India TV market (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • I was a year into my teens when the reforms began. A lot has changed since then. But at the end of the day, the old days were the good days.

In July 1991, when Manmohan Singh initiated economic liberalisation, I was a year into my teens and economic reforms were the last thing on my mind.

I am sure the newspapers would have carried a report the next day about Singh’s ground-breaking Budget. But those were days when the English newspapers reached Ranchi (the city I grew up in), only late in the evening. And my father refused to subscribe to the local Hindi newspaper, Ranchi Express. Also, I am really not sure if the local newspapers carried any news around the Budget, given that they were known more for “man bites dog” kind of stories.

In those days, boys of my age started reading the newspaper from the last page (in my case the habit was picked up from reading the Eye-Catchers column, which happened to be the last page of India Today magazine, first).

Those were the days when newsprint was probably rationed and the sports section of The Indian Express, a newspaper my father used to swear by, was largely limited to the last page on most days. My father now reads The Times of India, like everyone else.

Getting back to the point, I really had no idea back then, that newspapers had pages dealing with economics as well. Honestly, I had no idea what economics was, in the first place. The first time I came to know that India had seen economic reforms was nearly four years later in July 1995, when I briefly studied economics in a CBSE school in Class XI. I soon left the school to join St. Xavier’s College in Ranchi, and that is how my small tryst with classroom economics and India’s economic reforms ended.

Nevertheless, our lives did start changing after July 1991. Actually, our lives, middle-class teenage boys in the city of Ranchi, started changing in early 1992, when cable TV made its first appearance. The first shock was watching MTV, which rather funnily my mother introduced me to, because she used to listen to it (yes listen, and not watch) during the course of the day.

For the lack of a better word, MTV was pretty bold for that era.

If my mother had watched (and not heard) MTV, I am sure she would have kept me away from it, given the standards that prevailed at that point in time. But that did not turn out to be the case. And then I discovered Star Movies. For a teenager with raging hormones, this is the best thing that could have happened.

The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, once sang, “57 Channels

(And Nothin’ On)”. We have clearly reached that era. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, once sang, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”. We have clearly reached that era.

For the first time, I saw couples kissing on screen. Of course, this did not happen as often as one wanted it to, given that a lot of the time, the remote control used to be in my father’s hand, who wasted no time in changing the channel. For the two seconds it took him to change the channel, everyone watching TV used to be very tense. And then we would all go back to pretending that nothing really had happened.

I wonder how an Indian middle class family which watches television together would deal with a similar situation in 2016. But it’s a pity that Indian TV no longer shows couples kissing or making out on screen, like it used to. Like the Deccan Queen, it has slowed down, over the years.

The 1.30 AM slot on Saturdays on Star Movies was something that one looked forward to, even if the channel chose to broadcast Summer Lovers for the umpteenth time. Of course, there was Jain TV as well, which briefly got a lot of viewership by broadcasting porn movies on Saturday night. This used to be a huge point of discussion among my friends. Somehow I never got around to watching it. I guess the words “Jain” and “porn” didn’t really go together for me. Or I was simply happy with Star Movies.

Things got even better when some sharp cable operator somewhere discovered a Russian television channel called TB6 Mockba, which used to broadcast some interesting stuff late at night over the weekend. Connoisseurs will remember the channel very well.

And the weekends were never really the same. In the late 1990s, when there was a clampdown on kissing and nudity on TV, one had to make do with Midnight Masala on Sun TV.

I guess for a whole generation of middle-class Indian boys who grew up back then, economic reform was basically soft porn. And how we loved it.

Before cable TV made its appearance, television meant watching just one channel and that was Doordarshan. And Doordarshan did not show people kissing. This was because Hindi cinema did not show people kissing. It only alluded to it in various ways with shots of two flowers touching each other or the candle burning out on a windy, rainy night.

In fact, All India Radio even banned a song on kissing. The year was 1991. And the song was Jumma Chumma De De from the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Hum. I came to know of it only when Ameen Sayani explained on Cibaca Geetmala rather sheepishly that there was a song which was topping the charts, but he couldn’t play it. I immediately went and bought the cassette, much to my mother’s chagrin. These days we ban a lot of stuff, but that does not include kissing songs.

Getting back to Doordarshan, it did not show anything that should not have been shown. It was dull and boring. The only interesting bit was Chitrahaar, which played Hindi film songs, twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays at eight PM, if you were lucky enough to be on Delhi Doordarshan.

In other parts of the country, Chitrahaar was broadcast just once a week on Wednesdays at 8 PM. I recall a particularly disappointing day during a holiday I spent with my father’s parents in Srinagar in Kashmir. I was looking forward to watching Chitrahaar on a Friday evening and was almost in tears when I was told that in Srinagar, it only played on Wednesdays.

Yes, life was that boring!

Chitrahaar was a saving grace. It was something that one looked forward to all week. And it was never really a disappointment, even if the government babus, in charge of the programming, played Nanha munha raahi hoon, desh ka sipahi hoon (We little kids are India’s soldiers), from the movie Son of India, ad infinitum. Someone at Doordarshan must have really loved that patriotic song.

Talking about the song, the lyricist Shakil Badayuni was also probably the first person to have spoken about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favourite Make in India programme in a very clear sort of way. One of the lines in the song is: “Naya hai zamana, nayi hai dagar, desh ko banaoonga machinon ka nagar”. Loosely translated, this means that “in this new world, we will make India a nation of machines and factories”. And this is precisely what Make in India wants to achieve. It’s actually very tragic that 54 years later (Son of India was released in 1962), we are still trying to achieve the same thing.

The popularity of Chitrahaar was first killed by Zee TV when it launched a programme called Gaane Anjaane. The programme played Hindi film songs like Chitrahaar did. At the same time, it played more often than Chitrahaar and the reception was much better.

We now have a huge number of channels, which play Chitrahaar all day long. Also, there is YouTube, on which you can listen to anything anytime. And one can’t watch the music programmes on TV even for one minute, these days. Guess, too much choice really kills all the fun. Or as The Boss once sang, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”. We have clearly reached that era.

With Doordarshan being the only game in town, the only other mode of entertainment back then was Hindi cinema. Of course, those were pre-multiplex days and tickets were dirt cheap. When I started going to college in 1993, the cheapest cinema ticket in Ranchi was Rs 3 (the front benches at the Shree Vishnu Cinema) and the most expensive ticket was Rs 7.25 (the balcony at the Sujata Cinema). By 1999, when I finished college, Sujata had the most expensive ticket

at Rs 11.

Of course, with tickets being so cheaply priced, only a small number were sold through the ticket window. The theatre owners sold a bulk of the tickets in black if a movie was doing well, to make more money. And if you did not want to buy tickets in black, it meant standing with your friends in the queue, pushing and shoving, being ready to take out and whip your trouser belt, if someone else created trouble.

It meant waking up early morning on 20 October 1995, and cycling excitedly to Uphaar theatre to catch the first show of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. And since I am bragging here, let me also say that I was the first one in the queue to buy a ticket that day.

Hence, technically I was the first person in Ranchi to have seen the movie, if ever there was a thing like that.

The Uphaar cinema did not sell tickets in black and sold only one ticket per student (two if you were a female). Oh, and the tickets were so cheap that if the power failed (as was often the case) the air conditioning (actually air-cooling in most cases) did not work. That meant that it was time to take off the shirt/T-shirt and watch the movie, and in the process get bitten by bedbugs (or should I call them seatbugs?).

Though I would like to state here for the record that my most horrible experience with bedbugs came not in Ranchi but in Patna, when I saw Maine Pyar Kiya at Ashok Cinema, in 1989. The cinema, rather ironically, came with the tagline of Rajdhani ka Gaurav (The Capital’s Pride).

Back then, going to the cinema also meant dancing in the aisles when Karishma Kapoor and Govinda sang Sarkaye lo khatiya jaada lage (from the film Raja Babu) on screen. After the movie was over, one had to ensure that one did not forget the tickets in the shirt pocket, so as not be found out at home next day, when the clothes got washed.

Cut to today. Watching a movie in a multiplex is a totally boring experience. The tickets are easily available. There is no excitement of having bought a ticket. In fact, one does not even have to go to a cinema hall to buy a ticket. It’s available online. The multiplex audience is all sedate, the stiff-upper-lip type. Gone is the dancing to the item number. Gone are the catcalls. (I wish I could write about some of them here. My favourite one deals with a Mamta Kulkarni item number called Choodiyan bajaoongi, prem dhun gaoongi.) Or clapping to the dialogues of Raj Kumar.

Now we only laugh when others laugh. And it is a very conscious sort of laughter, where we are trying to laugh but at the same time trying to ensure that we don’t overdo it.

And the popcorn is more expensive than the price of the film ticket these days. I know I am exaggerating here. But the popcorn and the soft drink put together is more expensive than the film ticket, in most cases, on most days.

In late 1993, the most expensive film ticket in Ranchi was Rs 7.25. A popcorn packet probably cost a buck or two. Of course, you just got popcorn back then. No chocolate popcorn. No butter popcorn. And no butter-garlic popcorn. Okay, I know, I made the last one up. Or maybe some multiplex somewhere is actually selling that as well.

The first movie I watched in a multiplex was Jurassic Park—The Lost World, at PVR Anupam in Delhi in 1997. I felt scandalised having to pay Rs 75 for a ticket.  And the AC worked so well, that I slept through the movie.

Back then, for around Rs 10 at the upper end, one could enjoy a movie on all days of the week. There was no weekend pricing. No holiday pricing. No charging extra when a superstar’s movie released.

How much would that Rs 10 be worth today? If we were to use the inflation as measured by the consumer price index, it would be a little over Rs 47 (yes, I did that calculation). For that amount, where can one watch a movie in a multiplex along with popcorn these days?

Of course, one doesn’t get bitten by bedbugs now. And the ACs work. And there is no buying tickets in black or standing in a line to buy them. And one doesn’t have to take off the shirt/T-shirt to reveal the paunch that has since developed.

But all that was fun.

It made the movie watching experience much more exciting.

Lest I be accused of being overtly negative, there are many good things that have happened as well in the last 25 years. Take the case of ATMs. In 2009, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, called them the only useful banking invention in the last 20 years. And I tend to agree.

Ranchi did not have many ATMs till around 2000, the year I went to do my MBA in Pune. And that is when I first realised the usefulness of this invention. For my expenses, my father used to send me a demand draft every month, which I had to go and deposit in a public sector bank. The bank would then take its own sweet time to deposit the money into my account. By that time, half of the month would be gone and I would be in debt again, waiting for the next draft to arrive.

This is when I realised the beauty of the ATM. Money could be deposited into an account in one city and could be withdrawn almost immediately in another. For someone used to the slowness of a public sector bank, this was a huge revelation indeed.

What else has changed? I need to talk about a particular gentleman called Noor Mohammed and the important role he played in a teenager’s life. Mohammed was the lineman for all the private landlines installed by the Department of Telecom (back then there was no BSNL) at CMPDI colony in Ranchi.

We got a landline connection installed at home in 1992, after almost a 10-year wait. I guess that one telephone brought more happiness into my life than any other electronic gadget has since then. It totally freed up my world. I could call my friends any time and talk to them as much as I could and as long as I wanted to, at least initially.

Back then, the Department of Telecom did not have a concept of counting calls. You spoke for one minute and it was one call. You spoke for one hour and it was still one call. Of course, people abused this facility and things changed in the years to come. For a teenager, that was a very disturbing phenomenon. Even talking had to be rationed.

Other than this, Noor Mohammed kept disturbing my rather peaceful life. Every few weeks, the phone connection would go dead. And no amount of complaining would help.

Only when he had been adequately bribed, would the phone connection start working again and happiness return.

Cut to today. I have put in a number porting request from one company to another. The old company has stopped operating its CDMA network and I have had no mobile connection for the past three days. Meanwhile, I have also been trying to get a friend’s data-only SIM card converted into a normal SIM card from which voice calls can also be made.

That was also stuck for three days, before it was activated.

The front-end blames the back-end. The back-end has no clue. I wish there was a Noor Mohammed out there somewhere, operating in these mobile phone companies as well, who I could bribe and get my cellphone connection going again.

At the end of the day, the old days were the good days.

Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

This article was published in the July 2016 issue of our magazine. Do try our print edition - only Rs 349 for 3 print issues delivered to your home + 3 months digital access. Subscribe now!

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