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Udaan — DD series on life of DGP Kanchan Chaudhary inspired an entire generation of women

India's first woman DGP India's first woman DGP Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya, the inspiration for Doordarshan’s popular show Udaan, has left behind a large legacy.

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New Delhi: Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya decided to be a police officer after a palm reader urged her father to let her take the civil services exam. Riddled with financial troubles, Bhattacharya’s father had approached the palmist to seek advice for his daughter who was unable to get a job after completing her masters in English. There were virtually no female police officers in the force at the time. But the example of Kiran Bedi, who happened to be their relative, was reassuring, and with family support, Bhattacharya worked hard to forge an unforgettable career.

Revered as the woman who made history when she was appointed the director general of police (DGP) of Uttarakhand in 2004, Bhattacharya was only the second woman to become an IPS officer after Kiran Bedi. But for those who grew up in the Doordarshan era, she was fondly known as the woman who inspired the channel’s classic show Udaan.

Tributes have been pouring in all week, from her colleagues in the force as well as actors on the show, as news emerged about the death of the first woman in India to become the DGP.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who had given her an Aam Aadmi Party ticket to contest the Lok Sabha 2014 elections from Haridwar, was just one of the many to mourn her loss.

Uttarakhand Governor Baby Rani Maurya called her a “living example of women empowerment”. She said, “By rising to the top in the police force she proved there was nothing women could not achieve.” The IPS Association and Uttarakhand Police also issued statements.

Amid politicians and officials sharing their condolences, actor and director Shekhar Kapur, who acted in Udaan, also joined in to salute Bhattacharya’s legacy. The revolutionary TV series followed the lead character’s struggle to enter the police force and how she navigated her duties as an IPS officer. Bhattacharya’s was a life that inspired people both on-screen and off-screen.

A life mirrored on screen

Bhattacharya had witnessed firsthand her father being the victim of land-grabbing, and stood by his side as he went to court, repeatedly wrote to the authorities, and was even almost killed. Similarly, Udaan’s Kalyani Singh decided to find her voice in the police force after she grew tired watching her family suffer. The opening credits showed her letting a parrot free from its cage to take flight — a running metaphor in the show, as her father repeatedly told her to soar above the stuffy confines of their home where she was ill-treated by her grandfather and neglected because of her brother.

Written and directed by Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya’s younger sister Kavita Chaudhary, who also starred as the protagonist, Udaan was a hugely popular 30-episode series that aired on national broadcaster Doordarshan from 1989 to 1991.

In a conversation with ThePrint, Kavita Chaudhary recalled, “Being her sister, I could access so much research and directly see interpersonal relationships in a profession that existed in a rule-oriented environment.” She saw up close the dynamics between juniors and seniors, the ego clashes, the pride over symbolic details like a straightened police belt and newly shined police shoes.

Chaudhary wrote Kalyani Singh’s character as an exemplary IPS officer who was the perfect combination of protector and friend to the public. Kalyani Singh was a dedicated public servant and social justice warrior, often alone — in a sea of men — fighting a slow, corrupt bureaucratic system.

A frequent theme was Kalyani Singh’s frustration with how abrasive constables and police officers could be towards regular people. “Pata nahi hamari force logon se tehzeeb se baat karna kab seekhegi (I don’t know when our force will learn to speak to people in a civilised manner),” she says in one episode, as she follows to advise them to be polite and helpful to each and every law-abiding citizen.

In real life too, being accessible and approachable was one of Bhattacharya’s key traits. In a 2006 interview, she had said women officers had the advantage of being “more fair and more accessible than their male counterparts”.

“I know what hardships the poor man undergoes while dealing with the police. On average I see 50 of them, mostly women. Sometimes I have to skip lunch to listen to their problems, trying to sort them out.”

At a later point in the show, Chaudhary tried to explore more layers in Kalyani’s character. “It wasn’t fashionable to give protagonist any grey shade, But I wanted to show Kalyani Singh becoming arrogant just for a few episodes, because I saw that was so common in bureaucracy”.

The show, which is soon to be re-released on YouTube, broke on-screen stereotypes by showing not only a working woman, but one who commanded respect in a traditionally male-dominated profession yet carried herself with gentility and grace, and didn’t become more macho or less of a woman just to fit in.


Also read: Doordarshan’s Rajani fought power & corruption, showed Indian women all battles can be won


A quest to make unconventional television

Frustrated with the cinema of the time that was riddled with sexist cliches, Chaudhary felt that bringing realism on screen would enable her to share a different vision. “I saw TV becoming a platform in homes, especially for projecting fiction. I thought it could be a way to have an exchange with home, with families.”

As Chaudhary and her sister had an unconventional upbringing that she felt was “natural and wholesome”, she wanted the show to not just motivate women, but also motivate parents to nurture the potential of their children.

Like most Indian TV shows that have a love story embedded in them, Kalyani too found a love interest in the handsome young IAS officer played by Shekhar Kapur.

Singh and Kapur’s story was not set in the conventional patriarchal tones of the time, but instead saw Kapur’s character pursue Kalyani Singh, propose to her in a Jeep, while she took her own time to deliberate things before she responded.

“I personally was not the two-plait girl, neither was my sister. But I wanted to make Kalyani’s character simple, so that it appealed to even a young girl from a village.”

The show, according to Chaudhary, was an ode to her father’s zealous spirit, her sister’s incredible journey, and her own penchant for telling stories that mattered.

Inspiring a generation of policewomen

As a police officer, Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya led a remarkable career of 33 years in service. She was awarded the President’s Police Medal for distinguished service in 1997 and the Rajiv Gandhi Award for Excellent All-Round Performance. She was also chosen to represent India for the Interpol meeting in Mexico in 2004, and handled controversial cases like the murder of badminton champion Syed Modi in 1988 and the 1988-89 Reliance-Bombay Dyeing case.

But before many young women joined the police force and began to follow her career, they had already been inspired by Bhattacharya’s onscreen counterpart in Udaan.

“Before joining the force I wasn’t aware of Kanchan, but I knew the show Udaan. It was very inspiring and all of us felt that we wanted to be like Kavita. Only later I found out that the show was based on Kavita’s sister Kanchan,” said Neerja Voruvuru, IGP, Ropar, while speaking to ThePrint.

Voruvuru later got to personally know both sisters during her posting in Amritsar and said Bhattacharya was a wonderful person with endearing qualities.

“I used to watch it when I was still in school, I must have been in class 12. I don’t remember any other show from then, but Udaan I remember very clearly — 99 per cent of the women in the force can relate to it.”

Chhaya Sharma, deputy inspector general, National Human Rights Commission, also didn’t initially make the connection between the Udaan’s character and Bhattacharya’s life.

“Initially I thought it was based on the life of Dr Kiran Bedi but I was corrected by my uncle who was himself a 1964-batch IPS officer and knew both the lady officers well,” she told ThePrint.

Sharma, who remembered discussing with her classmates in school how motivating the show was, said, “I was fascinated by the way she was shown surmounting the impediments in her professional life and how she handled men despite being a petite lady herself.”

Sharma’s own stint as the Delhi’s deputy commissioner of police during the 2012 Delhi bus gang rape case was portrayed by actress Shefali Shah in Delhi Crime web series on Netflix. She told ThePrint about how Bhattacharya inspired her too.

“Apart from being a groundbreaking IPS officer, she was an adventure enthusiast and a very sensitive officer. She also had a great sense of humour. When she became DGP, we all were beaming with pride as she had broken the glass ceiling.”


Also read: Before Karan Johar & Simi Garewal, Tabassum’s show brought celebrities into our living rooms


Onwards and upwards

As the quest for a gender-equal police force continues, Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya’s story is a reminder of how far the Indian system has come and how much further it still needs to go.

“We used to ask her about her time in the force as a woman officer all the time. But she would always say there is no comparison to now. What she had gone through was very difficult. She had to be the first everything,” said Voruvuru.

Bhattacharya often spoke about the need to create a more encouraging environment for young female officers, and helped Voruvuru in the organising the first National Conference of Women in Police in 2002, and took part in each subsequent one.

“There are more equal opportunities now, things are at par with male officers,” said Voruvuru, who explained that earlier things were often based on political decisions, but now, thanks to police reform promotions are tender-based.

Apart from the efforts of Bhattacharya, Sharma also credited other IPS officers like Manjari Sahai, Kanwaljit Deol, Renuka Mattoo, Archana Ramasundaram, Meeran Borwankar, Rina Mitra and Neelamani Raju for creating an impact as women leaders.


Also read: Konark, the TV that came with its own stand, and put Odisha on the map


 

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