The farce of Doordarshan

reportage-farce-doordarshanStarted in early seventies to ‘counter the extremist Pakistani propaganda’, the entry of Doordarshan into Kashmir was based on a flawed premise. With violence erupting in early nineties in Kashmir, the visual medium not only served the statist discourse but it also gave birth to a culture of sycophancy and nepotism whose primary victims have been the artists of the Valley.

A nervous looking boy is sitting with a teary eyed girl in lush green gardens somewhere in Srinagar’s Zabarwan Hills. The boy is fraught with emotions and reveals his desires to the muted girl in a frightened tone.

Tche tchai paai, bi tchus ni awarre ladkov manz (You know I am not one of those ruffians),” he tells her, “bi tchus tche seeth khandar yetchaan karrun (I intend to marry you).”

The girl looks confused and doesn’t utter a word. Tears well up in her eyes and a quaint smile starts forming on her lips. But there lies a twist. Behind an evergreen grove in the garden are three malicious-looking men eavesdropping on the couple. One of the men sports a sideburn, which resembles an axe. He encourages his chum who is standing by his side not to lose heart.

“The girl hasn’t accepted the proposal, he says with a flimsy bravado speckled with a phrase: ‘Qasam tchum footbaali hyund‘ (I swear on football).

The scene cuts to the boy who produces from his pocket a rose drained of color and offers it to the girl. The three men are aghast, naturally, at this sudden appearance of a rose.

“How dare he?” cries one of them.

“Wait, Gulshan taeth is not going to accept it,” the swearing one calms him.

The blind girl who by now is clearly moved by the bland romantics of the act gropes in the air with her hand. She accepts the rose, dashing the hopes of a contender spying on her from behind the evergreen grove. Moments later, after the girl leaves the spot, the three clownish men beat the singed lover to pulp. All along, a jarring music plays in the background.

As the production credits roll on in the end, the screen pauses for a brief moment when the name of the director, producer and writer appears, a single name, of Bashir Dada.

Dada is a veteran director with Doordarshan whose oeuvre of work ranges from social comedies to light satire which he believes are ‘reflective of the changes Kashmiri society has witnessed’. “Subjects other than these get censored. The directors and writers understandably stop giving ideas which don’t fall in line with the policy of Doordarshan. It is a compromise on art, but that’s what is happening,” he says in a solemn tone.

I met Dada on a sunny February afternoon outside Nava-e-Subh Complex near Old Zero Bridge in Srinagar which houses the office of Doordarshan Srinagar Kendra. Scores of men milled in groups of three to four around the complex. On a closer look, they look familiar; some of them regularly appear on DD Kashir.

Inside the garrisoned building is a spacious and brightly lit office of Shabir Mujahid, the present director of Srinagar Kendra. A small, color television in a corner shows a Kashmiri singer crooning a song but the TV is on mute. Unable to make himself heard, the singer seems frozen in time.

“The serials you are speaking of are commissioned by New Delhi. Srinagar Kendra has no say it. The quality dips because of the influx of non-professionals into the field. The flaw lies in the commissioning process done by New Delhi. Every Tom, Dick and Harry can get a proposal and become a producer,” Mr Mujahid says.

“Anyone can be a producer with Doordarshan. A tea-maker or a cart puller can produce shows because Doordarshan follows no criteria in recruitment process. And in the absence of an independent film or television industry, this is what is passed off as entertainment,” Arshad Mushtaq says.

Mushtaq is a known artist who shot to prominence with his direction of ‘Su Yii’, a Kashmiri adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot few years after he post-graduated in journalism from the University of Kashmir. Since then, he has been closely watching the functioning of Doordarshan, besides directing plays on the stage.

Arshad believes that Doordarshan’s popularity rose in the Valley due to a fact that viewers had no alternatives and one had to watch what was shown on TV. “When people switched on their TV sets, it was Doordarshan they tuned into. No other channel was there, though some of the programs were good,” he says.

One such ‘exception’ was Hazaar Dastan, a serial which played a significant role in popularization of television in Kashmir. It was the result of an idea rooted in the deteriorating political scenario and rising corruption in Valley. “Its popularity rested on two factors – one that people were awestruck by the visual media and other was that people liked to see truth. It was a satire on the government and people in Kashmir immediately connected with it,” says Mushtaq, sitting behind a wooden table in his basement studio at Nava-e-Subh Complex.

But the quality of shows produced by Doordarshan dipped during nineties when it became clear that the platform was being designed to ‘produce propaganda’ for controlling public opinion. The other reason of the decline in its viewership was the mushrooming of cable television in the Valley.

Says Mushtaq: “Doordarshan was never a people’s voice. How could it be? It had to counter the sentiment in Kashmir. During and after nineties, when the passé production quality couldn’t stand before programs from other channels, people stopped watching it.”

In the early seventies when Doordarshan started its journey, people in the Valley were enthusiastic watchers of Pakistan TV. In those days, PTV produced engaging social dramas which were liked and appreciated by varied audiences in Kashmir who had access to television. Pakistan television had started beaming earlier in 1962, before TV was introduced in the Valley.

“Pakistani serials were very popular here. One reason was that they were family shows and we faced no cultural clash with Pakistan. Even Kashmiri Pandits used to watch them. Those serials were technically ahead of us. They were essentially dramas with a social message,” Bashir Dada says.

Dada was a cartoonist and a theater actor when TV started in valley. “When DD came into the Valley, it employed people from theatre and radio,” he says. He got a break as an actor and he fondly remembers that ‘people liked my character very much’.

Dada speaks nostalgically of the period from early seventies to the onset of armed rebellion against Indian rule in Kashmir in early nineties. He believes it was a golden period for television, which could boast of serials like Hazaar Dastan and Habba Khatoon. Decay set in with the tensing of situation and Doordarshan started approving scripts for serials which ‘had absolutely no resonance with the day-to-day realities of Kashmir’.

On a chilly Friday in February, I went to meet a self-proclaimed director, writer and producer. Sitting in his office at the top floor of the Nava-e-Subh building, I quiz him about his work as a director outside Doordarshan. He looks at me with a perturbed expression on his face and replies in broken words, “There is nothing here, beyond Doordarshan. We cannot do Rs 5000 shows for private channels. Doordarshan is the only God of television industry in Kashmir.”

He lists out names of his serials which he believes were ‘very popular’. I ask him about the poor quality of serials shown on DD Kashir. His face brightens up and he says that it was because of the rampant corruption in Doordarshan. “They have never invested in credibility. Favoritism and nepotism is common. It obviously affects quality,” he says.

As we discuss the subjects chosen for serials shown on DD Kashir, I point out to him the unrealistic nature of the subject matter chosen by producers; the scenes and the choice of dialogues used in the serials border on absurdity and are mostly alien to the popular culture in Kashmir. He concedes that ‘reality-based projects are rejected by Doordarshan’, “So we don’t send them, though I have tried to depict the problems facing Kashmir in some of my serials, he says.

One of the serials he has made is on the phenomenon of enforced disappearances that have been reported from the Valley since the outbreak of armed rebellion in early nineties. As he adjusts his computer screen and searches for the serial in its hard-drive, I watch curiously. In the first scene of the serial, the camera zooms in on a pale woman who is weeping inconsolably. Cut to a young man walking in through the door of a ramshackle, single-storied house; cut again to the weeping woman getting up and staring blankly at the young man inside the room; cut to the hug they give each other as camera focuses on the weeping woman.

The particular scene is repeated after intervals over different settings but the act doesn’t change – a sulking woman hugging a young man, till the episode ends. The director explains that this young boy reminds the woman of her son who has been a victim of enforced disappearance. How and when the son disappeared, the setting of the scene, the circumstances under which it occurred, the serial doesn’t tell us, says the director.

“We cannot tell the truth in Doordarshan. It’s a sad commentary on our art. Home ministry wants to prove the sentiment of Kashmiris wrong. They have sacrificed our art to achieve their ends,” Dada says on the question of responsibility an artist has towards his people.

Dada’s words portray him as a man with keen awareness of his duty towards his society but such an awareness, ironically, fizzles out in the serials he has produced or directed. “We have compromised ourselves. The directors and producers should be blamed for the state we are in, because we have become greedy,” he says in a stern tone, “it’s a money minting business now.”

Kashmir doesn’t have an independent film industry. Local artists and directors are invariably dependent on Doordarshan. With scripts being killed in the larger national interest, as a senior Doordarshan official pointed out, this has led to a situation where anyone can be a producer with Doordarshan, provided he or she doesn’t cross the line.

“Contractors and businessmen have become producers overnight. With no education in art or media, these people produce shows just for the sake of it. They give out money to officials in Doordarshan so that they lay hands on a project with as many episodes as possible which persons, however professional they might be, can’t get, because they have no money to purchase their approval,” Dada says.

When I question Dada about the quality of serials, he blames it on corruption. “The preview committee doesn’t look twice on the script. For ten to twenty thousand rupees, anything can be approved.”

On a bustling street leading from Amira Kadal, the second bridge over Jehlum river in the heart of Srinagar city, to the historic clock tower in Lal Chowk, several men, mostly youths, have set up makeshift wooden stalls on sidewalks where they sell CDs and DVDs. They are mostly pirated copies of Bollywood and Hollywood super-hits but once you sift through a pile of neatly packed discs or look at the shelves, there are CDs of Kashmiri dramas and music albums too.

Kashir comedy serials are sold in good numbers. People watch them. It’s good for business,” says a CD seller while haggling with a migrant worker about the price of a six-in-one Bollywood super-hits DVD. He recalls that the bestselling titles so far have been Kashir Sholay andBangol, among many others.

At a stone’s throw away is the retail shop of Music Tapes Industry (MTI), a music company registered with the government which produces Kashmiri Sufi music albums and is a big name in the local music industry. During the last decade, MTI has also produced serials under its banner and some of them have been huge hits. Zahoor Ahmad Shah, the owner of MTI, started the business of producing Kashmiri serials with an aim of ‘bringing Kashmiri art and culture into the homes of common people’.

“We have even made a three-hour film called Habba Khatoon, which was a tremendous success and sold over 2000 copies. We have also made serials like Meanzi Raat on dowry and it also sold well. But we have stopped making serials, since there is no demand for them anymore,” he says.

Next to a barber saloon in the Chotta Bazar locality of old Srinagar city is a provision store. A clean-shaven man is sitting on a chair behind a large wooden table. , Asif Ahmad Shah is the former owner of Super Audio Industry (SAI) which closed down in 2007 due to ‘bad business and lack of audience’ for the serials it produced.

Asif started SAI in early eighties. He began by selling music cassettes and later ventured into production of drama serials, mostly comedies. “All the dramas I produced were huge hits. I brought CDs into Kashmir. No one here knew then what a CD was,” says Asif behind a neat row of transparent plastic jars selling confectionary tops and chewing gums.

The CDs sold well, he says, and it shot to prominence characters like Seth Rafi, Bashir Koturand Gulzar fighter. “I introduced the trio to the public. Nobody knew them before. And people started loving them,” he says. Blaming the decline in his business to the ‘fast pace of internet and easy downloading’, Asif believes his contribution to the culture of television production in Kashmir has been unjustly overlooked.

Started mainly as a business venture and closed down for the same reason, Bashir Dada is uncharitable in his regard for Asif’s class of Kashir dramas. “These CD dramas have badly impacted the art and culture of Valley. These are unprofessional people who simply want to make profit. On one hand, there is Doordarshan which chooses its own subjects and where showing truth is unholy, and on the other commercialization in the form of CD dramas has led to cheap appropriation of our culture. In this fix, the future of independent television in Kashmir is bleak,” Dada says.

People want to see the stories of nineties on screen, he reveals, and Doordarshan has succeeded in not making it happen.

Doordarshan Srinagar Kendra currently has three to four in-house directors on its rolls. The rest of the programs are directed by floor managers who are assisted by cameramen and other, in-house staff who are not always professionals. This bizarre functioning has attained legitimacy with the passage of time. Those who run the show have achieved positions by default, and not by their professional capabilities. The Srinagar Kendra has no policy for empanelment of documentary filmmakers and cinematographers. Several directors and producers grumble about lack of work. The last commissioning happened in 2009 and many of those who managed to obtain approval for production are now fighting court cases against Doordarshan for non-release of their payment. These are some telling realities reflected in the banality of serials, news and other programs telecast on DD Kashir.

However, it’s for no reason that Doordarshan Srinagar Kendra doesn’t possess a single mass communication degree holder or a professional producer or director among its rank and file. “In this grim scenario where non-professionals are ruling the roost in DD, the talent was supposed to come from the University of Kashmir. Unfortunately, a majority of candidates prefer to work in print and those who are passionate about filmmaking or electronic media don’t get proper training or education,” Arshad Mushtaq says.

His remarks are echoed by the present director of Doordarshan Srinagar Kendra, Shabir Mujahid, “People here don’t know the basics of electronic media. It’s the reason why our floor managers act as directors because those outside Doordarshan just can’t do it right,” argues Mr Mujahid, raising his tone as if to make a point.

Speaking on the ills besetting the quality of TV productions, Mr Mujahid admits that some of the programs ‘are not up to the mark, particularly fiction’, “But it would not be fair to compare us with other satellite channels like Star and Sony. They are full of glamour.”

When I point out to him that a large chunk of mass communication postgraduates qualify from Kashmir University every year, Mr Mujahid dismisses them as ‘novices’ and ‘unprofessional’, “These kids are not trained well. Who will train them? Kashmir University has no such degree programs. Teachers there don’t know the basics of television production themselves. In my opinion, they should have a separate course on filmmaking at least which could held aspiring students to learn the basics of TV production.”

Mr Mujahid’s remarks hold true given the fact that almost all the staff of Kashmir University’s Media School are pure academicians with minimal or no experience in either print or electronic media. Though there is a course in the two year post-graduate degree on filmmaking and TV production, it is mostly taught from books in closed rooms.

“It has created a situation where there is no one to teach filmmaking to aspiring students because the department hasn’t produced even one good filmmaker,” one of the faculty members of Media Education Research Center at Kashmir University told me, wishing not to be named.

But the lack of talent hasn’t affected production at Doordarshan. Cash has flowed in from Delhi with less accountability. Funding is of two types: one is meant for in-house production and other for producers who are empanelled with Doordarshan, and not on its rolls. The amount meant for the latter usually exceeds the one for former by many times.

“What these people do is that they get lakhs of rupees from the federal home ministry to make programs, but they outsource them to non-professional and get their work done cheaply for several thousand rupees. New Delhi starts commissioning and releasing funds when situation in Kashmir is volatile,” Arshad Mushtaq says.

It has led to scams where senior officials have been found violating law and diverting funds meant for in-house productions to private producers and directors, people from diverse backgrounds ranging from government contractors to tea makers, whose fortunes have turned in an overnight tide in a state trapped in the trauma of violence.

“We have set up a departmental enquiry and presently we are enquiring the case of a director who indulged in outsourcing in-house programs,” Mr Mujahid says.

On my way to Doordarshan office, I came across a form released by Doordarshan for empanelment of stringers. Strangely, the announcement was not publicized. No newspaper in the Valley carried any advertisement about the empanelment process. The advertisement was announced on a news scroll running on DD Kashir whose viewership is at a lowest as compared to other Indian and foreign satellite channels available to viewers through a booming Direct-to-Home satellite TV network.

“We announced it on our channel. If people want to know about the recruitment, they should come to us,” Mujahid says.

For Arshad Mushtaq, art sprouts out of the realities common people face, “The test for a real artist is how honestly he or she depicts it. If your neighbor’s son has been murdered or subjected to enforced disappearances, you as an artist have to talk about it.”

Mushtaq says Doordarshan never encourages a script where there is even a mention of the word ‘Azaad or Azaadi.’ “They are so paranoid about the word Azaadi; suppose you wanted to say ‘bandoron ko chidya ghar se azaadi chahiye’ (Monkeys want to be set free from the zoo), they simply will change the dialogue.”

Rejection also comes in the form of reduction in the number of episodes. A Kashmiri adaptation of the popular nineteenth century English novel The Mayor of Casterbridge made by Arshad Mushtaq was reduced to six episodes when the proposal was made for thirteen episodes. “I was asked to make only six episodes while at the same time ordinary shows get ten to thirteen episodes,” Arshad says.

The adaptation was not given prime time slot and it was shown during the month of Ramadan at 12:30 in the morning when most people in the Valley were in their beds after a day of fast. “I myself have never seen it on TV,” Mushtaq says with a smile.

Bashir Dada halfheartedly recalls several of his projects which were rejected by Doordarshan for unknown reasons. One of them was Gulaab – The Stone Pelter, which Dada states was a realistic portrayal of a stone thrower who dies with a stone in his hand.  “I had shown a young boy, a bright student, who resorts to stone throwing after his best friend dies in his arms. But it was outrightly rejected. They never give reasons; they are meant to be self-understood,” he says in a gruff voice.

Originally published here —


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