A few months ago, a photograph taken in 2003 featuring four former news presenters suddenly went viral. All four of them belonged to a generation of female newsreaders from the 1970s, before the era of cable television. One of the posts on Facebook read: “Before Arnab Goswamis and Rahul Shivshankars turned TV studios into wrestling rings with pre-decided results, there were a few women with amazing grace. Can you name them?”
Gitanjali Aiyar, Minu Talwar, Neethi Ravindran and Salma Sultan, the four women in the photograph, had never imagined that a casual picture from a friend’s wedding would suddenly generate such nostalgia 14 years later.
“I don’t understand it all,” said Ravindran. “This picture was taken by my husband at Gitanjali’s [Aiyar] child’s wedding. It was one of those old cameras and the photograph even has a date on it. I put it on Facebook and captioned it ‘Remembering...’ I knew that a few people took it and passed it around. But today, every person I meet is saying they’ve seen this picture.”
Baffled yet pleasantly surprised, Ravindran soon realised that like her, for many, the photograph was a gateway to a more serene time on television news. “Many people have told me that this photograph brings back wonderful memories of watching us present the news...that we all had our own special character and style of presenting,” she said. “These days, they say everyone on the news is shouting at them.”
The new stars
In the late 1960s the group of young women and some men had become synonymous with television news. Among them were Sultan, Ravindran, Rini Simon, Aiyar, Usha Albuquerque, Minu, Manjari Joshi, Sarla Maheshwari, Tejeshwar Singh, JB Raman, Ramu Damodaran and Sunit Tandon.
Every night at 9 pm on Doordarshan, the television wing of Prasar Bharati, the state-owned public broadcaster, a female anchor and a male anchor (or occasionally, two female anchors) would deliver the news of the day in impeccable English, in a calm tone without fiery graphics or wild accusations.
“Until then, the audience had been living on ‘Chitrahaar’ [a popular programme featuring the latest hits from the Hindi film industry] and ‘Krishi Darshan’ [a show that gave news and information related to agriculture] and films,” said Simon. “So when we arrived, we were these incredible, unimaginable superhumans at 9 pm.”
In a pre-social media era, these newscasters were akin to film stars, dressed in crisp saris and with their hair and make-up done up elegantly.
“People’s imagination ran wild guessing what our lives were like, who we were, who we were married to,” said Simon. “There were stories that Neethi and I are sisters married to a Hindu and a Christian, but I was not even married at that time. There would be competitions to guess the sari colours and whether we repeated our saris. Questions like ‘How can they have so many saris?’ and whether our saris were sponsored by someone would be regularly asked.”
It was also a time when watching the Doordarshan news was considered necessary to improve one’s English. Aiyar remembers receiving letters that would commend her enunciation or how she read the news.
“They would also thrust upon us a lot of power which we clearly didn’t have,” said Aiyar. “Once a man came and rang the doorbell to ask me to do something about bringing electricity to the chawl he was living in. Another time, an auto driver in Dehradun would not take any money after dropping me to the school where my son was studying. Many felt we were doing a lot for the nation. It was all very touching.”
Making it to the news
Before they became newsreaders on Doordarshan, Ravindran, Aiyar and Simon had worked at the All India Radio. “It had been my ambition since I was a six-year-old to read the news on the radio,” said Aiyar. “As soon as I finished college, I applied to the All India Radio and got selected there as an announcer.” In 1976, Aiyar and others were asked if they would like to audition to read the news for Doordarshan. Aiyar applied and got selected almost immediately. In 1978, when All India Radio and Doordarshan became separate organisations, Aiyar chose to remain with Doordarshan.
Ravindran too had been reading the news on radio for a while before she walked to Parliament Street one day and entered the Doordarshan office. She wasn’t applying to be a newsreader. “I went to the director and said I’m interested in making some films,” said Ravindran. “I had worked for the Films Division [a production house belonging to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting] and had written and voiced a few commentaries for them too. He asked me to give him a few ideas. I did and left. Soon, I got a call asking if I’d audition for reading the news on Doordarshan. It was completely unexpected.” She auditioned but before she learnt the results, she was called to the studio to read the news. “It was on the night of Diwali in 1976,” she said. “I suppose a presenter must have cancelled.”
Simon and Ravindran were family friends. Even though Simon had not watched Ravindran on television while growing up, she was familiar with her work. “My journey, in a sense, was premeditated,” said Simon. “My father was very keen that I should be well-spoken and ensured that I had access to a teacher who could teach the correct pronunciation and enunciation.”
When she was in school, Vasant Sathe, the Minster of Information and Broadcasting at the time, heard Simon at the Shankar International Speaking Competition and felt that she had a voice meant for radio. Sathe signalled to the radio crew covering the event, and told them to ensure that Simon got her chance to be on air.
Simon went on to become the voice that heralded many important moments in the country’s history: the Asian Games of 1982, Films Division documentaries, the Non-Aligned Movement summit in 1983, and live shows such as those for the Indian Council of Cultural Research. “Eventually, I gained the confidence to say that I wanted to be on television,” she said. “I walked across to Doordarshan and asked if I could audition. They said I had to be a graduate. Two years, later in 1984, I applied and got selected.”
Nerve center of news
The newsroom back then was nothing like the well-equipped, technology-driven news studios of today. “We switched to colour only in 1983,” said Aiyar. “We didn’t have teleprompters. There was someone who was manually rolling the script for us. It was very difficult to look at the camera and look down at what you were reading all at the same time. We also had to be agile at all times because a person standing near the camera would suddenly gesture and ask you to go faster or slower depending on what was appropriate.”
When urgent and important news broke, a man would run from the editor’s table with a sheet of paper and put it in front of the anchor. “We had to make sense of it,” said Simon. “I may not even have known what he was talking about or the place where the news was from. This would all be happening live under harsh studio lights. There was no opportunity to clear one’s throat or make any facial expressions.”
“I remember when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi lost the election, the teleprompter had no mention of it at all,” said Ravindran. “We all knew the outcome of the election though. I took a sheet of paper and wrote asking why we weren’t mentioning it on our bulletin. The guy in front of me put his hands over his ears making the gesture that he hadn’t heard me. They didn’t allow us to say it until the next day.”
In the government-owned newsroom, there were also a lot of restrictions on newscasters. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Ravindran was again called into the newsroom. “It was only by 6 in the evening that we were allowed to make the announcement that she had been killed,” she recalled. “The British Broadcasting Corporation had done it long ago.”
“Television was even more closely monitored then because you had visuals with it,” said Simon. “There was an unspoken ethic that you could not show your bias or your political leanings. If a newsreader misbehaved, or changed the meaning of a sentence, he or she would be hauled up and depending on the gravity of the mistake, you would be yanked off or given a lower bulletin.”
Simon was once blacklisted from Doordarshan news. “I was asked by an advertising agency to appear as a newsreader for a particular advertisement for Catch Salt,” she said, recalling the incident. “Those days, we had VHS Tapes [for the news] and these advertisements were inserted in them. So, here I was representing a newsreader and saying my lines ‘Good Evening, we have the latest Catch Salt being launched’…The objection that Doordarshan had was not to me being in the advertisement, but the advertising agency had used the Doordarshan logo and the signature tune with the advertisement, so for many, it would have looked like a proper news bulletin. Both the advertising agency and I got yanked off Doordarshan.” Finally Simon had to explain that she had nothing to do with the post-production of the advertisement and only then was she put back on the news.
The news tonight
What do they feel when they watch the news today?
“There is a lot more grilling of ministers and politicians which is a good thing because in our time, that could never have happened,” said Aiyar.
“They [news anchors today] have the luxury of the best technology at their disposal and a freer environment,” added Ravindran. “But I don’t enjoy watching the news as much. I understand the competition is tremendous. But why should it lead to aggression? At the moment there seems to be a war going on between channels and as a viewer I don’t think I’m interested in that. I just want to see what’s going on in the world.”
Simon said she is tempted to get back into the news cycle and feels that there is genuine appreciation of talent today, but is also put off by the aggression on air. “It actually makes me want to switch the news off,” she said. “I know for sure that there can be dignified and good newsrooms which are sane and not so over the top. News is actually something that is sacred.”
Opinions are not a bad idea, Ravindran agreed, but to use them to rile people up is not something I approve of. “We are sitting with our television sets in our bedrooms and our drawing rooms – it is an intimate space. You don’t need to shout at people. As an anchor, you have to like your audience and you cannot talk down to them. They are not kids or inferior in any way.”
“Doordarshan, whatever you may say are its problems, gave you the complete news,” added Simon. “It covered the length and breadth of the country – you got the news from Tripura, from Kerala, from Punjab, from all the corners of the country. Today, very few channels are able to give you the complete picture. You have two stories that are discussed and that’s that. So you are actually quite ill-informed.”