A tragicomic soap opera
Amar Chandel
Doordarshan Days by Bhaskar Ghose Penguin/Viking, New Delhi Pages 238. Rs 395

Those born and brought up on a staple diet of private TV channels can scarcely believe that there was a time when Doordarshan reigned supreme, but they who were witness to that era would recall how it dominated one’s life. Bhaskar Ghose headed the organisation in the turbulent 1980s and played an instrumental role in all that it was notorious for. He has now penned those bitter-sheet memories in a no-holds-barred fashion and made it as racy as a spy thriller.

The reason for this easy flow is that he has neither pulled his punches nor hesitated to name names. What viewers found most jarring in the performance of Doordarshan was equally unpalatable to him and he candidly tells us why the unthinkable happened. Understandably, he emerges as the good guy in this rogues’ gallery. After all, the book is not about his own performance.

One agrees with him that the story of Doordarshan is essentially a tragedy. It’s the tale of a publicly-funded organisation, deliberately twisted, distorted and made into a mediocre presenter of programmes lauding the government of the day and doing so badly for the most part. "Above all, it is the story of its owner, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in particular, and the Government of India, in general, not comprehending or wanting to comprehend the nature and identity of the organisation," Ghose laments.

Villains of the piece are politicians who wanted to use DD as their propaganda machine and their factotums, who were ever-willing to help them in this unholy endeavour.

Ghose recalls how he, a Commissioner, was plucked from West Bengal and brought to Delhi as the personal choice of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to head DD and transform it into a world-class broadcaster as good as BBC. He was given a carte-blanche.

As long as Rajiv was a force to reckon with, lesser politicians allowed his blue-eyed DD boy to have his way, but the moment he started losing by-elections here and there, they crawled out of the woodwork to gnaw at the valuable institution and chew it hollow.

Appointments were sought to be made on ministers’ insistence and how an I&B minister, out to please his fellow MPs, tried—and succeeded—in airing an amateurish performance by two teenaged girls in the National Programme of Dance, much to the chagrin of sensible viewers.

Ghose himself was from the IAS, but he openly acknowledges the havoc wrought by the intrigue and petty rivalries of his fellow bureaucrats. They never understood the complexities of TV broadcasting and yet tried everything to dominate it. Political patronage ensured that the least competent rose in the profession.

Thanks to the interference of those who controlled the purse-strings, the making of serials by Doordarshan producers was an excruciating ordeal. One producer, who had to show a character on screen breaking a doll in a fit of rage, bought two dolls, in case she had to reshoot the scene. This led to a major run-in with the financial adviser.

With DD’s own producers out of the way, private producers ruled the roost, made a pile and reduced DD to the status of a peddler of trash.

Ghose recalls how Ramayan was allowed to be aired despite its mediocre quality and how Ramanand Sagar used his political contacts to ensure that he dragged the story over hundreds of episodes. That it gained immense popularity is another matter.

Mahabharat was a slight improvement, but some of the special effects were "rather crude, even comical".

There are shocking details in the book about how pressure was applied to put stories into news bulletins. The commercial units never did any marketing. "Dull-as-ditchwater" coverage of book releases and ministers opening or closing events was the order of the day. The MPs thought the English films were pornography. The cameramen who covered cricket had no knowledge of the game. DD-III and DD International were strangulated.

A minister once tried to give an extension to a serial by a woman producer because he wanted to oblige a party colleague. The DG had to counter that "the extension isn’t possible. I can’t be responsible for every assurance given in a bedroom".

Then there is another brush with the same minister, who wants to "personally interview" a woman presenter of a music programme. The minister backs off only when told that she happens to be the daughter of an inspector-general of police. Ghose has even named the minister.

Positive developments are few and far between. Ghose was shunted out ceremoniously. Some may say that he has written a few things only out of pique, but insiders in the government organisations know that the bizarre incidents he reveals are common in this blunderland.

It’s a pity that things have not changed much two decades down the line. DD still seems to be out to please the political bosses.