Nine a.m. on Sunday morning.
The kids would be bathed and ready, the house would smell of incense, and the family would gather and get ready.
In small villages, the entire family would dress in their Sunday finest, and gather at a few select houses to participate in the most important event of the day.
Sometimes, a priest would be present, and ready, with marigold and camphor.
And at the stroke of nine, a light would flicker, and the screen would come alive with the familiar spinning orb that was the logo of Doordarshan, and the familiar voice would start crooning…
“Sita Raam patita paavan……”.
Grandmothers would gasp with teary eyes, while an “arthi” would be taken around the telly.
And for the next hour, they would all remain mesmerized by masterfully melodramatic myth.
Ramanand Sagar revolutionized Indian television. “Buniyad” and “Hum log” might have been classic soap operas, but it took Sagar to recognize the sure-shot way to TRP super-stardom. It had to be the Ramayan, big, glitzy, and supremely devout.
Slam-bang action would not have worked. The pace had to be slowed down, and select moments repeated and replayed to re-enforce the point. The cast had to look goodier than goody, and Arun Govil would forever be remembered for his celluloid soppiness. Can any of us ever forget that “divine smile”, which would fill the screen (in nauseating close up) for a good 20 minutes out of the 45 of each episode? Dara Singh became Hanuman, in deed and spirit. And Dipika won an election because she was “Sita maa”. For that matter, Arvind Trivedi won an election too, since he was “Ravan”, who, though a brute, did govern Lanka magnificently.
Sagar knew that all good things did come to an end, but the savvy businessman makes it last very, very long. So, the simple task of Hanuman setting fire to Lanka would take an average of six hour-long episodes. Dasharatha’s death, which should only have taken a moment, took all of a month. And the battle scenes were masterpieces of 80’s television special effects. An arrow would leave Ravana’s bow. This arrow would then (in super slow motion) become twenty-five arrows. Ram would look at it and raise his eyebrow (as we would gasp). He would release his counter-arrow which would become twenty-five arrows as well, and defeat Ravana’s arrows. Ram would then take the time to graciously smile at us, while Lakshmana and Hanuman would nod and prostrate appreciatively.
The process would then be repeated with arrows that would breath fire (to be quenched by arrows spitting water), arrows that became tridents (countered by arrows that became maces), and arrows that sparked red (countered by arrows sparking blue). The choices were endless, and would mesmerize us viewers for weeks on end.
Kids would play in the streets with little bows and arrows. Parents would no longer worry that their kids were wasting Sundays, but were now spending quality time with the family learning about their heritage and culture.
“Prasad” from poojas would be distributed as the title song blared again, at the end of the episode.
And you could bet your last paisa that the faithful would gather once again, at the same time next week, demanding more of the same. For seventy-eight whole weeks. And when Ravana was finally killed, cities celebrated. When Sita had to undertake the “Agni pareeksha”, the same cities wept. And in the final episode (actually, it was three episodes), when Hanuman ripped open his chest to reveal Ram (Arun Govil smiling divinely), an entire nation cried enough tears to overcome Bangalore’s water problems.
Ramanand Sagar; RIP.