The coronavirus has put the numbers back into television ratings but it has taken some fun out of watching television.
Fact is Covid-19 has infected television viewing in a most unusual way. How so?
Well, when you watch Ramayan, in a corona frame of mind, when you see Sita, seated solitary, under a tree, weeping as copiously as the rain that falls all about her — on account of her captivity by the villainous Ravana — the first, involuntary thought that pops into your head is, “Oh, at least she’s practicing social distancing!”
Suspension of disbelief
And then you think banishment is the best thing that could have happened to Ram, Sita and Lakshman, that their vanvas is ideal in the current lockdown—they were locked out and could roam freely in the forest, while we are locked in.
This is not meant to be sacreligious, disrespectful or even irreverent — it’s just the truth. And, this kind of reaction occurs often, nowadays, while watching films, TV shows or even sports — imagine hugging, body tackles, with no degrees of separation?
It is surreal to watch fictional characters go about their business, carefree and careless, in what used to be normal life. The only thing real, at the moment, is watching TV news which is enjoying some of its highest viewership ratings: ‘Death toll crosses 10,000 in France’, flashed CNN, Wednesday afternoon. That’s how real it gets.
So you require a willing suspension of disbelief and a readjustment of your mind’s gaze before you can sit back and relive Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, currently enjoying a charmed life on DD National.
Throwback eighties, nineties
Until the coronavirus lockdown, DD National was not viewers’ go-to destination for entertainment. However, with Ramayan, it has regained momentum — 170 million viewers for the epic, to begin with — and inspired the national broadcaster to re-telecast several other hit shows from the eighties.
After Ramayan, it is the biggest blockbuster of them all — Mahabharat. Keeping the epics company are dramas like Buniyaad, sitcoms like Dekh Bhai Dekh, Shrimaan Shrimati, the detective Byomkesh Bakshi and our very own supernatural hero Shaktimaan.
What’s it like watching the 80s shows in 2020?
Well, it’s 50: 50: firstly, the picture quality isn’t up to the current standards – at least not on the LED big screen. Ram and Sita look a bit faded as though they belonged to the past — which of course they do.
Conversely, the experience is also more intimate — there are fewer cameras, no 360s waltzes, fewer angle or long shots, many more close ups so we look straight into Bhishma’s eyes (Mahabharat) or Laloji’s face as she shyly accepted Masterji’s marriage proposal (Buniyaad).
The special effects in the epics or Shaktimaan are child’s play, not the masterly CGI we now have in Avengers. But there are no shattering sound effects or faces alarmingly changing colour either.
DD had the range
Onto individual shows. Ramayan appears to have lost some sheen since it was first telecast in 1987. Then it was the first mythological, and one among a few shows we could watch for entertainment in the single channel world of Doordarshan.
Now the acting seems rather wooden, the faces fairly expressionless, the dialogue stilted — and, dare we say, most of the characters are far too good and saintly to be compelling?
Mahabharat has aged much better with time. It looks bright and bold, it is the ultimate melodrama — no wonder, it’s said, subsequent TV soaps are based on it — taut and tense like a well-strung instrument. There’s something much more human about it. Of course, it’s also better and more lavishly produced — the female characters wear enough jewellery to make the current TV protagonists’ adornments appear paltry. It’s action-packed with far better performances too.
Shaktimaan is a bit of a revelation. This Mukesh Khanna sci-fi show came a decade after Ramayan and ran for nine years. It’s an unapologetic copy of Superman — Pandit Gangadhar, Shaktimaan’s alter ego, even works at a newspaper alongside his Lois Lane (played here by Kitu Gidwani). But it’s got a goofy sense of humour in addition to the supernatural hijinx — and when the villain tilts the ground or transforms police rifles into snakes, it’s more convincing than the serpents in the current hit show Naagin (Colors).
Then there’s Buniyaad (1986): this can still be watched with intense involvement. It’s still topical, dealing with Partition and its aftermath, which fits in rather conveniently with the current India-Pakistan narrative, on TV news especially. It is also the quintessential family drama about Haveliram, a teacher and freedom fighter, and his family, divided by Partition as much as British India was to be.
Manohar Shyam Joshi’s story, the script still engages you as does the star cast led by Alok Nath, Anita Kanwar and Sudhir Pandey. It’s also quaint: letters are delivered and read throughout and people receive telegrams — yes, that’s telegrams, not the messaging app Telegram.
The sitcoms are not as hilarious as we found them back in the day, but you’ll still watch them because there is so little that’s funny these days.
Dekh Bhai Dekh, a family comedy, was the making of Shekhar Suman — and he is till so cute in it — while Shrimaan Shrimati features two couples with the husbands besotted by each other’s wives. It’s the inspiration for the current Bhabhi Ji Ghar Pe Hain (& TV). An extravagant Archana Puran Singh plays one of the wives and she can still make you laugh — now she’s the laughter box on the Kapil Sharma Show (Sony).
So what’s the verdict? Well, old is not gold but it still holds its own against the current TV serials.
Views are personal.