them had strong women protagonists.

Dr Dwivedi told her that her kind of woman ''deserved to be thrown out of the country'' before asking the staff to escort her out of his office. Overnight, her company, Traciname, which she had built brick by brick collapsed.

Did TV let down India, especially Indian women?

Kitu Gidwani was the star of the much-loved Doordarshan soap, Swabhimaan (1995), where she played Svetlana, the mistress of a business tycoon, who dies leaving her to deal with an extended family of fortune-hunters.

She describes the last two decades as the "lost years of television" with executives hiding behind their desks and their bottom lines.

Her argument is clear: why should the middle class which once saw itself reflected on television be deprived of it?

Shobhaa De, writer (Photo/AFP)

Ramesh Sippy, director (Photo/AFP)

Why did progressive shows like Swabhimaan and Shanti: Ek Aurat ki Kahani (Doordarshan, 1994), epics such as Buniyaad (1987) and Tamas (1988), vanish from Indian TV, along with stellar writers like Manohar Shyam Joshi and Shobhaa De, and acclaimed directors such as Ramesh Sippy and Govind Nihalani?

The short answer is numbers. Once Star TV discovered its hit-making formula of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and Kyunki, others followed. TV went in for breadth, not depth as satellite TV increased penetration, and put the woman firmly back in the home.

Domestic politics replaced social causes and saas-bahu relationships replaced all others — romances, friendships, work relationships.

Anil Wanvari, CEO, points out that as TV expands to smaller towns, the notion of regressive changes.

Also, TV is family viewing, whereas OTT is personal viewing.

OTT is primarily being consumed in urban centres; especially the originals.

They can be consumed when one wants as they are videos on demand whereas TV shows are appointment viewing, wherein the content is curated for specific audiences.

Even in OTT, there is growing concern about social and political violence which has led to calls for regulation.

But in TV too, the woman is emerging slowly from the confines of the kitchen, to assert her independence and reclaim her freedom.

A still from TV series Anupamaa (Photo/Twitter)

One of the most popular shows on TV right now is Anupamaa where the protagonist is rebelling against years of being put down by her husband to file for a divorce.

Adapted from Star Jalsha's show Sreemoyee, it features Rupali Ganguly as the eponymous Anupamaa who decides to stand on her own feet by starting her own dance academy and ending up as a restaurant owner, becoming a successful businesswoman even as her husband's career goes down the tubes.

A still from television series Imlie (Photo/Twitter)

Another popular show, also adapted from Bengali, is Imlie (Star Plus, 2020) where a young village woman is forced to marry a young journalist, she takes shelter with one night but then learns what her rights are.

The soap plus reality show formula—represented by the continuing popularity of long running shows such as Crime Patrol (Sony, 2003) and Saavdhaan India (Life OK and Star Bharat, 2012) — seems to be frozen in time on television, from the days of KBC and K-soaps on Star Plus.

Surely, isn't 21 years enough time to make a change?

A still from television series Udaan (Photo/Twitter)

From Udaan (Doordarshan, 1989), where a young woman, Kalyani, fulfills her dream of being an IPS officer; to Tulsi, a priest's daughter who keeps the Virani family together through thick and thin, erring on the side of morality even when it comes to shooting her own son in Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Star Plus, 2000): to Anandi, the child-bride-turned-sarpanch-girl in Balika Vadhu (Colors, 2008): and now Anupamaa (Star Plus, 2020), an older woman who learns the value of economic independence, albeit late in life, Indian television may well come full circle restoring to women the autonomy they once revelled in.

Graphic credit: BARC

Don't hold your breath, though. As Gupta told me when I asked her about remaking Saans now, a TV channel wanted the show but kept asking her to rewrite and focus on the younger generation. "And I kept saying the story is about Priya and her relationship with her former husband, Gautam. But they wouldn't listen."

That twain never did meet.

(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India)

More news from Entertainment