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Leaving the Doordarshan era behind

Watching foreign TV in India in the Nineties meant being exposed to decades of Western pop culture, and not just the latest shows

The old prime-time serials were simpler in structure.
The old prime-time serials were simpler in structure.

Long-time movie buffs can get spooked when the stars they grew up with behave like Dorian Grays, unwilling to age normally. If you were a timid 12-year-old watching Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989 and thinking of Salman Khan as a full-formed adult, it feels odd, three decades later, to see the same man playing buff young heroes while your middle-aged bones creak as you reach for the remote.

With television actors, the ageing process is more relatable because of the grounded, real-time nature of the medium. But it can be unsettling in other ways. Last month, I began binge-watching the new show Riverdale—a dark, witty, sometimes Gothic take on the sweet world of Archie comics—with almost no prior information about the cast. Then Luke Perry shuffled into the frame.

Luke Perry! Beverly Hills, 90210’s too-cool-for-school Dylan McKay—a lean, mean teen icon from another epoch—now playing Archie Andrews’ dad, grizzled and affectionate and full of senior-citizen wisdom. The question that leapt to my mind wasn’t just “Gosh, how old is this guy now?" but also “How old am I?" And: “Has it already been a quarter of a century since THAT happened?"

“That" being the heady, life-changing moment when satellite TV came to town.

We got our cable connection (the term sounds nearly as quaint now as “trunk call") 25 years ago, in early 1992. New addictions formed each day; one viewing experience opened doors to others; shedding our soft-socialist skins for unapologetic consumerism meant becoming impatient and grasping, less willing to wait. Looking through my 1992-96 diaries, I’m surprised by how much TV I watched (and this was mainly American TV, with a few exceptions such as the addictive British game show The Crystal Maze)—everything from prime-time shows to daytime soaps. Not that those categories meant much to us in India: The Bold And The Beautiful and Santa Barbara were granted privileged night-time slots since they had the highest ratings among Indian viewers; meanwhile, celebrated old Emmy-winners like M*A*S*H, which had been weekly (and seasonal) shows in the US, came to us daily.

Compared to the multilayered narratives of today’s shows like Breaking Bad—with lengthy arcs conceptualized well in advance—the old prime-time serials were simpler in structure; episodes often worked as stand-alones, anchored by familiar characters, and this made them comforting and easy to absorb. Among other things, we learnt that a tender coming-of-age tale could be built around one of the most turbulent periods in a country’s history (The Wonder Years), that humour and tragedy could play musical chairs in hospitals (St Elsewhere), newspaper offices (Lou Grant) and courtrooms (L.A. Law), that a prim little town could be a battleground for hot-button subjects like the ethics of euthanasia (Picket Fences), that a 14-year-old could become a doctor (Doogie Howser, M.D.), and that lifeguards, even the hot ones, took their work as seriously as office-goers in less glamorous professions (Baywatch).

Today’s young viewers, who take instant access to global pop culture for granted, may have trouble grasping that in satellite TV’s first few years, we lived in a time warp. Our early/mid-1990s experience included a few bona-fide “1990s shows" such as NYPD Blue, but it was mainly about first-time exposure to much older television—which we were just as excited about (it was often easier for middle-class Indians to relate to the older offerings anyway: consider Bewitched, originally telecast in the US between 1964-72, and set in a conservative suburban world where a woman juggles magic powers with her many duties as a housewife). Occasionally, it felt like we were inhabiting two-three time periods at once: Around the same time that I saw Bruce Willis as Butch the boxer, intoning “Zed’s dead, baby" in Pulp Fiction on video-cassette, I could see a younger, hipper, more verbose version of Willis on TV, in his star-making Moonlighting.

Also walking the line between the old and the new was MTV. Crushes on VJs like Nonie became catalysts for becoming interested in the music—and the visuals. I would sit by our VCR, finger poised over the recording button, thrilled when the song that came on turned out to be by a favourite band like the Pet Shop Boys or R.E.M. And even more thrilled when the video was a masterpiece of condensed storytelling: the stop-motion animation of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, the dreamlike rotoscoping in A-Ha’s Take On Me, the operatic melodrama of Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything For Love.

Speaking with hindsight as a professional critic, this intense TV-watching period forever blurred my ideas about high and low art. It was possible, I learnt, to be stimulated to thought even by something as plebeian as a daily soap: I won’t provide an extended account of my love affair with Santa Barbara here, but my mother and I fell into a ritual of watching it together every night, discussing characters and their motivations and the politics of issues such as rape—and I maintain that some of the writing and acting was of a surprisingly high standard for the medium. Even as an adult, I have visited the show’s fan sites and stalked one of my favourite actors on Facebook.

I still have my dusty video-cassettes too, with the songs and cherished episodes on them. Throwing them away would be like denying the many effects of the past: the cerebral stimulation as well as the disreputable memories, such as the enormous grin on the face of a Baywatch-loving classmate when we went for the action film Under Siege and Erika Eleniak emerged from a cake and took off her top.

No one who didn’t live through the period can know what a rich stew of experiences this was, and how startling it was for us Doordarshan-era waifs to realize that we had been hungry for so long.

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