Indian children are spoilt for choice on television. Over 19 channels from around the world cater to this demographic. This wasn’t the case in the 1970s, when television meant only one channel: the state-run Doordarshan. A handful of shows existed for young viewers, and the most popular one, Magic Lamp, was helmed by Shukla Das.
Das had made a dozen-odd short films for the WGTV television network in Georgia in the United States of America, which made her the ideal candidate to capture the imagination of the Indian child for Doordarshan. Within a few months after her appointment in 1971, Das directed such acclaimed series as Young World, Rich Heritage and Spotlight for young audiences. In 1974, the director of the Mumbai television station, VS Shastri, asked Das to take charge of a flagging children’s show called Magic Lamp and turn it around.
The programme included a puppet and a compere and invited school children to display their talents on air. Shukla was American in her sensibilities, yet Indian at heart. She dismissed the format as “a silly playground for performing monkeys” and envisaged a show that could “successfully create a world for the Indian child”. Within four months, Das revamped Magic Lamp, introducing new puppets, storylines and animated vignettes. Magic Lamp also gave rise to over 3,000 children-only clubs in Mumbai. Das ran the series for five years, and after her exit, the show went off air. Das went on to become the Senior Vice President Programming for the Star and Sony channels and an award-winning documentary filmmaker, but Magic Lamp remains closest to her heart. In an interview with Scroll.in, 70 year-old Das shares her memories of Magic Lamp and does not mince words about the failure on Doordarshan’s part to sustain her vision.
‘Magic Lamp’ had an edge over other shows that were aired on Doordarshan, in the sense that they didn’t pander to young audiences.
I hate those shows where the compere goes “Bachcheee!” or “Childrennn!” in a fake, singsong manner. The other shows that appeared on Doordarshan in Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi did exactly that. But all the children on my show had names and their individualities were highly respected.
How did you conceptualise the show? It has often been compared to ‘Sesame Street’, right?
Yes, Sesame Street did inspire the look of the Magic Lamp puppets. Allu, Magic Lamp’s protagonist, was modelled on Sesame Street’s Ernie. But the rest was completely original. We didn’t teach children letters, numbers and other basic stuff. And we catered mainly to English-speaking urban children.
Our show had two puppet characters in the beginning – Allu and Phullu. Allu represented the child, a dreamer, very bumptious, and eager to learn while ready to make mistakes. Phullu was his female counterpart. We gave both different star signs and corresponding personalities: Phullu was wiser but got very distressed when things went awry.
Both characters lived in an apple house. This segment was all about conceptual learning. But it was inadequate to limit their interactions to the home, and so we brought in a new segment called Sing Along. We had a 15 year-old girl called Barbara tune the songs, and children would sing them.
Then there was Halla Gulla Path Shala, to improve motor and cognitive skills. Here, either Allu or his sidekick Champakali taught science and do-it-yourself tricks to children or adults.
In 1977, we introduced Star Quiz, in which three puppets were the stars and there were parent-child teams as participants. The child’s question were asked to the parent, while the parent’s to the child. And the child ended up winning every time.
You also ran the Panna clubs for children across Mumbai.
We had over 3,000 children-only clubs all over Mumbai, and mind you, none of them were school-based. We created a separate show that was run by a frog puppet we imported from Russia called Panna, and he hosted an activity every second month and invited these clubs to participate. We’ve had some purely altruistic events like Sell Cards for the Blind and Raise Money for the Specially Abled, and some that simply engaged the child, like the athletic meets. This was our coup at instilling team spirit and integrating the child with the world outside.
Who were your helping hands in executing such an ambitious project?
We got a magnate like Ronnie Screwvala on board. Of course, back then, he was Dr Ronnie, a character on our show. He also voiced and operated a monster puppet, which represented the child’s fears.
My main asset was Mohini Vasvani, the show’s scriptwriter. She was excellent. We’d have the scripts ready by Saturday, call the children for rehearsals, and record by Sunday morning. Our main constraint was that none of us was formally trained in rod puppetry, and with the Rs 3,000 budget limit per episode, we couldn’t have prototypes of our puppets that could be remodelled according to the scenario, unlike Sesame Street. Everyone was self-taught, and so the execution wasn’t as polished as we would’ve wanted it to be.
Our short animation sequence titled Monu the Menace was basic cell animation. But kids loved it all because they deeply identified with our characters.
Your show went the extra mile in establishing a connection with children.
Of course. I recalled this incident when we received this heart-warming letter from one of the clubs that had suddenly become dormant. The president of the club had passed away and had told the vice-president before her death that the club must continue. But the girl was having troubles in bringing the club together, so some of our parent-helpers visited them and counselled the team. Children would visit the set at 1am in the morning just to celebrate the characters’ birthdays!
And of course, the letters – 3,000 a week! Thankfully some parents volunteered to read them all. We created an eight-foot muppet called Sloppy the Octopus just to deliver some of these letters on the show and have them read out.
Yet, ‘Magic Lamp’ disappeared from television after 1979. And there is no archival footage of the show either.
You wouldn’t find any archival footage because Doordarshan made no effort to transfer and preserve it. Julian Scott from Britannia had proposed music CDs of the original compositions from Magic Lamp. But the Director General, PV Krishnamoorthy, flatly refused. He simply asked us to approach DAVP [Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity]. And doing so would mean nothing but bad prints and no quality control.
Doordarshan recognised Magic Lamp as a very good show, but that’s that. Their bureaucrats had no sense of programming. They had no understanding of what they had just done. After I left Doordarshan, no one could continue it. And nothing of the show remains except some photos.
Did you ever get back to children’s programming?
I did work on a horrible show called Junglee Toofan Tyre Puncture at Ronnie’s behest. The show was similarly colourful, but so verbose! And Ronnie and I fell out and are still not in friendly terms because of the show’s failure.
I briefly worked on another show with Achyut Vaze called Hot Spotters. But just when we were filming the first episode, I got the job as Senior Vice President at Sony. Achyut encouraged me not to let go of that. Without my involvement, the show fizzed out.
What is the best compliment you’ve received about ‘Magic Lamp’?
Rashmi Lamba, my assistant on Magic Lamp, called me a few days ago. We hadn’t spoken in years. She told me they had played my film on Mother Teresa, Gift of Love, on Doordarshan on the day of her canonisation. Both of us got extremely nostalgic during our conversation. I remember her parting words: “Shukla, you were far ahead of your times.” That’s the best compliment one could receive.
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