India: TV at the Crossroads

Article excerpt

WHEN the decision to introduce television to India was taken in 1958, there were many who questioned it. Can we afford it? asked some. Why have television when we don't have enough food, clothing and shelter? Television will degenerate into entertainment and we can do without that, said the puritans. Who will watch television? others asked. If, as intended, it is going to be purely educational, then those who can afford a set won't watch and those for whom it is designed will not have access to it.

Despite the controversy, television broadcasting began in 1959. It was a modest beginning--there was one little studio, from which an hour of programmes was transmitted twice a week. There were farm programmes for rural audiences, folk dancing and music, programmes of practical interest to women, the occasional short play telecast live. It was all very basic and simple and so it remained for several years. Gradually the hours of transmission were increased, but technical improvements were very slow in coming. The problem was that television was treated by the government as an extension of radio, which had been well established for decades. For a long time it was conceived of as sound accompanied by elementary black and white pictures. One decision stood unchanged through all the years: there would be no imported programmes, we would consume our own images.

The transformation came in 1982, when the Asian Games were held in Delhi. The then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Vasant Sathe, was determined that the coverage of the games should be of international quality. A crash training programme was launched for technicians, and the major decision was made to shift to colour. Controversy erupted again. Why should we spend so much on colour? It was pandering to pressure from urban television owners who wanted entertainment. What about education? the purists asked. Sport is educational, came the reply. The same questions that had been heard twenty years before were asked again. But the situation had changed, economically and technically. Values too had changed.

The arguments for and against colour continued for many months. Educational transmissions had been started in the afternoons, mainly of science programmes for children. These, said the authorities, would be much more effective in colour, easier to understand and a more attractive proposition for young viewers. Audiences were accustomed to colour because of the cinema. Technocrats and many media commentators also felt that it was time we caught up with advancing technology. Black and white was being phased out all over the world. Agreements were made with Japan, Korea and Germany for thousands of TV sets to be supplied in time for the Asian Games, and import restrictions were lifted for a specific period to enable people to bring colour television sets into the country. Colour television sets poured in.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Another development was taking place simultaneously. The Minister had been struck by the use Mexico had made of soap operas to spread developmental messages, and a team of experts was sent there to find out why this operation had been so successful. Following the Mexican trip, the idea for a soap opera called Hum Log ("People like Us") was developed in collaboration with a well-known writer named Manohar Sham Joshi and a little-known feature film director, P. Kumar Vasudev. Starting from the romantic yearnings of a modest young man from a poor family for the beautiful and spoilt daughter of a wealthy widower, it turned into the epic story of two families, with sub-plots involving brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents. The young man ends up working for the girl's father who, it turns out later, is a big-time smuggler. The daughter marries a prince of doubtful antecedents who is later involved in getting her father murdered. The prince is finally unmasked and killed. Throughout the story, the young man's devotion does not waver. …