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Friday, October 2, 2009


 Priya Tendulkar, better known as the firebrand crusader 'Rajni' hit the national limelight for her role as a crusader fighting for the rights of the common man in the TV serial 'Rajni'.

In the early 80’sthe most popular character on Indian television was a feisty young housewife called Rajni. It was Basu Chatterji’s first foray on television and the lead role was played by Priya Tendulkar. Draped in the traditional saree, hair pulled back and a bindi on her forehead, Rajni could have passed off for a woman next door. In reality far from being demure, fatalistic stereotype of Indian womanhood, Rajni was a gutsy no-nonsense lady. Her problems were common everyday obstacles faced by thousands of ordinary middle class Indians. The difference was that she refused to be cowed down by them. Errant taxi drivers, corrupt civic officials, deceiving astrologers were all straightened out with a dozen of her whip lash tongue. The fault, her conquering zeal seemed to suggest, was not in the stars but in ourselves. [1] And Rajni was certainly not underlying.
The serial was broadcast every Sunday morning. Rajni’s exploits provoked a storm of indignation- taxi drivers went off the roads in response to their negative portrayal in one of the episodes. The TV critics too condemned the quick fix solutions provided to every problem as being typically “escapist”. Television viewers however loved her. Ratings rose rapidly and Godrej, the company that was sponsoring the show registered a noticeable increase in the sales. And so completely had she captured the popular imagination that in march 1986, when imprint, a monthly features magazine decided to run a cover story on the Indian Middle class, it put a Rajni look-alike aiming a red glove punch at the camera on its cover. The article, titled “The Middle Class Strikes Back”-a forerunner of many to come-also identified the key to Rajni ‘s spectacular success:”The show is successful” the magazine claimed,” because it embodies a raising middle class consciousness…” Clearly, Rajni’s appeal was that of a warmonger. Her audience was middle class. If Rajni’s invitation to battle evinced such a strong response from this category of people more privileged than the country’s starving millions. It was because the perceived injustice among this class was equally great. Mrs. Indira Gandhi‘s policies and Rajiv Gandhi’s initial purported desire for carrying ahead his mother’s ideas for the benefit of the poor and the downtrodden deepened the middle class’s sense of isolation.
With Rajiv Gandhi’s broadened economic policies in his later years of prime minister-ship, the middle class started to breathe easy. And so did the TV serials portray the society that was ready to strike back the right chord of survival.
It is interesting to note that so alive was the slow that even ordinary people would approach Chatterji and Tendulkar for help. Even government officials from different parts of India asked Tendulkar, who was known to the masses as Rajni, help to instill confidence in the people's minds. Atal Behari Vajpayee, former Indian Prime Minister, on the death of Priya Tendulkar, said,” Her crusading role in and as Rajni gave voice to many important social issues… the popular TV show was a precursor to many meaningful issue-based serials”.[2]

The mid 80’s faced a decreasing interest of the general public for theatres and movie halls. The fragile experiment to reestablish the losing glory of these entertaining avenues faced a threat from and unexpected source. In 1982, following Doordarshan‘s amended policy on private sponsorship, a series of television programmes went into production. The new producers included ex- Doordarshan personnel, documentary producers, FTTI direction graduates and some commercial filmmakers. In the absence of a television tradition, the new programmers borrowed formats from the American TV. And to find actors for this sudden demand for TV series, the talent scouts descended upon Prithvi Theater troops, coaxing the actors to work for them.[3]
Soon the café began to wear a deserted look as everyone including hangers on and layabouts began to find work began to find work on the plethora of sitcoms, quizzes, popular music programmes, detective shows, and soap operas. “The faces that seemed to have a place was fixed in the restaurants were on their way to becoming familiar faces on the small screen”, noted 60yrs old Ravi Kothari, a retired Government official, who had spend some years in the erstwhile Bombay during the boom of the first TV serials. Many, in fact became virtually indistinguishable from their small screen personae! Pankaj Kapoor, turned into the carrot chomping case cracking detective Karamchand; Sushmita Mukherjee, his goggled-eyed assistant, Kitty; Anita Kanwar assumed the mantle of the compassionate Lajoji while Shafi Inamder was transformed into the henpecked husband of Yeh Jo Hai Zindegi. Thus the new colourful programmes on television diminished the audience for plays.
In 1984,Doordarshan had began airing India’s first and longest running soap, Hum Log(it was considered the longest before the advent of mega serials like Kyuki saas bhi bahu thi, kahani ghar ghar ki). The serial was started at the initiative of the then Information and Broadcasting secretary; S.S. Gill had visited Mexico to study the pro –development soaps of Muguel Sabido. These soaps were different from the regular commercial soaps aired on American television in the sense they combined entertainment with specific messages to promote some aspect of development. [4]
On his return, Gil commissioned a private producer, Snobha Doctor, to create a series that would combine a storyline with no family planning, the statue of women and so on; and thus Hum Log was born. The success of the serials indicated the existence of a huge market for well made indigenous programmes. And the government’s decision to go commercial laid the foundation for a new TV serial industry. Doordarshan still held the reins on paper; at least, its approval for a programme was subject to the inclusion of pro-development messages in the content. Nevertheless, the focus had shifted clearly towards entertainment.
From few hours of dull, education-heavy programming, Doordarshan expanded its telecast time with lively fare that included Khandaan, a hindi serial on the line of American serial Dynasty, Buniyaad, a family saga beginning in pre-partition India, Ek Kahani on villagers struggling against feudal oppressors and Subah on contemporary college life. There were thrillers such as Karamchand and Khoj. Sitcoms such as Yeh Jo Hai Zindegi, Mr Ya Mrs and Rajni get around ordinary middle class couples in ordinary middle class homes. There were also serials for children, like Indradhanush and Potli Baba ki.
Yet it is said that some sections of the society did grumble about their in adequate representation in the TV serials. The appearance of diversity thus was deceptive. Most of the new programmes, particularly the top rated ones, portrayed an urban way of life that was alien to majority of the country’s people. A study conducted by Arvind Singal and Everett Rogers in 1987 discovered the 60 % of the low income households felt that television did not adequately project the difficulties and problems of their daily lives, over 90% of artisans and labourers felt that the knowledge and the skills of their occupational category were not properly depicted and 85% of the low cast TV viewers felt their needs and aspirations had no place on the electric medium. Since the national programme- on which the serials were aired – was Hindi an inevitably high percentage of non hindi speakers (60%) also felt alienated.[5]
Despite inadequate representation, the new glossy looking serials immensely boosted the populality of TV in India. And it presented with a few hours of free, well packaged diversion. Thus every evening most TV owners chose to stay increasingly at home. This predictably took the audience aware from the other media- the theatre and the movie halls. Sarda Devi, a 78yrs old widow complained,’ my sister would decline watching movies and theatres on pretext of watching TV. She was married and had that idiot box in her in laws place. We still didn’t have one.’
As for the general, the new form of entertainment was accepted in open arms, the adults would watch but the children were kept away from it. 35yrs old TV serial director, Subhasis Chakraborty lamented during his interview,’…I was not much allowed to indulge in movie watching or even serials at that time by my parents. I did not watch Hum Log or Buniyaad for the same reason.’


Amrita: Hype, Hypocrisy And Television In Urban India: 1997 ‘Middle Class
Strike Back’, Pg:-31, (Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd)


3) Shah,
Amrita: Hype, Hypocrisy And Television In Urban India: 1997 ‘Middle Class
Strike Back’, Pg:-49, (Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd)

4) Shah,
Amrita: Hype, Hypocrisy And Television In Urban India: 1997 ‘Middle Class
Strike Back’, Pg:-50, (Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd)

5) Shah,
Amrita: Hype, Hypocrisy And Television In Urban India: 1997 ‘Middle Class
Strike Back’, Pg:-51, (Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd)

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