It has been 27 years since Udaan was first telecast on Doordarshan. That no other female character since then has managed to match up to the charisma of Kalyani Singh says as much about the serial’s impact as it does about television’s regressive turn.

The 30-episode series was based on the life of Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya, the country’s first female Director General of Police and the second Indian Police Service officer after Kiran Bedi. Bhattacharya was played by her sister, Kavita Chaudhary, who wrote and directed the series.

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Udaan was a rage for all the right reasons. Here was a serial that your parents actually wanted you to watch in the days when TV-watching time was carefully rationed. There was something epic, almost reminiscent of Mother India, in the struggles of a man with a wife and two children who walks out of his misogynistic father’s mansion to give flight to his daughter’s dreams. But it was Kalyani’s journey – from being heartbroken at being ill-treated by her grandfather to fighting for her father’s dignity and winning – that resonated deeply with audiences.

Udaan was possibly one of DD’s finest productions. Every scene was carefully crafted. From the locations to sets, the lush fields to the middle-class homes and police chowkies, everything was as real as the performances. Playing her sister in the show, Kavita Chaudhary poured her heart into the role of Kalyani. And it showed.

Do check out the sequence in which Kalyani, who is running pillar to post to get justice for her father who has been assaulted over a property dispute, looks admiringly at a woman Indian Administrative Service officer, who commands tremendous respect from the men who are her peers and juniors.

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Kalyani later confesses to her family that she has had enough of being tossed around like an “aam admi”. She wants to be special and regain honour for her family and herself. She vows to return to the same places – the police stations, the court rooms and the minister’s offices, but as a person of significance and power.

Later, after impressing her seniors with her sincerity and determination, Kalyani struts through that same corridor as though she owns it. When men rise up to salute her, Kalyani suppresses a smile, the secret of which is yielded to the audiences that are by now rooting wildly for their favourite icon.

Udaan was many things all at once. It was the real-life story of a woman who had broken the toughest glass ceilings and of a charming little girl in braids who fights gender discrimination both blatant and insidious and grows up to be a woman of true grit. It was about parents who sacrificed their creature comforts and happily embraced hardships to build a future for their daughter. And it was also about values that middle-class India was fiercely proud of but was struggling to hold on to in the 1980s. It was a story of familial bonds and corrupt systems, of personal triumph and resilience.

That was the power of Udaan. It made you laugh and cry with the protagonist without the high-pitched histrionics, sound effects and visual wizardry that is de rigueur.

Udaan’s phenomenal success rode on the slender but strong shoulders of its lead actress, who rocked the khaki uniform. But it also soared on the back of some excellent writing. The dialogue, even at its most quotidian, had a lyrical ring to it and carried significant heft. When Kalyani’s mother speaks of being embarrassed at welcoming her wealthy sister-in-law at their decrepit home, her husband says, “Those who wish to meet us because of where we live can stay away. Those wish to meet us because of who we are, are always welcome.”

Udaan was not just about Kalyani’s ambition. It also featured Shekhar Kapur as an IAS officer and her love interest. In a patriarchal society, here was a man who treated her as an equal and sent many impressionable young women into a swoon when he proposed to her in a jeep.

There have been several attempts at creating similar characters inspired by exemplary stories of women achievers. The upcoming Prakash Jha film Jai Gangaajal, starring Priyanka Chopra as police officer Abha Mathur is only the latest example. For the generation that is unfamiliar with Kalyani Singh, Abha Mathur may be crowned with labels such as “empowering” and “fierce”. Will the character’s reel journey evoke the same kind of emotions as Kalyani Singh’s? Despite all the progress made since 1989, there has been little or no change in what women are fighting for and against.
For some of the TV serials from the 1980s that have been featured in The DD Files, see here, here and here.