When did the ‘short story’ make a quiet exit from the radar of television? The genre which found ready acceptance during the Doordarshan domination and later, even on satellite networks till the turn of the millennium, appeared to have lost its advocates.
It would have been a bitter pill for producer Manju Singh to swallow. The actor-turned-television-software-lady [who featured in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s mischievous spoof on double roles, Gol Maal] had pioneered the genre in 1984 with her series Ek Kahani.
In fact it was the celebrated author Amrita Pritam, who mooted the idea of this format for the small screen. For Ek Kahani, Singh had a bouquet of stories sourced from various regions of the country. The series premiered with Pritam’s own Junglee Booti, directed by Usha Dixit. Dixit was closely associated with Singh in dual roles as writer and director.
What set apart the 12 episodes from others was their filming in the very regions the stories originated from. Dehra Dun and Gharwal were among the locations that threw up such tales. Local actors who had never faced a video camera enacted several pivotal parts. Like an episode, based on a Tulu story, was shot with actors who were part of a Tulu theatre group. The series was thus truly rooted in Indian soil.
Back in the mid-eighties, Yash Chopra, the filmmaker who had moved away from elder brother B R Chopra to make popular hits Daag, Deewar, Trishul, Kala Pathhar, Kabhie Kabhie and Silsila, couldn’t resist the bandwagon either. He signalled his television entry with a show titled Khazana around the same time as Basuda’s Darpan . It was, as the title suggested, ‘a treasure chest of tales’. I had essayed a guest appearance in his multistarrer Vijay and featured in the box-office hit Chandni too. Besides working on the advertisement copy of his films at the agency. So the call from his office for a part in Khazana didn’t come as a surprise.
The episode paired me with actress Zarina Wahab, who had, along with Jaya Bhaduri, Rameshwari and Deepti Naval, been labelled as the girl-next-door favourite with films like Chitchor and Gharaonda.
A market for short stories
Filmmaker Joginder Shelly’s decision to bring the works of famed writer Mohan Rakesh to television was a laudable effort to give literature a wider reach. The series Mitti Ke Rang [Colours of the Soil], came on without any pre-launch hype, as Doordarshan arbitrarily slotted it on a Tuesday at 9 PM. Shelly received a call on a hot Saturday afternoon from officials who told him that Mitti Ke Rang was on in two days time. That left him with no scope for any promotions. Despite no fanfare, it registered high on the viewership charts from its very first episode settling down to an average rating of 52% eventually, proving that pristine stories sifted, condensed and decanted meaningfully fetch their own viewership.
The short story, Mr Bhatia, about a compulsive racecourse gambler featured the late Mohan Gokhale and me. We shot all over South Bombay, at the Racecourse, in public transport and on the streets. Filming in the city was relatively hassle free then, as weighed against the compounded tax caps of latter years. After watching a preview of Mr Bhatia, a friend remarked to Shelly, “What’s wrong with Ananth Mahadevan? Where’s the performance?”. I was disheartened, until Shelly conjugated it as a compliment. “The effort should never show, that’s what acting is all about”.
Long before the stars had resolved the dilemma of “to be or not to be” on the small screen, Vinay Dhumale who was predominantly into Marathi television programming, convinced names like Nana Patekar, a firebrand stage performer, and director Shekhar Kapur to perform for television. The series of short stories was called Mahanagar, the title probably a back handed tribute to Satyajit Ray’s film, a classic mirror of city life.
I was cast as an executive who sells out to a big corporate chief played by Shekhar Kapur. Whistle blowers are not as recent a corporate phenomenon as we think. Being in the thick of the mega-series The Sword Of Tipu Sultan those days, I sported a bald pate to play Pandit Purnaiya. It did not suit Vinay Dhumale’s picture of the character in Mahanagar and he had second thoughts about casting me. Not to be undone, I assured him he would get what he wanted. I scurried to my wig maker in the over-crowded Shivaji Mandir theatre area in Dadar and implored him to make one for me overnight. The man was considerate enough to cast aside his other commitments and do the job. Of course, I had to foot the bill.
Kirdar [The Character] called for a director of Gulzar’s stature. It was a series tailor made for the man who ventured into memorable cinematic alleys like Mere Apne, Parichay, Koshish, Aandhi, Khushboo, Kinara, Kitab, Ijaazat and Namkeen. One of the stories in the 1993 made-for-Doordarshan series was, interestingly, inspired by Billy Wilder’s 1950 American film Sunset Boulevard.
The veteran actress Nadira reprised Gloria Swanson’s superstar who was fading into obscurity, Om Puri her butler cum husband, while I played the journalist eager to reveal her story.
Kirdar was telecast on Doordarshan and received critical acclaim, consolidating Gulzar as a master story-teller. 1986 marked another medley of short stories.
Prem Kishen, the veteran actor Prem Nath’s son who debuted as a leading man in the Rajshri film Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaye, teamed up with producer and businessman Sunil Mehta to form a software company, Cinevista. They took the story-telling syndrome forward. Kathasagar [an Ocean Of Tales] was a series I regret missing out as an actor.
Kathasagar’s biggest accomplishment was getting celebrated director Shyam Benegal [Ankur, Manthan, Bhumika, Mandi, Trikaal] on board. Benegal’s keen eye for human behaviour accorded the tales a must watch rating. Works by masters like Guy De Maupassant, Leo Tolstoy, O. Henry, Anton Chekov and others were adapted into an Indian context while retaining the essence of the original. “The Necklace” by Guy De Maupassant, “A Cup of Tea” by Katherine Mansfield, and Tolstoy’s “God Sees The Truth, But Waits” were episodes of varying charm.
Benegal admitted that his foray into episodic story telling was both fascinating and challenging. He equated them to mini features. Other episodic directors included Kundan Shah, Anil Ganguly and Kishen Sethi. Each of the stories featured a star from cinema and that contributed hugely to its appeal and ratings. Ashok Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, Shammi Kapoor, Om Puri, Saeed Jaffrey, Utpal Dutt, Vijayendra Ghatge, Urmila Matondkar, Neena Gupta, Supriya Pathak and Waheeda Rehman top lined different stories, essaying the protagonists.
Cinema’s much loved funny man Asrani, a gold medallist from the Pune Film and Television Institute, had experimented with production and film making. But Chala Murari Hero Banane, his first film as director did not emulate his idol Mehmood’s success story.
But the film making experience did pave way for a software company that Asrani floated with his actress wife, Manju Bansal, helming a series of short stories titled Kashmakash [The Dilemma]. Its opening episode reunited me with Ados Pados co-actor Rameshwari where I played her husband who is given to a lot of self-importance. Although Asrani had promised to feature me in a few more episodes of the 13 part series, Doordarshan policies dictated that different faces be cast. Kashmakash was among the last of the popular short story series on Doordarshan.
Just as it seemed that the genre would fade out with the advent of multiple channels, in 1999, Zee TV, one of the very first satellite networks, staged a revival in a specially programmed forty-five minutes slot. Titled Rishte [relationships], it comprised 166 stories of relationships that pushed the envelope, executed by different producers and directors. These were names that were on the threshold of gravitating towards their first feature films. It was the Rishte series that made producer-directors of names like Anurag Basu, Imtiaz Ali, Sridhar Rangayan, Jayant Gilatar and Renuka Shahane.
Hansal Mehta, who reinvented himself with films like Shahid and Aligarh in the new millennium, was a discovery of Rishte. He was just a bright lad, engaged in filming a cookery show [Khana Khazana], when an episode of Rishte was allotted to him. He recruited the writing talent of a “poor ambitious boy from Meerut who had come looking for work” by the name of Vishal Bhardawaj. His short story did the trick for Mehta. The episode Highway featured Ashish Vidyarthi and Shefali Shah. It garnered rave remarks from filmmakers like Subhash Ghai and Shekhar
Kapur and pushed Mehta into the category of a film director. Bharadwaj too has, in the years to follow, left Meerut far behind, re-discovering Shakespeare’s works for the Hindi screen.
Excerpted with permission from Once Upon a Prime Time, Ananth Mahadevan, Embassy Books.