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WATCHING DD BHARATI

- A different pursuit

More and more, I find myself watching DD Bharati. My television viewing is random: since I work at home, I have the option of exploring what in Britain is derisively called ‘daytime television’. I often exercise it. After eleven o’ clock in the morning, I need caffeine to keep myself from drifting off to sleep or to protect myself from migraine. Of course, daytime TV — comprising quiz shows, lunchtime discussions, and all the other stuff meant for infants and the unemployed — is largely irrelevant, as a notion, in India, where we have cable or dish-antennae television, which makes no distinction between night and day, and on which programmes keep repeating themselves every twelve hours. At quarter or half-past eleven, I stir the coffee and guiltily switch on the TV: my daughter is at school, my wife at work, and I am at home, watching the news. This is a weekday routine: Saturdays and Sundays are quite different — there’s a pent-up restiveness in me that won’t let me stay at home. Weekdays, after eleven, I allow myself 20 minutes of television as I let the caffeine swim into my bloodstream. We have 26 ‘favourites’ selected from channels that are too numerous to keep track of. DD Bharati is one of them.

I can’t recall the exact moment at which I actually became aware of this channel. Preceding my discovery, I ranged casually and dementedly over seven or eight alternatives. There were, naturally, the channels that show Hollywood movies, and repeat Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure infinitely. Years passed, and I gradually concluded that these channels — HBO, Star Movies — needed to be bypassed unless I had an inexhaustible need for National Treasure. In this cocktail of movie channels are some — less glossy ones, such as Sony Pix — that occasionally throw up a movie that isn’t only a decent piece of entertainment, but a ‘good film’: maybe even a ‘good film’ you haven’t seen. I make this distinction to clarify that I’m on the prowl, as I cruise the channels, not for aesthetic satisfaction but for escapist fare. Nevertheless, when you do, by happenstance, light on something that’s artistically interesting, you may recognize it for what it is instantly, or its quality may dawn on you after ten minutes; but the order and category of the response is unsettling, and disrupts the general métier of TV-watching. For the channel-hopper, it is almost impossible to catch a programme or a film from the start, and the rule is that you descend upon it midway, or some way after it’s begun. You then make a simple assessment: is this boring, or is it entertainment? Very intermittently, the channel-hopper will be confronted with another kind of question as he or she watches: is this of value in some way? Why is it giving me a particular kind of pleasure?

The free market brings to you a wealth of consumable rubbish, but inadvertently it will give you an artefact or gem without explanation. Very little information is provided: you, like a critic or connoisseur, will have to decide if what you’re watching has significance. I recall glimpsing a film many times on Sony Pix. It was set in London; the actors and the quality of the colour — noticed in a flash — suggested it was made in the 1970s. Each time, it drew me in. I’d never seen it before. It had Glenda Jackson in it. The London it was portraying seemed to be south of the Thames, antediluvian, industrialized, with pockets of gardens and deep, Victorian, middle-class houses. Its central figure was a bisexual artist (Murray Head), a young man desired both by a Jewish doctor (Peter Finch) and a bored housewife (Glenda Jackson). The film’s world seemed to be located somewhere between the Pasolini of Teorema, the Antonioni of Blow-Up (also mostly set in South East London), and the English tradition of vital social realism, such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning — except the characters in this movie were middle- and not working-class. Consulting the information box on the Tatasky menu, I was told the film was called Sunday Bloody Sunday. Turning to Google, I found it was a much-lauded film in its time (1971), made by John Schlesinger, all of whose early films are terrific, but largely forgotten, as is the specific and very creative English filmmaking tradition they belong to. What was Sunday Bloody Sunday doing on Sony Pix and Tatasky, alongside Pirates of the Caribbean? There was no explanation for the film, let alone its repeated showings. Changing channels, I would miss the beginning each time, and each time find myself absorbed in its South London.

Which is to say — in the free-market world of satellite and cable TV, it isn’t enough to be well-informed or discriminating to access the interesting fare on television: you need to be lucky. You will not be guided towards the best things on offer, as we are long liberated from an educated dispensation reigning over culture; so you must depend on chance. Perhaps this was always the case with our cultural discoveries; but it appears to be the rule now. I spent most of the 1980s and 1990s in England, catching British TV at a time when it was an institution that most British people were proud of, when part of it was, indeed, governed by a patrimony of taste. In the 1990s came the great change wrought by Thatcher’s legacy, leading the novelist, Iain Sinclair, to bewail the destruction capitalism had visited not just on high but on popular culture and television. But in the early 1980s, under the benign, adventurous dispensation that had created BBC2, I recall watching M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, Mani Kaul’s Duvidha, and Abel Gance’s hours-long silent epic, Napoléon, on British TV. About such memories, you’re never certain what’s most extraordinary — the astonishing films themselves, or the fact that you were watching them on a Saturday afternoon, at a time reserved for football and horse-racing. I also recall terrific sitcoms like Rising Damp co-existing with late-night interviews with Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, figures then hardly widely-known in England.

That time — whatever its intellectual hegemony might have been, socialist or bourgeois — when TV, from time to time, showcased culture and fostered taste, consciously introducing its viewers to the wonders available to it, is long gone now. But that doesn’t mean those moments — those discoveries — don’t happen to us any more. The homogenizing, samey weave of the free market appears to entangle everything; but, given that the market is informed by periodic boom and bust, the weave is also constantly unravelling in places. We have to take advantage of those tears and rents in the fabric. It’s there — in the tear — that you might see, like a full moon or a rare bird, Sunday Bloody Sunday or DD Bharati.

I came upon DD Bharati around the time I’d grown resigned to never seeing classical music concerts on TV again. Or interviews with writers, for that matter. Such a generous display of channels, I thought, giving us variations of the same. It seemed that Indian TV couldn’t even make room for something like the US’s anodyne Public Broadcasting Service. How I then became conscious of DD Bharati I’m not, as I confessed before, certain: had it in been in existence for a while already, or did I discover it soon after its inception? Typically, there was nothing to flag it up. Like all things that come with the nomer DD or Doordarshan, it seemed to be one of the many anomalous vestiges of Congress-era programming, cocooned in a State-sponsored dullness. But the notion of the ‘State-sponsored’ itself doesn’t fit in a scenario that is now so cynically entrepreneurial. The very dullness of DD Bharati, once you notice its programmes, is alluring. You begin to understand how, in Indian television, the soporific is often an agent of the transformative. I recall seeing a documentary on this channel on chhau dancers that looked, at first, like any common-or-garden offering until I saw the filmmaker was accentuating the dullness of his fare by showing us how much time the lead dancer, when he wasn’t performing the chhau, spent doing nothing, or sleeping, on a string cot. As I entered the film’s rhythms, I realized that something extraordinary about the world of chhau was being given to me, partly through these lacklustre records of the dancer’s indolence. The filmmaker (I looked for the name in the credits) was Ranjan Palit.

I could say the same of DD Bharati: that it opens up in the midst of the unimpressive and the lacklustre. What archives Doordarshan possesses! From old recordings of Kumar Gandharva and Amir Khan performing (the latter pedantic and dignified, like a Jewish intellectual), to the birdcall in the soundtrack in interviews with writers like Qurratulain Hyder, O.V. Vijayan, and Nirmal Verma, to the pilgrimage-stops in the odd but lovely travelogue-films made by the genteel, prissily correct Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, to the late Arvind N. Das, a myopic presenter of passionate meticulousness, to temples, mosques, temples: there’s much here related to the languages inhabiting our consciousness, to the still-cherishable features of our culture, to the vestiges of our childhood and our half-conscious awareness of the unfolding of lives. No other channel captures so well the reasons we both ignore and are haunted by ‘India’.