Decoded: Doordarshan’s rise to power on the back of Ramayan and Mahabharat

Updated: May 23, 2020 10:32 AM

DD which aired the last episode of Uttar Ramayan on April 25 produced an astounding 67.8 million audience impressions

Doordarshan, ramayan, mahabharat, paritosh joshiWhat makes it more noteworthy, arguably worthy of academic scrutiny even, is that the same programming which powered DD’s popularity in the 1980s is again fuelling its exponential growth in 2020.

By Paritosh Joshi

“Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?”

No, I don’t really expect you to have heard that line before. You’d have to be born before 1970 to have a passing chance of ever hearing it. It is from “Back To The Future”, a film which released in 1985. In which two Stephens, Zemeckis, the Director and Spielberg, the Producer introduced the audience to Time Travel.

In so many ways, the last two months have been about progressively disconnecting ourselves from the hurly burly of our twenty first century lives, and going back to a gentler, simpler past. It’s almost like a virus came along and things became so heavy, we decided to shed all the excess baggage and go, “Back To The Past”. A past exactly corresponding to the mid-1980s, when our imaginations began to undertake their temporal voyages.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You’ve probably heard of Broadcast Audience Research Council by now. Yes, better recognised by its acronym, BARC. I am privileged to work at BARC and, as a result, enjoy a ringside view of the ringside view of India’s television audiences, which you know as TV ratings. (No, there is no error in that sentence!) So, let me begin by asking you a question. Who is the big winner on India’s television sets, these COVID-19 weeks?

No, it isn’t perpetually squabbling joint families who live in improbably opulent homes. It isn’t a gang of criminals which takes dozens of people hostage at a currency note printing press. And it isn’t the blockbuster finale of a superhero franchise either.

DD. Yes, Doordarshan. The very same Doordarshan which was the uncontested ruler of our television screens when mobility just meant the ability to get around, over-the-top was outrageous hyperbole and the only creatures which tweeted were little sparrows.

What a dramatic resurgence it has been, too. What makes it more noteworthy, arguably worthy of academic scrutiny even, is that the same programming which powered DD’s popularity in the 1980s is again fuelling its exponential growth in 2020.

Lord Ram, Sita, Laxman, Hanuman and Ravan assumed recognisable identities in our mental image bank in a shape contrived and rendered by Ramanand Sagar which we consumed, with insatiable appetite, every Sunday morning. Arun Govil’s dulcet tones and Arvind Trivedi’s menacing growls gave voice to our imaginings of the Maryada Purushottam- Shri Ram and evil incarnate- Ravan, the tyrant king of Lanka. All this was in 1987. In 2020, as if time had telescoped all the intervening decades, we are back watching Doordarshan as it reups this great epic tale written by Valmiki and Sant Tulsidas.

Ramayan completed its run on DD in 1987, followed closely in 1988 by a tale of even greater sweep and production values of even greater razzmatazz as the father and son team of B. R. and Ravi Chopra brought Mahabharat to our living room screens. Anyone old enough to have been around a television set in the late 80’s is, right now, beginning to hum the title song “अतः श्री महाभारत कथा”, “Thus begins the story of Mahabharat”, in their minds. Nitish Bharadwaj’s enigmatic smile is our Lord Krishna ‘meme’, Mukesh Khanna’s ringing baritone is, for ever, Bhishma Pitamah and Puneet Issar’s sneering swagger is Duryodhana in all his venomousness.

These, and other, tales from Indian Mythology are mesmerizing us again, and at a scale which dwarves anything possible in the 1980s. If India’s TV viewing population, back in that era, would probably have been less than 10 million households across the metros and state capitals, it is 20 times larger now, close to 200 million. No surprise there. Until cable & satellite television arrived, thanks to Operation Desert Storm, in late 1990, all TV content was delivered terrestrially, and reach was constrained to locations within line-of-sight of a high- or low-power transmitter. State capitals across the country now have a rusting remnant of those technoprimitive days in the form of a landmark called TV Tower.

Why is the mythological, despite dialogues which sound curiously stagey and archaic, and special effects which even a high school animation and graphics project could overhaul, within five minutes on iMovie, making such a big impact on audiences in 2020? How big is the impact, anyway? Let me address the latter question with some BARC data.

DD aired the last episode of Uttar Ramayan, the Ramanand Sagar produced sequel to the Ramayan, which traces the story of Sita and her two sons, Luv and Kush, on April 25. The two-hour special ran from 21:01 to 22:59 and produced an astounding 67.8 million audience impressions. Each impression is 30 minutes of time spent (by a single viewer watching for 30 minutes, or by 2 viewers watching 15 minutes each, 3 viewers at 10 minutes apiece and so on). In so doing, DD increased the audience typical to that day part, on its channels, by 14,700%. The very next day, on the exact same time band, DD launched Shrr Krishna, a quasi-sequel to the Mahabharat, which zooms into the epic tale of the young cowherd who became the mentor of the Pandavas and King of Dwarka. Without pausing for breath, audiences again gave it a resounding welcome, recording 30 million audience impressions. This represented a 6200% increase in the typical audience volume recorded in the same day-part by DD, before the pandemic locked us all down.

Now, some thoughts on why this happened. An abundance of recent studies, from India and around the world, point to an exponential rise in psychological discomfort. People feel claustrophobic, or as the Americans call it, stir-crazy. Anxiety, about the disease and the risk of contracting it, is ubiquitous. Trust in political or administrative voices is dropping and wild conjecture travels faster than anyone can say WhatsApp. All signifiers of modernity are somehow seen as complicit in this dreadful disease. Since mortal men are no longer worthy, we must return, or re-turn, to those paragons of virtue, redemption and divine authority who illuminated our years of early upbringing. In a time of volatile impermanence, we turn to immutable immanence. We turn away from the steamy immediacy of our mainstream GECs to the warm embrace of the gentle, kindly Doordarshan.

What a comeback it has been for Doordarshan! Almost makes me believe in reincarnation…

The author has been a student of consumer metrics and audience measurement, for over fifteen years. He has previously served on technical committees for both print readership and television viewership. Views expressed are personal.

Read Also: Coronavirus Impact: General entertainment channels make a dash for OTT content

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