It was a problem of riches for discerning Doordarshan viewers in the 1980s, with serials covering topics as diverse as science fiction, social satire, mythology and women’s empowerment. With the national broadcaster’s broad canvas and reach, it drew some of the finest storytellers and actors to the medium. Om Puri, Satish Shah, Girish Karnad and Amol Palekar became household names, thanks to the shows helmed by Shyam Benegal, Sai Paranjpye, Kundan Shah and Palekar himself.
Ados Pados (1985) marked theatre and film veteran Sai Paranjpye’s television debut. The endearing series is about a single parent (Amol Palekar) who finds love all over again with his son’s “Teacher didi” (Rameshwari). The sensitive father-son-governess story set in a middle-class housing complex had all the delightful touches one associates with Paranjpye – children named after the vernacular alphabet, and earnest, homely and instantly likable characters who ate from their steel tiffin boxes and played chess with their buddies in their shorts. Watch this episode in which Palekar’s friend and neighbour tries to play cupid between him and Rameshwari, especially since he is aware of his amorous feelings for her.
Palekar, who was already genteel India’s matinee idol by then and hugely popular with young ladies (and their mommies) in the ’70s, was smitten both by the medium and the scope it offered him to experiment with directing and acting.
“This was the period when television had just sneaked into India’s middle-class homes; the novelty of entertainment being available at home, free and without making any effort had hooked the audiences to the ‘idiot box’... Its accessibility was huge; the reach till the last hut in a rural corner of India is what attracted the filmmakers to experiment on the small screen,” the actor and director told Scroll.in.
Recalling his experience of working with Paranjpye, Palekar said, “Sai and I go back a long way! I have always admired her inimitably charming creative expression in theatre, films and television. It was a sheer pleasure to work with her during Ados Pados. I never brought my stardom on to the platter while shooting with any director on any medium. Besides, to have Rameshwari as my co-actor was an additional delight!”
After Ados Pados, Paranjpye went on to make Chhote Bade, while Palekar directed serials for children and older audiences. Kacchi Dhoop was unusual in its format – a musical adaptation of the literary classic Little Women, with three sisters trying to make sense of the world around them.
“Even today there is paucity of good, original programmes for children on Indian television,” Palekar said. “I realised that especially because my daughter Shalmalee was in school then. Hence I wished to target that audience. The form of the screenplay was so challenging to me as a director – the narrative going forward with dialogue gliding into lyrics, then into a song and back to the dialogue was just seamless. Kamlesh Pandey moulded the dialogue and lyrics with simple yet beautiful Hindi in the screenplay written by Chitra Palekar. I chose absolutely fresh faces with no earlier baggage of identity. Once I selected Bhagyashree, Shalmalee and Poornima to play three sisters, everything else fell into its place.”
The series also pioneered the Sunday 10am prime time slot on DD, which was later taken over by Ramayana.
“I feel overwhelmed today when many in their forties thank me for enriching their adolescent lives because of that serial.” Palekar said. “They miss such illuminating experiences on the small screen today.”
Palekar, who returned to the small screen in 2015 as a character in the medical drama Roshni... Ek Nayi Ummid, has directed five serials (including period drama Mrignyanee, featuring Pallavi Joshi and Mohan Bhandari in a surprisingly bold retelling of the love story of a tribal woman and Raja Man Singh) and acted in the 15-minute comedy series Aa Bael Mujhe Maar (about the travails of a man with a foot-in-mouth problem).
He believes that the content on DD was far more meaningful than the “the love-villain-manipulation-violence struck family dramas of today”. Palekar said, “The audience welcomed experimentation then! I guess the commercial equations of advertisements and TRPs etc rule the selection of content today, which is unfortunate.”
Making a strong case for reviving the content of the decade, Palekar said that contemporary audiences would be just as welcoming, but “the yesteryears’ style of narration will not be accepted”.
Blame it on shrinking attention spans. “The fast cutting pace of the present day suits the minimal attention span of the Google generation,” Palekar said. “When only ‘Time pass’ or ‘Chill out’ is equated with entertainment, depth and seriousness of content is taken over by glitter and glamour, communication through social media has replaced the real dialogue... why should we expect anything else but trash? There is also a change in the value system and social ethos in addition to the ideological shift. Only time will tell us whether this atmosphere is for better or worse!”