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Once Upon a Prime Time: Ananth Mahadevan's tribute to the stalwarts of Indian television

Part memoir, part history, the actor-filmmaker's book traces his television journey, offering a behind-the-scenes peek into the work of legendary directors and artistes who shaped Indian television.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Aptly titled Once Upon a Prime Time, Ananth Mahadevan’s memoir of his journey through Indian television offers a comprehensive view of the growth of the medium in India.

Ananth's almost four-decades-long career as actor and filmmaker spans the period when Indian television saw its biggest moments of glory and created history before fading away into inane soap operas.

It was a time when some visionary people were sculpting the content that Indian viewers would come to eagerly watch and enjoy week after week. In the book, Ananth Mahadevan shares his experiences and offers a peek behind the scenes, making us privy to his thoughts while being in the midst of it all.

Speaking about how the book came about, Ananth Mahadevan said, “Someone told me in 2005 or 2010 that have you realized that ever since the advent of sponsored television, which was in 1984 after the [New Delhi] Asian Games, you have been a recurring factor as an actor or a director and there has been hardly any year when you haven’t featured on television?"

That, he said, was when it dawned on him that maybe he should have maintained a diary, even if only for his own use, because it had been an entire journey of events and performances and many interesting things.

"It was a story," he said. "So, I realized that maybe I should write a book because I have been fortunate enough to be with these people from the beginning till today. And, like my friend Benjamin Gilani told me, 'It’s not how much you do but how long you last.'

"So I decided that while so much has been written about our movies and music, stars and filmmakers, television has not really been touched upon in publishing. Coincidentally, I have been a spectator to and a participant in this and thought it was a great opportunity to put as much down as possible."

The writer said the book is not an anthology of television serials but "part memoir, part history and a lot of documentation, research and facts and interactions with very important people along the way".

He said that once he began working, it all fell into place and his intention was to write it like a story. "It is a story which has its high points of achievements and low points of failure," he explained. "It has its humour and sarcasm in place while it gives my point of view — what I was feeling at that time. So, it’s very personal and at the same time very detached.”

Yet, the book is clearly a labour of love and took a long time to come together with a lot of painstaking research going into it. “It took me almost three years to put this together," the former journalist said. "I got some of the most exclusive moments with filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Sai Paranjpye, Yash Chopra, Kundan Shah, Govind Nihalani, Gulzar and, of course, actors like Satish Shah, Farooq Shaikh... Sharmila Tagore did her first film on television with me... so lots of interesting things happened and this is the story behind the story that you saw on television.”

While the heyday of television may be well behind us, Ananth Mahadevan does see the digital space actively vying for the kind of viewership that television once boasted of. Speaking of the web-series format in particular, he said, “The 13-episode format of the web-series is very much what we used to follow in the initial Doordarshan days. There are eight or 10 episodes of an hour each, which amounts to [roughly] the same kind of time.

"The first line of my book is that I find that somebody has stolen my television and you connect it to the last chapter where I say, where did the television go? It went into the web-series, the internet and digital platforms."

However, the veteran sees a problem with a generation that has not seen classic television, whether in the US or the UK or India, being hung up on certain attitudes and ideas that they think will hold audience attention. "Sometimes they are a confused lot that does not know what it wants," he said. "It's more like a shot in the dark and they hope it will work. In web-series, 90% of them haven’t worked so far, just one or two have been interesting.

According to him, most web-series tend to travel along predictable pathways. What he finds missing is the commitment, depth of thought and brilliance of people like Gulzar, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Ramesh Sippy, MS Sathyu or Sai Paranjpye.

"They were filmmakers who went into television, a format that they were not used to," Ananth pointed out. "So all the serials that were made by filmmakers then, it is their excellence that shows. Even though the technical quality was not really up to the mark, when Doordarshan played or re-played those serials recently, you found a lot of youth watching it, and you realize that however bad [the technical quality] was, it was the content that kept you hooked. So we are missing those people, that thought, and I think the generation that was there when these serials were made, they should be called upon and allowed to do something which would bring classic television back even if in the form of web-series.”

One of the reasons why the book melds the history of television together with the actor-filmmaker's autobiography is the need to document the people who shaped television in India and who are hardly remembered today. As the writer pointed out, “A lot of the executives today do not know who these people were. The reason to write this book is that they should know who the founding fathers of Indian television were. They should know the ground that they are standing on was built by these stalwarts and you cannot ignore their work and you need to revisit them, even if it is like a pilgrimage or a cleansing of the mind, to think anew and get the kind of work they did back then, content-wise. The content has to be of superior quality.”

The paperback version of Once Upon a Prime Time is slated to be launched on 15 July, but the Kindle edition is out. Speaking about the book's digital release, Ananth said, “This was almost an immediate decision because we realized that everyone is at home and books are helpful for the mind and everyone wants to read and is hooked on television of that era. Uncannily, Doordarshan revived all those serials, so this was the best time to put a book forward which was about all these serials and shows that people are revisiting today."

He agreed that many people would want to have a hard copy of the book, "but I also know a lot of people, who, out of sheer curiosity, are hooked to Kindle even though this is their first book on Kindle, so it works both ways”.

Click the link for your Kindle edition of Once Upon a Prime Time.