In the early 1990s, the emergence of satellite television channels ended the monopoly of Doordarshan for good. A raft of fresh talent collaborated with established names to create shows that included social dramas, police procedurals, and daily soaps. Some of these, such as Tara and Shanti, were about urban women, and at least on the surface, it appeared that India, and its television, were changing for the better.
The recent allegation of rape levelled at actor Alok Nath by Tara writer Vinta Nanda reveals that like in the movie business, the television industry has its fair share of unchecked sexual predators. Nanda’s allegation, which has been backed by the testimonies of other actresses such as Deepika Amin and Himani Shivpuri, has taken the lid off the misogyny and violence that has been seething in the television industry for decades. In interviews with Scroll.in, Nanda, Sridhar Raghavan, Mita Vashisht and Seema Pahwa, all of whom were active in television in the ’90s and continue to be, tell us what was different about the times – and what wasn’t.
Vinta Nanda: ‘No support system’
I had my moment when the boom in satellite television was encouraging progressive conversations and there were some great creative ideas floating around. What has started in the 1980s with DD took off in the early ’90s. Between 1991 and 1997, we had zipped way ahead of DD with the support of corporate entities. We were titling toward more aggressive work than the previous decade. And then it nosedived to a dark phase.
I think it was post Tara. The content that was being made was regressive and patriarchal. Women were back in the little pigeonhole where they had been kept for centuries and every stereotype was being perpetuated.
The work atmosphere in the ’90s was very disabling. There was no support system and one had no courage to seek redressal because one had no clue about the consequences.
Now the associations, the Screen Writer’s Association, Producers’ Guild, CINTAA, have got their act together. But at that time there no Vishakha report. Nirbhaya had not happened. The systems that we are talking about now were not there. It was a very feudal atmosphere. It was considered very wrong if a woman was bold enough to open her mouth and speak up. If she came across as very liberal and independent, she was shown her place. And that is what happened to me.
Let’s not get over-excited with what is happening now. Things have not changed. They are changing. You still have predators. Look at the young boys at AIB. Vikas Bahl is a young man. There is a new generation of predators who are perpetrating feudal, patriarchal behaviours.
The biggest change is now women have a voice, and that is welcome. Guidelines have been established, the media is playing its part of the watchdog, women are more vocal, and social media is enabling. And that has made me confident about the checks and balances that are now in place. Society has a way of pushing the envelope at every level and stage. But it is not over yet.
Sridhar Raghavan: ‘A risky time’
Back then in the ’90s, and even earlier as I recall it, TV was more director-driven and producer-driven. All the major shows were associated with names like Ramesh Sippy, Ramanand Sagar, Shyam Benegal, Kundan Shah, Saeed Mirza, Ravi Rai, BP Singh and so on.
Producers used to risk making pilots with their own funds and then approach the channels, which is a marked contrast to now, when the channels fund the pilots from inception. It was a risky time in its own way, because when the satellite boom happened, there were many channels that never took off. If you made a pilot thinking it was going to air on this network, you might find the channel didn’t exist anymore or never took off.
And yet it was a much more creative time, I think. If my producers liked a story for a show that I pitched, they were willing to make a pilot and back it with their gut instinct and their money. There was a certain sense of freedom that is maybe lesser now.
TV has always been very stressful in terms of timelines and pressure. Yes, we were working 25 days a month, but everyone who works a job does that, so it never seemed excess.
Television has always had and continues to have fabulous and strong women writers, producers, directors, channel executives. The reigning queen of TV from my time till today is Ekta Kapoor. On our show, the senior associates, assistant directors, the head of production were all women, the channel executives we have interacted with then and now are mostly women. Even today most of our writing team for CID comprises women and our creative director (Christabelle D’Souza) and script head (Nitika Kanwar) are women.
Mita Vashist: ‘No transparency, no professionalism’
In the late 1990s, there were a lot of failed filmmakers who were trying their luck with television. I have had the good fortune of working with the likes of Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta and Gulzar earlier, who were people one admired. But things changed from the late ’90s. Suddenly, the assistant directors were calling the shots on the sets. The work culture at daily soaps was very different, unnatural and unhealthy. There was no transparency, and no professionalism.
During the shooting of the TV serial Kaala Teeka, I had an issue with an AD, who would often misbehave with me. On one occasion, he made a sexually explicit threat, right to my face. I was infuriated and refused to take it lightly. I brought up the incident with the show’s producers. Tony and Deeya Singh, who were quite dismissive and said, “He must have had a bad day.” I was called “difficult”.
I brought up the incident with CINTAA, and they intervened and called for a hearing. They ensured that the boy was not around when I was shooting.
I believe that had the Vinta incident been escalated, Alok Nath would not have been allowed to walk away. At that time, you could not get away with a crime of this magnitude. It was really sad that Vinta had been let down by her friends and colleagues, part of the same social set that had allowed Alok Nath to flourish. The people who got to know should have encouraged Vinta to lodge a complaint and not just keep her mouth shut. Can you imagine the sense of betrayal she must have felt?
It is important that women come out and not only talk about it, but take legal steps to bring the predators to book. It does not matter when the crime was committed. It starts with acknowledging that it is a crime and not just an aberration, and bringing it up with the organisations that can take the right steps.
I think it is much better to work for web shows. People are genuinely talented, the schedules are shorter and there are certain work ethics. Having worked on a couple of shows for streaming platforms, I would say I prefer this environment over that of the daily soaps on television.
Seema Pahwa: ‘Never been a clean place’
The entertainment industry has never been a clean place, just like any other industry where you have men taking charge. As a child artiste, I would accompany my mother to the theatre. I grew up knowing that men, especially of a certain seniority and experience, were always trying to take advantage of you. Maybe since I was aware of this as a kid, I knew how to take care of myself.
When I started with Hum Log on Doordarshan [in the early 1980s], the atmosphere on the sets was very different. We used to rehearse together, sit and eat together. Sometime in the ’90s, the culture of camaraderie changed with the arrival of the vanity van. Suddenly the actors preferred to stay in their vans, and communication and camaraderie disappeared.
The other noticeable change was the emergence of the executive producer. Earlier, it was the director and the writer who had the final word. But with daily soaps on satellite channels, writers and directors became dispensable. Each series had several directors and each season had several writers. Content was a commodity sold in bright packaging, with loud makeup and dazzling costumes and jewellery. Television actors became the new stars, and their pictures appeared on billboards. Ironically, the work they were made to do was regressive, and maybe even humiliating as an artiste. But who cared? There was a whole generation of aspirants who wanted to dress up, doll up, get rich and famous quickly. And the daily soaps played up this aspiration to the hilt.
The superstardom, however, was mostly for the men. On the one hand, you had women who were powerful producers and directors and writers. But all they were doing was convincing the female actors that the best they could do was play politics in the kitchen and plot revenge against their mothers-in-law. At a time when you could actually achieve so much with such a powerful medium at your disposal, such lavish budgets and so much talent, what did you do? Women were flying jets, changing society and fighting on the battlefield in ’80s television. Now they were plotting and scheming and dressing up.
Women are their worst enemies. And it showed in the way the professionals were treated on the set.
(As told to Chandrima Pal.)