If you were to pick two shows that defined Doordarshan in the 1980s, they would most certainly be Hum Log and Buniyaad. Both serials were about the Great Indian Family, but in its scope, writing and emotional appeal, Buniyaad was the Mahabharat to Hum Log’s Ramayana.
Hum Log came first. By the end of July 1984, middle India was hooked on to the life and times of the luckless and lustreless family led by Basesar Ram (Vinod Nagpal). The characters of Hum Log included subservient and self-sacrificing women led by Bhagwanti (Jayshree Arora), Basesar’s wife, and unemployed young men nurturing audacious dreams. Its themes covered the thwarting of ambition due to lack of encouragement and resources and dowry. More than 40,000 letters were posted to the makers of the 157-episode series, which was written by the eminent Hindi novelist Manohar Shyam Joshi and directed by P Kumar Vasudev. Viewers laughed and wept with the characters with whom they identified completely.
Only seven years later, the families that were shedding copious tears over Bhagwanti’s silent and endless suffering were discussing incest and adultery with the Forresters in The Bold and the Beautiful and gaping at endless legs between satin sheets. Which could explain why a rerun of Hum Log that was compressed into 52 episodes and telecast in 2000 wasn’t half as successful.
Hum Log was inspired by Information and Broadcast Minister Vasant Sathe’s trip to Mexico, where he watched a popular television show that educated as well as entertained. Every episode ended with the affable actor Ashok Kumar in a sharp suit and dark glasses explaining the theme of the day and prodding viewers to think about what they had just watched. The show did generate progressive conversations about the empowerment of women, education and equal opportunities, but it also evoked a complete sense of identification with its pitiable characters that ultimately proved stifling both on and off the screen. The actors – most of them from the Delhi theatre scene – were mobbed on the streets and received marriage proposals. Others like Seema Bhargava (Gunvanti, the eldest daughter) were so stuck in their self-sacrificing moulds that their television careers nearly died with the show.
Divya Seth, as the attractive middle daughter Rupvanti who dreams of a film career, was suitably chastised and stripped of her ambition – just the viewers wanted it to be. There was no end to Bhagwanti’s suffering because that’s how the audiences wanted to see her. And before we blame Ekta Kapoor for unleashing the saas-bahu scourge on television, let’s give credit where it is due – the fantastic Sushma Seth, who plays the sharp-tongued and hard-to-please matriarch with a soft corner for Rupvanti and contempt for her servile daughter-in-law Bhagwanti. The conflicts between the women were mostly one-sided and without the claps of thunder and dramatic crash zooms that was de rigeur two decades later.
Hum Log whetted the appetite for more family sagas – and in 1986, there was another epic written by Manohar Shyam Joshi on the small screen. Buniyaad was directed by Ramesh Sippy and was, in many ways, an improvement on its predecessor. The series was better filmed – the sets and framing were superior and realistic – and the story of several generations of a Pakistani Hindu family that migrated to India during the Partition was better fleshed out. One reason could be the fact that Sippy’s family had moved from Karachi to Mumbai in 1948, and the director identified closely with the material. The agony of Haveli Ram (Alok Nath), who grapples with his decision to leave behind his ancestral home, is chillingly real.
The ensemble cast featured some of the finest actors of the day – Anita Kanwar, Kanwaljeet Singh, Mazhar Khan, Soni Razdan and Kiran Juneja. The masterful writing and robust production not only recreated the pre-Independence-era mansions and later the refugee camps and middle-class homes, it also straddled generations and mirrored their changing worldviews brilliantly.
If Hum Log expanded the audience for Indian television, Buniyaad owned it. The Partition had been fruitfully explored by literature but except for stray instances on the screen (Dharamputra, Garm Hava), the historical tragedy hadn’t been adequately explored in popular culture. The unrelentingly dark Tamas would arrive two years after Buniyaad went on air.
Wisely enough, the makers of Buniyaad didn’t attempt to re-interpret the classic. It would have been sacrilege.