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March 07, 2019

Revisiting ’90s Prime Time TV

Text by Vivek Tejuja. Illustration by Rohan Hande

The decade when liberalisation dramatically altered many facets of our lives saw the advent of cable TV, which came with an array of channels and aspirational programmes. Verve decodes the unchecked optimism of middle-class families who gathered around their screens every night, ready to be teleported out of their living rooms

The year was 1992. Cable television would revolutionise the Indian TV-viewing experience like nothing else, and soon Zee TV became a household name. Every kid I knew was watching Junglee Toofan Tyre Puncture, and the ones who weren’t wondered what it was. Why was Saanp Seedi being discussed in the school playground? Who was this guy named Mohan Kapoor? What was going on?

My world was cocooned. My parents ensured that we wouldn’t be exposed to the ‘ill effects’ of cable television. They somehow took pride in shielding me and my siblings from the soapy world of The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara — both of which were aired on Star World in India — the channel was launched here in 1993 and soon appealed to English-speaking audiences with its general entertainment programmes. That was not a part of who we were. Had we so easily forgotten B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharat or Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan of the 1980s that we had been forced to watch every Sunday morning, when nothing else used to be on air? However, although almost everything else was forbidden, my parents did encourage us, every week, to watch Zee TV’s Bournvita Quiz Contest. This went on till I was about 12 years old.

The ’90s was a time when liberalisation stepped in and changed almost everything in our lives. Coca-Cola and chocolates that didn’t seem accessible were suddenly well within our reach. The toys that once seemed like far-fetched wishes now entered the shelves of stores we were familiar with. There was magic in the air — optimism, hope, and a lot of positivity — and it was reflected in the shows that we consumed.

India had aspirations; its middle class had sprouted wings and was attempting to fly, and Zee TV lit up the way. The channel’s Tol Mol Ke Bol was a game show that made contestants guess the price of hampers containing household items in order to win them. Gone were the days of Hum Log on Doordarshan, when everything and everyone was bleak. We had entered the world of milk and honey, of Banegi Apni Baat, where even a small-town family could dream big after relocating to a large metropolis such as Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995). When it started, the show also opened up our worlds through what the characters ate — this was the early ’90s, when our moms would make pizza at home, before Pizza Hut and Domino’s entered the market in 1996 — from burgers to pastas and lasagna, it all seemed exotic. Banegi Apni Baat also introduced us to the idea of making out, to sex, to topics that were once taboo, but not anymore. Our world was rapidly changing.

The one show that I will never forget is Tara. It made the women of the ’90s believe that they were worth a lot more and, yes, they were. It represented a true idea of feminism — of what four women were capable of in the big bad city of Bombay. Love, premarital sex and pregnancy, single motherhood, and an affair with a married man — Tara had everything that we wouldn’t want to taint our ‘Indian culture’ with, yet, surprisingly, no one thought of banning or boycotting it.

The ’90s was a progressive time. Or at least it appeared to be. We had all been waiting to show the world that we were not just an exotic land of elephants, circus people and tigers. We were more than that and shows such as Swabhimaan, on DD Metro, were a result of that desire. Swabhimaan too was aspirational for middle-class viewers. It lured us into believing that we could all be rich and live a life of plenty, one that did not compel you to think twice before indulging in a purchase, and, of course, the kind that could be led without a care in the world. You have to understand the mentality of the middle class — frugal, constantly trying to cut corners, hoping for a happy ending and, more than anything else, worrying — from day to day, almost hour to hour, sometimes even minute to minute, and nothing like good old television then to beat the stress.

Watching television was much more than a leisure activity. It also brought the entire family together — we fought to decide which ‘programmes’ (we didn’t call them series or shows) or serials to watch. Most mothers would also ensure that dinner was cooked way before time, so they didn’t have to slave away while others were hooked on to Zee Horror Show or Sa Re Ga Ma Pa or Antakshari. It was a family activity and we were the better for it — because that’s how we bonded with our parents and siblings. Most shows did not have repeat telecasts, so we had to make sure to watch them at the time they were aired live. The English channels did provide the comfort of catching up with shows at another time, but by then it would be too late at night for us to watch them.

I think at the heart of it all was a sense of freedom. The images onscreen became something more, larger than life even, and for many of us our only connect to the outside world. It would be a long time before mobile phones, and even longer before smartphones, would enter our lives. In all of this, you must understand the immensity of the role of the humble cable television.

I discovered a series that depicted the pangs of growing up in America, aptly titled The Wonder Years, a show that acquainted me with proms (I would always yearn to go to one, but that never happened until I was in high school or college), first loves, fights between friends, the confusion of adolescence and the anger of seeing pimples on your face almost every single day. Hip Hip Hurray soon came along, the first Indian show of its kind and one that youngsters strongly related to. The show revolving around a school in urban India — the students, their families, the teachers’ lives — made us see something new but at the same time blended perfectly with the fabric of our daily lives.

The thing about ’90s television was that while the serials were mostly relatable, music videos on MTV and Channel V really showed us how to be “with it”. They charmed us, as we danced along to them in our living rooms — from Lucky Ali crooning away in O Sanam and Ila Arun singing Nigodi Kaisi Jawani Hai unabashedly, to Euphoria reminding us of small-town India through songs such as Aana Meri Gully. Certain English songs, which might have been considered “vulgar” by some of our parents, were censored. So, many of us didn’t know any part except for “It’s black. It’s white” towards the end of that Michael Jackson song. At the same time, there were ballads such as I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, and that was the first time I had heard of or seen Kevin Costner and I was weak at the knees. I wanted to marry him. I wanted to be his wife — all thanks to the heteronormativity around me. I didn’t care though. My cousins and I would dance shamelessly to Khaled’s Didi with one of us in the centre and the rest pretending to be girls dancing around him, as we had seen in the music video. All of this took our tiny worlds by storm.

At this point, I must talk about something else that glued us to TV screens, and that is the very famous, the very exciting WWF (World Wrestling Federation), now WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment Inc). There was Hulk Hogan. There was Shawn Michaels. There was Yokozuna. There was the extremely popular Undertaker. The show they put on! The theatrics that took place in and out of the wrestling ring — we all knew it was fake but that didn’t dim the excitement one bit. We had cards that were distributed and exchanged, which were the equivalent of baseball cards in America — we had really become the “cool kids”.

The ’90s opened up children’s imaginations — sure there were books and libraries, but I think that television played the biggest role. And not just for kids, but for adults as well. It was a widespread epidemic — and this was just the beginning. We believed that we were the champions, and anything was possible. We participated in quiz shows and sent postcards when Renuka Shahane and Siddharth Kak asked a question on the popular cultural show Surabhi. We were optimistic. We didn’t understand censorship (unless you count parents controlling the TV channels) until it began to mean something in the early 2000s.

It was the best of times, perhaps also the worst, but we didn’t see that. There were times when we didn’t know what was in store, and it was quite alright — we were too busy having fun. We had great expectations in the ‘90s and the lives we lived through our television screens surpassed them one at a time.

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