Quarantine’s a great time to be a cinema buff. New shows are dropping every week and you finally have the time to tick off all the classics you’ve been meaning to get to as well as any recent releases you might have missed. It’s also a great time to revisit the shows you loved as a child, as Doordarshan has figured out.
Over the past month, they’ve re-aired many of their classics like mythological epic The Ramayana, superhero fantasy Shaktimaan, family drama Buniyaad and more.
With many of their shows having garnered much love and acclaim over the years, we decided to revisit a few to see what all the fuss is about, whether they’re worth the hype and how these shows hold up today.
Circus is a throwback to a kinder, gentler time. Doordarshan’s 1989 show revolves around a circus troupe characterized by their cheery optimism and an unshakable belief that no matter how bad things get, they have each other’s backs. While their candy-coloured worldview gets a bit grating at times – the mere arrival of a performing bear causes the whole troupe to break into song and dance – it’s also just as comforting.
What really works and forms the heart of the show is the relationship between the circus-owning father (Sunil Shendey) and his London-returned son Shekharan (a charming Shah Rukh Khan, in one of his first roles). Despite the threat of bankruptcy, he doesn’t impose his dreams on his childlike so many Indian parents do, but encourages him to pursue his ambition of setting up a plastic factory instead. In a surprisingly progressive move, he considers that his son might have become accustomed to consuming alcohol while abroad, and instead of being shocked at this abandonment of traditional beliefs, orders him some beer.
Some parts are just as prescient as when they were shot – Shah Rukh predicts that the future is TV and video – and if nothing else, the show is a lighthearted watch in not-so-lighthearted times.
Byomkesh Bakshi is India’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Basu Chatterjee’s 1993 show follows the adventures of the brilliant detective. What strikes you almost immediately is just how watchable the show still is. The sensibility is far from the excess and melodrama many of us associate with Indian TV dramas, but it’s just as entertaining.
Even the production doesn’t feel as dated as you might expect. The show uses impressive economy in how it’s shot with most scenes taking place indoors, with certain locations and actors repeated. But it’s never off-putting because scale isn’t the essence of the show. Instead, it relies on impressive writing and drama to keep you engaged. The mysteries that Byomkesh investigates through each episode are genuinely gripping, interesting, and show real imagination without feeling the need to be simplistic and succumb to spoon-feeding.
We’ve also seen so many iterations of the classic genius detective archetype over the years, who’s come to be seen as this arrogant, too-smart-for-their-own-good, self-destructive character. But Byomkesh, played by Rajit Kapur, is refreshingly likeable, polished, and pleasant as someone who just enjoys solving mysteries just as we enjoy watching him do it.
Unlike the other two shows on this list, Buniyaad isn’t strictly an enjoyable series due to its heavy subject matter. The piercing family drama covers several generations of a Punjabi family reeling from the immediate aftermath of partition. It sees their struggle to survive and stay together as they try and make a new life for themselves after being forced to leave their home in Lahore and settle in India.
For its time in 1987, the show is said to have set a new benchmark for what Indian TV dramas could achieve but revisiting it today, you don’t quite feel the weight of its significance in the same way.
Though it remains impressive in how it stays grounded and refuses to sensationalise the story and emotion. It’s also interesting to see partition taken on and delved into in such a direct way, given that today it still feels like it’s a chapter in history that’s rarely explored in mainstream storytelling.
Unlike Byomkesh, Buniyaad shoots for scale and impressive detailing which makes it feel authentic to the period in time it captures.
The show is also peppered with a strong cast of familiar faces including Soni Razdan, Dilip Tahil, and Alok Nath (who’s forever cursed to play the family patriarch even though he was in his 20s when the show was made). While it doesn’t feel particularly groundbreaking today, it’s refreshing to see a TV family drama without the hammy acting and melodrama we’ve come to associate it with.