Childhood, for those who are on the other side, is less about what happened in a real time and place. It is that place where we all need to go whenever the burden of the years weighs upon our soul. You would think that television is the last place to find that secret key, but revisiting Malgudi Days could change that attitude.
Think of a spot of sunshine that a nine-year-old tries to hold in his fist. Making paper boats and chasing them down the stream, and praying for the hapless ant that sinks along with the boat when a twig crashes into it. Bunking school and getting even with oppressive teachers and neighbourhood bullies. Friendships forged over lime pickle and schemes to get that plaything you desperately want. Think of an adult world that is of little use to you, other than your grandparents, who are the only ones who have the time and stories just for you.
Kannada film and theatre stalwart Shankar Nag’s 1987 adaptation of RK Narayan’s short story collection is perhaps the finest television shows ever. Set in the fictional hill town of Malgudi, the 1986 series featured the nation’s favourite child, Swami (Manjunath), and his rag tag friends who roamed the streets and alleys of the town playing cricket, chasing dreams, myths and gossip. In other words, everything that boys are wont to do.
Malgudi Days was set in pre-Independence India. Boys in billowy and calf-length pants, dhotis, caps and jackets ran amok; missionary schools forced religion down the throats of impressionable kids; Indians were still divided between those who saw merit in the British way of order and discipline and the anarchy seeded by the nationalist leaders.
The sight of a handsome young Girish Karnad playing tennis at the elite Malgudi Club in his dhoti or signing off a stern letter to the Albert Mission headmaster with a “Your most obedient servant” is one such telling commentary on that era. Ultimately, it’s the endless adventure of the boys that make this show so timeless.
Given a chance, we would all love to play with ghosts and capture tyrannical kings on horses, start our own cricket teams and believe that copper coins can turn to silver overnight.
Other than the compelling content, what makes a trip to Malgudi Days worth every minute are the real locations and lovely cinematography. Nag did not crimp his vision and the audacity of his imagination for the small screen. The series was shot in a village in Karnataka’s Shimoga district. The camera glides over rivers, pulls back to show boys skinny dipping, dances with dew drops and melts in the mist.
And then there was the poignant theme music by L Vaidyanathan, comparable to the score of Pather Panchali by Ravi Shankar: simple, evocative, hummable and a classic. (The score in some of the episodes was by Sharang Dev.)
The abiding visual in the series is of Swami running around Malgudi barefoot. There is something about the way he skips over pebbly paths and mossy patches, wades through streams and bowls out his team mates that makes us want to yank off our shoes and, like Narayan’s endearing protagonist, run away from everything that holds us back, towards all that we wish to be.