The state broadcasting network lived up to its inspired name in the 1980s. Not only did Doordarshan mirror the real India with all its warts and wounds, it also opened up a fantastic window to the world of literature.
Between the narratives of ordinary Indians in Hum Log and Buniyaad and the slick Western imports Knight Rider and Street Hawk, someone in Mandi House came up with the idea of adapting literary works into crisp episodic shows for Doordarshan. And the result was fantastic.Doordarshan’s favourite storytellers of the time, including Shyam Benegal (who had already won us over with Yatra) and Basu Chatterjee (a celebrated storyteller of middle-class lives who would give us the decade-defining Rajani), mined a rich treasure trove of short stories from India and around the world in Katha Sagar, Ek Kahaani and Darpan in the mid-1980s.
Katha Sagar took us around the world in 37 stories over 44 episodes. The stories included O Henry’s The Last Leaf, Squaring the Circle and Service of Love and Guy de Maupassant’s The Inn and The Adopted Son. The master writers became household names alongside Chutki and Karamchand. Each episode was helmed by different directors and bore their distinctive style. Anil Ganguly’s was a homegrown take on August Strindberg’s Love and Bread in Roti aur Pyaar, starring Ashok Kumar and Kitu Gidwani.
Benegal took up a lion’s share of the stories. In Kalakriti, his adaptation of O Henry’s The Last Leaf, he played on the charming camaraderie between two brilliant actors, Neena Gupta and Supriya Pathak.
The episodic structure of Katha Sagar and its roster of venerated directors drew in some of the finest actors and future stars of television and Hindi cinema. The list includes Sharmila Tagore (Katherine Mansfield’s A Cup of Tea directed by Benegal), Waheeda Rehman (Maupassant’s The Little Cask by Benegal), Moushumi Chatterjee, Shammi Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Utpal Dutt and Saeed Jaffrey, all of whom added star power to the small screen. Lovely young actresses like Supriya Pathak, Neena Gupta and Kitu Gidwani impressed us with glimpses of the talent that would eventually establish them as powerhouse actors.
Basu Chatterjee took a different approach with Darpan. The master explorer of middle-class lives and the subtle dynamics of couples and families in such films as Piya Ka Ghar, Sara Akash and Rajinigandha looked to local writers for inspiration. Darpan also had a haunting score by his favourite music maker, Salil Chaudhury.
Ek Kahaani was produced by Manju Singh, who acted as Amol Palekar’s charming sister in Golmaal and was a news anchor for Doordarshan Delhi. The serial showcased classic and contemporary Indian literature and explored relationships, philosophy, social issues and folklore. Singh also tried to retain the essence of the stories by casting actors from the region, and introduced the episodes each week.
The popularity of Ek Kahaani promoted Singh to return to Doordarshan after two decades with Phir Ek Kahaani. When asked for the reasons behind the revival, Singh had said in an interview, “There are many viewers who prefer a start-to-finish show to a serial that goes on and on. Of course, today people are hooked to various soaps on satellite channels, but Phir Ek Kahaani will provide a choice with a tinge of nostalgia.”
None of the three literature-inspired shows had extravagant budgets or slick production values. Their popularity is a tribute to the far-reaching vision of the powers that decided what India should watch and the evolved viewership that received its weekly dose of ideas and ethical debates with enthusiasm.