Vishal Remembers a Lot of Cable TV

Nearly two years ago now we let the subscription on our cable TV lapse, and haven’t bothered to renew it since. In this age of DVD season sets, 24-hour streaming internet news and just plain frustration with the rubbish value for money that local cable bouquets offer, it made no sense to continue. Nowadays when I go to a friend’s place and see the TV on — inevitably tuned to some flavour of news — it feels like some kind of alien world. The last time I was on vacation in India I tried to spend some time flipping channels, seeing if I could recapture those feelings of discovery and entertainment that TV provided for a long time in my life, but it ended with me bored and angry, two hours later having not stayed on a channel for more than five seconds.

Strange things have happened since then. I find that the large chunk of space in my brain that used to be reserved for TV is shrinking. I remember TV, but not as well as I used to, and in a few years time I may not remember much of it at all. Hence this post, which is an infodump; a big steaming brick about TV and the way it was when I used to watch it. Because, though I loathe the way it is now, a lot of me has been shaped by TV, by that first viewing of Star Trek when was an infant, by entertainments factual and imaginary, by the rush of information and colour and sound.

TV was the internet of its time. And this is how I saw it.

Eight Whole Channels!

Back in the early nineties, when cable TV first stared to take a hold in South Asia, the content was not the latest episodes of the then-new American fare such as Friends or E.R.. Star, part of Newscorp (that runs Fox) was the big kahuna, and they had an English language channel called Star Plus (um, yes, kids, it started out as an English channel, and not K-Serial-ville) which showed a lot of primarily seventies and eighties American TV. This was a time when the only subscription channel was their newly launched Star Movies, so revenues were gained from advertising, and with a previous diet of Doordarshan (and the oh-so-classy DD Metro), we were about ready to accept anything that didn’t involve poverty-stricken melodrama families, crack detectives in tight jeans with tiger-skin seats on their bikes, and, er, Zimbo.

It was even worse in the Gulf, because local TV in Oman was 99% Arabic, save for the evening news (“And now, here’s a list of the pharmacies that will be open tonight…”) and the odd afternoon cartoon that would no doubt be cut in half and preempted by the prayers, never to be completed. Dubai had its English channel, Channel 33 (what happened to the other 32?), and obviously had some kind of budget and person with a brain running it*. because for the two short years in the late 80s that we lived in the city (No traffic jams! No road works! No malls!) we got to see fairly recent 80s fare from the west such as Knight Rider, Remington Steele and Centurions, not to mention a whole slew of British, Canadian and Australian shows, commercial-free.

( * – Since 33 was replaced by Dubai One a few years ago all that has gone out the window, and we get the same trash as fifteen other channels)

A lot of these same shows were what I tuned into on Star Plus eight years later, only now it was on a 24 hour channel so there were many more of them (Manimal! Automan! …er, Neighbours), repeats for things I’d miss, frequent commercials — that was a rude shock — and most importantly, no censorship (no kissy-kissy on gulf TV, even today for the most part). I was reintroduced to my old heroes Messrs. Steele & Knight, to new ones like The Fall Guy (who I was convinced was so named because he looked like he was going to keel over any minute from old age and a loss of circulation caused by his tight jeans). There were oddly compelling pre-Reality TV game shows like The Crystal Maze, and even new fledgling Fox-derived shows like The X-Files and Third Rock from the Sun.

The thing that secretly swayed many people to invest in a satellite dish and receiver, however, was Baywatch. Back then, unused as we were to seeing anything not wearing a saree or burka, Baywatch was tantamount to pornography, and there wasn’t a kid in school (or his dad) who didn’t discreetly tape it for convenient viewing later. My uncle’s excuse was, “I like the way they shoot the rescues.”


Believe it or not, the show never really held my attention; perhaps it was because I didn’t find any of the women attractive, or that the show was so pedestrian in its writing and execution. Maybe it was because I still identified David Hasselhoff with Knight Rider, and I expected him to patrol the beach in a cool robot car or something. Regardless, I didn’t rearrange my life to watch it, much to the disbelief and derision of my peers. Scully was sexier, anyway.

Speaking of her: it got really annoying when every few months they’d run out of X-Files and just start showing repeats. Sure, I liked watching that episode with ‘Dr. Bambi’ as much as the next man, but after the fifteenth time it got a little frustrating. I had no idea what ‘seasons’ were back then, and assumed, that like Indian TV, people just made episodes of something every week until nobody watched anymore and the shows died (which was about three years after they all should have ended).

There was one show, however, that never seemed to run out of episodes despite the fact that they aired it five times a week, and that was M*A*S*H (this had something to do with their being over 200 of them). I don’t quite remember the first episode I ever saw, but it hooked me instantly. I’d watch the same episode twice in a day when it repeated. It wasn’t that I was obsessed, simply that I was entertained. There was something different about it, something that set it far apart from its other sitcom brethren, a genre which, as episodes went by, it distanced itself further and further from. The tautness of it impressed me, I suppose, years before I even knew what story writing was or gained any interest in the craft. The guarantee of nearly every single episode being entertaining was something I marveled at. Even back then, like The X-Files, M*A*S*H was something else. There was regular TV, and then there was that.

Doordarshan (State-run Indian TV, still the channel of choice for millions not hooked into cable in India) still held its own, though. Everyone, it seemed, tuned into Shanti (cable viewers included), and it featured a ‘Brought to you by’ bit almost as long as the show itself. It set the mould for many of the serials today, but now especially there’s nothing really like it anymore. Shanti was something of a transition point for Indian TV drama. On the one hand, a lot of its core DNA — the lone female protagonist, the cast of hundreds divided into dozens of factions, the power games of the rich and the richer — are things that are still evident, however greatly mutated, in the popular soaps today. On the other hand, it incorporated a lot of the pulp crime procedural tropes that had become a mainstay of DD drama since the eighties.

The Late 90s

As the Millennium grew from a lofty point in ‘The Future’ to an event just a few years away, satellite TV started to change. Several new channels started to pop up; some were welcome — The Cartoon Network! — and some were not (but I was 12 and would watch anything). If I knew that the then-NDTV-managed Star News would one day result in the glut of horrendous excuses for current affairs programming we have today (New Star News a.k.a. desi Fox News, Zee News, the Aaj Tak Omniplex and NDTV whatever etc. etc.) I wouldn’t have encouraged them and just tuned out.

Then came the subtle introduction of a few Hindi programs into the wholly English language Star Plus. I think that this was about the time that Zee — the all Hindi channel — was separating from Star (if they were every truly together). Zee had built a following around its flagship shows, the musical game show Antakshari**, the youth dramas Campus and Banegi Apni Baat (I seem to recall its big comedy hit, the Balaji-produced Hum Paanch, coming a little later). Their early focus had always been strangely young & urban — perhaps they were trying to get as far away from Doordarshan as they could. I say strangely because now nobody would associate Zee with ‘cool’ and ‘young’ but back then kids used to get very vocal when teachers gave them extra homework the same night that Campus was on.

(** – Antakshari is a popular party and road trip game that could only really work in India. The word very roughly translates to ‘final letter’ or ‘final syllable’, and it’s simple enough to play, and exploits a particular way in which Indian songs are structured. The main ‘hook’ or mukhda (literally, face) of a song is always at the beginning unlike western songs, and in the game you have to sing a song’s mukhda, and then the opposing team has to start a song with the last syllable or letter of the song you have just sung. So, if you sing ‘…I did it my way’ they have to counter with a song whose lyrics start with ‘y’ — ‘Your Winnebago stopped me in my tracks…’. Trust me, in a party these games can go on for hours.)

On Star Plus, we had the Neena Gupta vehicle Saans, which reintroduced melodramatic suffering into Indian TV that Shanti, for the most part, eschewed; only, it dialed it down to near European levels and had everyone living in posh houses (at the time. In today’s soaps, Neena’s home would probably be that of a slum dweller). In a strange twist of (probably unintentional) branding, the show’s logo featured the protagonist’s peculiar bindi, and that became as much a calling card for the show as the big ‘S’ on Superman.

There was a new entrant in the form of Sony, another all-hindi channel. Their station IDs were slick, miles ahead of anything Zee was doing, and much more interesting than Star’s comatose branding. The Zee Network started EL-TV, first as a five or six hour slot on its movie channel, and later as a channel proper. It was like Zee TV, only with more game shows, and I suppose that now it would be seen as an early attempt at a ‘Lifestyle’ channel, i.e. one where drama was not the mainstay. The shows were clunky at best: my favourite to laugh at was Peecha Karo!, a kind of cross-country cops & robbers deal featuring trench coat & fedora villains, hilariously out of place in India.

EL-TV’s big splash came with the Kirron Kher sari parade–sorry, Purush-Kshetra, which was an Oprah-style talk show apparently about men and how evil they are. I thought this was a foregone conclusion? Anyway, they milked about as many episodes out of it as Mrs. Kher had saris (i.e. a lot), none of which I watched, but which my parents were riveted to. There were a lot of talk shows that followed the mould of Purush-Kshetra on various channels. They all kind-of blur together now. Most of them were also about men being evil, except when they were about children being evil to their frail old parents (who had, no doubt, whipped them for getting two marks less than the neighbour’s kid all through childhood, but this was never brought up).

Spurred by this new direction into urban middle-class, middle-age friendly programming, the other Hindi channels started to fight back. Zee played down their game shows (EL-TV disappeared, I don’t remember when or what it morphed into, but there are a dozen Zee channels now) and staples like Banegi Apni Baat and Campus went tat-ta-bye-bye (all of them seem like they come from another universe now, and I’m not just talking about the clothes and the hair). For the longest while — even until the mid 2000s — they tried to keep the urban flag flying. There were office politics shows, I remember, and things like Kitty Party & Astitva. There was also Daastaan which was shot in Dubai and about Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), and while it was a pretty pedestrian soap, it probably sold a lot of air tickets and tourist packages in the days before Dubai was famous in the west for making big buildings and funny-looking islands.

Sony, meanwhile, decided to just take what Star Plus was doing and ramp up the angst to 11, so we got a bunch of super-suffering stuff like Heena and Thoda Hai, Thode Ki Zaroorat Hai. That one was another thing my parents watched that I couldn’t stand. I’d love to burst into the room whenever Alok Nath was going into his umpteenth angst binge and shout in unison with his character, “Vishal mar gaya, Beena-ji!!!” (“Vishal is DEAD, Beena!!”) Did Vishal (Sachin Khedekar, post-Teacher but pre career as sleazy bollywood villain) ever get cured of his amnesia and return home? Did Alok Nath continue to tell Beena-ji he was dead even after the show ended just ’cause it was the way he rolled now? Such questions still keep me up at night. Thank the gods all of them were only weeklies.

The effects of all this never-ending, insipid and unsexy melodrama was quick and staggering. Firstly, they became really popular. So popular, in fact, that Star Plus stopped being an English channel and they actually started making money. They switched to subscription, chucked all their old eighties content — including M*A*S*H — and started showing Friends a lot on the newly minted Star World.

Sigh… Friends. I first saw it in 1999, and had been hearing the hype for years. I must say, that first season was great. I mean, it was still a sitcom, but there was some terrific writing at play. How they went from that to one of the most inbred, maudlin 25 minutes on TV I’ll never know, but do that they did, and from now until the next millennium every single channel in this part of the world will play it day in and day out.

The K-Serial Virus

I had always been surprised in the 90s that nobody in India had successfully pulled off a ‘daily’ soap, but that was only because nobody had got the formula right. Western soaps are about large groups of somewhat inter-related characters who have sex with each other and marry each others’ parents, siblings and offspring. Someone in India was also paying attention to The Bold & the Beautiful, only it took seven or eight years for us to work the logistics out so we would successfully duplicate its five-days-a-week schedule. We couldn’t really lift the plot — no sex please, we’re Indians — but we could and did adapt the ridiculousness.

The answer to the plot problem was fairly simple and had been around for a few years, namely Neena Gupta’s Saans and, to a lesser extent, Shanti. While other late 90s soaps rolled with their template of the travails of angsty urban middle-class intelligentsia, Ekta Kapoor at Balaji Telefilms probably realised that a whole lot of people were tuning into Saans because it featured a strong but embattled female lead dealing with somewhat hackneyed but still engaging domestic issues such as infidelity and relationships. From Shanti came the cast of hundreds, the political intrigue and the high stakes corporate duelling, but without the social activist baggage.

Balaji, who had until then been known for producing the Zee comedy hit Hum Paanch and a couple of other dramas on Sony, gave birth to the soap that launched a million others, Kyuni Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Whether or not it was helped by the spillover from the hundreds of millions of people who tuned into Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), the fact remains that it stuck and was still one of the top rated shows until its demise last year (due to falling ratings of all things!).

K-Serials are so called because Balaji produced dozens of them, all of which started with the letter K which they consider lucky (and why not? It worked!) and are now generally known by their first words (Kyunki…, Kahani…, Kasautii…, etc). They’re also called Saas-Bahu serials (‘mother-in-law – daughter-in-law’) because no matter how they begin (the world of doctors, or lawyers, or aspiring film directors) by around the twentieth episode the lead female is married, and they boil down to a large joint family situation and the various intrigues that supposedly go on in them. Balaji were at one time the only people who made this kind of soap, but since they were wildly popular every channel now has a few, and Zee TV has pretty-much done an about face on its urban lineup and embraced the form (and has met with success).

Of course, being Indians, we took Ridiculous to a whole new level. The glamour was ramped up, the houses got bigger, the families larger and their values more conservative. If only Neena Gupta knew that the simple bindi trend she started would snowball into the grotesques that were nightly painted on Sudha Chandran’s face years later in Kahin Kissi Roz (My favourite was the anatomically correct cobra, complete with silver glitter fangs). The soap vamps’ bindis became a national talking point, their saris are still influencing fashion, and the suits — oh god, why would anyone in a monsoonal climate wear so many suits, and why are all of them so bad?! — well, um, the suits are everywhere now. You can’t pass a wedding without seeing twenty mauve jackets with dhinchak trim.

Forget Bollywood. Balaji with its half dozen vaguely different takes on ‘young woman gets married into large family and shit happens’ routine influence Indian culture more on a daily basis than what state Aamir Khan’s abs are in. The only thing to rival them in the past few years has been Himesh Reshammiya, and I for one think that he’s pedaling the same melodrama, only in music videos and films. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari — it’s a strange coincidence — but India sways to the letter K.

The West Gets Real

In the west, meanwhile, Reality TV and the rise of the SUV happened. These two things formed a symbiosis of sorts, as the vehicle of choice for every reality show contestant was some flavour of black SUV.

Since the Newscorp-owned Fox was its champion over there, we got to see a lot of it on their channels here. Most of English programming now is either Reality TV or sitcoms, with the odd single season reject from America quickly making its was over (like Miss Match or Journeyman). You’d think that the older shows would be even cheaper now to broadcast, but instead we still get that episode of Friends where somebody’s marrying the other one while another pair are secretly sleeping together. People still seem to look to Star to set the trend, so the half dozen English channels that have been started by local (Middle East) media groups all seem to follow the trend of Reality TV, a couple of reheated shockporn dramas (Law & Order: SVU, but I’ll save that rant for another time), and Friends.

Star World is perhaps the most comically misnamed. They have a couple of non-American shows going on at any time (British sitcoms), but is that really all there is to say about the English speaking world? Hell, there aren’t even any Australian or Canadian shows on TV anymore, and most of those I’ve seen are pretty decent, and frequently great (Traders!). It would be a real miracle if somebody actually came up with some original English programming. Where is the Singaporean cop drama I’ve always wanted? Where is the Indian rom-com? Is there nobody out there who can pull one together for about the same cash as the syndication fee of Race to the Altar?

The Ghost of EL-TV

I shouldn’t be the one to talk about original content, however. A couple of years ago a friend of mine, my brother and I tried to put together a Hindi sitcom the likes of which had never been seen in India. We fleshed things out, wrote a few scripts and that was about it. The plans, as they say, are still afoot. Back when we started there was Star Plus — bonded to the K-Serial — and Zee and Sony, all of whom were trying to be Star Plus. Getting anything other than a five day soap on TV was probably impossible, but there were rumblings of new, urban, modern channels launching soon.

When Zoom showed up with its super-swanky station ID — the best since mid-90s Sony — I was one of those people who thought that there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Star was going to launch one of its own too (Star One) and NDTV was probably not far behind. They didn’t have anything as cutting-edge as I would have liked, but they were trying to break out of the mould. Three years later, however, Zoom has degenerated into a E! clone, Star One is Star Plus-lite, playing old shows and quasi-K-Serial mutations of their starting lineup. Though I haven’t seen it yet, I hear the NDTV one is similarly disappointing.

Today I think TV in India is a toss-up between News channels and dance/comedy variety shows that follow the American Idol/Dancing with the Stars template. The serials are still around, but nearly all the flagship soaps have died (sometimes suddenly), and even the news channels show stand up comedy (because they’re crap when it comes to news, but that’s a rant for another day). Is there hope for Indian TV? Will it have some kind of renaissance the way that American serials have gone through in the noughties? I have no idea, and all signs point to more dance variety shows.

TV But Not TV

Despite having no access to cable or local television, I still watch a lot of TV. I just don’t bother with cliffhangers or interminable ad breaks, or worry about keeping my schedule free to catch my favourite show, or to remember to set my VCR to tape it. TV is no longer restricted to cable and satellite broadcasts. In the 90s a two or three episodes of a show might be squeezed onto a single VHS cassette, but today you can get a whole season’s worth of shows in a pack of DVDs that take up roughly the same space. Yes, so some of the thrill of speculating for a week or months as to what would happen in the next episode is gone, but that was an artificial thrill anyway. The shows themselves have changed too, having large overarching plotlines, dozens of characters and histories; This sort of thing has even crept into procedurals.

In a given year I’ll see a season’s worth of LOST, Mad Men, 30 Rock, House, Entourage, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Brothers & Sisters and several more I can’t think of offhand, and catch up with shows I’ve seen on TV back in the day but can now watch the entirety of. I’ve seen all of M*A*S*H, and am currently almost at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and just that statement would have sounded completely unbelievable to me 10 years ago. Today it’s as simple as popping down to the local DVD store, or even just downloading a torrent. If I want to watch a particular episode of She-Ra, it’s a simple Google search away.

I don’t miss TV. The medium still has several strengths, but it’s just not compatible with the kind of person who has free time almost whenever they want it. If I had a steady 9-5 job and more structure in my life, then maybe I’d still have that cable subscription. But as someone who spends almost an entire weekend each year devouring the latest season of LOST, that type of — I’ll admit it — antiquated lifestyle just seems wrong. It helps that I never had a palate for the way news is presented, and abhor it now; that I don’t feel a frisson of excitement when this week’s American Idol elimination is about to be announced; that watching sports does nothing for me beyond marveling at the odd skillful play.

I never liked TV, I just liked the stories that were being told on it. I like examining it as a facet of culture, like opening up the case and seeing how all the gears and strings of it fit together, but the medium is mine no longer, if it ever was. I can’t, on the other hand, say that I’m a child of the internet. I only joined facebook a few weeks ago, and I still don’t know how to actually use it or a dozen other internet staples. I just see the net for what it is to me; another way to get at the information I’ve always filtered though, only with a mouse instead of a steady thumb on the ‘channel ’ button.

I like the way it tells me stories.

Spoiler-free, of course.