Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown on 24 March, now extended until 3 May, to curb the spread of coronavirus, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar announced the return of Doordarshan’s classic shows Ramayan and Mahabharat, as well as series like Shaktimaan, Chanakya, Jungle Book, Circus and Byomkesh Bakshi.
The move to bring back the beloved classics during the lockdown marks a return to the glory days of the Doordarshan era, a time of large families staying in at home and spending quality time with each other — a lot like the current quarantine period. No matter the difference in ages or interests among different family members, Doordarshan time was family time, when everyone gathered together to watch the family-friendly shows DD was known for.
In fact, there are many such shows that may not have been chosen for a return, but went on to become cult classics, inspire remakes and remain favourites to this day. Here’s a throwback to some of the shows that are not currently on a rerun, but deserve to be.
Vikram Aur Betaal
Directed by Prem Sagar, Vikram Aur Betaal was created in 1985 as an adaptation of the popular mythological Sanskrit text Betaal Pachisi (or Vetala Panchavimshati). Written like a story with a story, the narrative followed the legendary king, Vikramaditya, who promised a tantrik that he would capture Vetala (Betaal), a celestial spirit pishacha, akin to a vampire, hanging from a tree. But his task proved to be difficult as Betaal would mount Vikramaditya’s back, telling a long and winding story that ended with a dilemma or riddle. The condition was that if he answered the question incorrectly, Betaal would remain in captivity, if the king knew the correct answer and did not say it, his head would burst into a thousand pieces, and if he answered correctly, Betaal would be set free. As it would so happen, the king would answer correctly most times, hence the cycle of catching and releasing Betaal kept continuing over a cycle of 24 times. The show starred Arun Govil (best known for portraying Ram in Ramayan) as Vikramaditya and Sajjan as Betaal.
Despite the pre-CGI special effects and the odd time slot of 4 pm, the love-hate dynamic between the protagonists was loved by all and the show’s rating skyrocketed. Actors like Dara Singh, Arvind Trivedi and Deepika Chikhalia, all part of the Ramayan cast, also made appearances on the show.
The story also inspired many children’s books, translations and now even podcasts on platforms like Saavn and Hubhopper. The show also went on to inspire two remakes, one called Kahaniyaan Vikram aur Betaal Ki, produced by Sagar himself on Colors, and another in 2019, Vikram Betaal ki Rahasya Gatha, on Zee’s &TV.
One of Indian television’s early trysts with detective shows was DD’s Karamchand, which began to air in 1985. The young Karamchand (played by Pankaj Kapur), aided by his hyperactive assistant Kitty (Sushmita Mukherjee), helped the local police solve murders, apart from playing the occasional game of chess with police inspector A. Khan.
Created by Pankaj Parashar and Alyque Padamsee, and written by Sudhir Mishra, the show was unique for its time and earned a dedicated following. The famous duo Anand-Milind composed the theme music and title track for the series. Interestingly, Alok Nath starred as Karamchand for the pilot episode, created to pitch the show to Doordarshan, but Nath had a falling out with Parashar, which led to Kapur’s entry.
Touted as a young Dilip Kumar, Kapur, with his theatre training from the National School of Drama in Delhi, was hesitant to do a TV show, but eventually got on board, seeing it as a means to be financially stable in a city like Bombay. The show ended up being a huge success, and Pankaj Kapur was soon noticed by the world of Hindi cinema.
With his characteristic style of chewing a carrot and wearing dark glasses, Kapur breathed life into Karamchand’s character, making him extremely memorable and loved. “People loved his style. Karamchand halwa and carrots sold like hot cakes. Dark glasses were sold with his name written on them,” he once remarked. His banter with Kitty was also highly enjoyable, with her “Sir, you are a genius” and his “Shut up, Kitty” becoming cult dialogues.
In 2007, Sony Entertainment Television revived the show, and even actors like Naseeruddin Shah pitched in this time. The show remains iconic in popular culture, so much so that the hit American sitcom The Big Bang Theory had one of its lead characters, Raj Koothrapali (played by Indian actor Kunal Nayyar), mentioning Karamchand in Season 11.
Writer R.K. Narayan brought his books to life for television audiences with the iconic Malgudi Days in 1986, starring the child actor Manjunath as the beloved Swami and Girish Karnad as his father. The script was adapted from many of Narayan’s short story collections and novels such as Malgudi Days, Swami and Friends, and A Horse and Two Goats. The poignant tales set in the fictional village of Malgudi took viewers into the hinterland and was described as “a piece of genuine India”.
Filmed in both Hindi and English, the show was directed by Kannada actor and director Shankar Nag and set to Carnatic music by L. Vaidyanathan, while acclaimed cartoonist and Narayan’s brother R.K. Laxman provided sketches for the opening credits. A simple well-etched story that featured simple folk, the show was set in Agumbe, a village in Karnataka, that was transformed into Malgudi through the magic of sculptor, art director and town planner John Devaraj.
From carts, statues, avenues, shops, bus stand, to even Swami’s school, Nag and Devaraj imagined the minutest details of Malgudi, which was supposed to be an idyllic town set in British India. But when asked where Malgudi was, Narayan once wrote, “If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India, I shall only be expressing half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to be universal.”
The episodes of the Doordarshan series are now available on Hotstar, but, in 2006, the show was revived for 15 episodes under the direction of Kavita Lankesh. The Kannada film Malgudi Days, directed written and directed by Kishore Moodbidri, was released in February this year.