Saturday, 20 May 2017

Priya Tendulkar – India’s first TV superstar

Television in India bloomed pretty late and even after it took off it took forever to get traction.  Today some of the best talent in India work in television, right from production to scripts to acting – and this is across both Hindi General entertainment to regional TV content. I think Indian talent is among the best globally and they work hard and try and be as professional as they come.

However the first ‘star’ in the true sense (at least for me and folks of my generation) would be the late Priya Tendulkar.

When Doordarshan went color national after the Asiad games, it still held the reins and the kind of shows that came on air were still the soviet styled programming.  The only daily soap opera was one intended to promote Family planning called Hum Log which became a hit in the north.  The first weekly comic program was 'Yeh Jo hai Zindagi' which can be considered one of the all time greats from Indian television.  All of these were driven by an ensemble cast all of whom got popular

But soon after, one of the Sunday shows that caught popular imagination, and was actually advertised in the press during its launch was Rajani featuring Priya Tendulkar.  This got attention (I mean who advertised TV programs in those days, people watched what came on air – they really didn’t have ANY choice did they?)

But what stood out here was this was based on an individual and the heroine stood out.  Rajani was a crusader who fought, challenged and won her daily battles against everything from badly mannered folk who wouldn’t stand in queues to corrupt officials the works.  It seemed a little idealistic but held sway with the audiences.

Priya Tendulkar became famous, though she had been in the limelight for sometime mostly for theatre, television and films too.  She was the daughter of renowned Marathi theater playwright Vijay Tendulkar whose plays shook Mumbai and Maharashtra and catapulted him to fame.

Priya Tendulkar went on to work prolifically and was seen across every kind of show imagineable from soap operas to talk shows and even comedic shows, and during this time with the boom in satellite television, there also was a huge boom in talent.  Priya Tendulkar became one of the hundreds of faces to grace television and was soon forgotten.  In fact even upon her unexpected death, obituaries were more a footnote and she was soon forgotten.

The reason Priya Tendulkar makes it to my faves is for her pure awesome talent. She ushered in the era of professional television artistes, who are today made to work like slaves in a 24x7 factory production line.

In my opinion Comedy is the hardest to pull off, and she did such a perfect job in the TV series Hum Paanch – made more awesome from the fact that she had to act the role of a ghost who speaks from a picture frame. Her expressions and dialogue delivery were pitch perfect. This role in fact was a complete contrast to the serious roles she had played in Rajani and the other serious arthouse movement she was a part of. (She played a role in Shabana Azmi’s launch film and also done other arthouse films).

Another showcase of her awesome talent was when she hosted a talk show and this on DoorDarshan where a lot of subjects were off limits.  But she was in full form and could pull up her guests and be comepletely spontaneous.  She was part of the theatre movement too and authored several short stories in Marathi.

As the television industry grew and the abundance of talent overflew into the streets of Mumbai Priya’s talent was soon forgotten, one reasons also being she did not fit into the ‘glamour driven industry that the television entertainment industry had transformed into.   I have spoken abut this in the past, but Marathi talent have roots in middle class that they find hard to shrug off, even though they might easily adopt the trappings of glamour and the high flying lifestyle, at heart they continue to be middle class.  Priya Tendulkar was exactly that. 

One of the TV serials that she did was one penned by her dad on the subject of a divorcee called swayam siddha, and also starred internaionally renowned director Shekhar Kapur.  One notable fact about this was it was the few TV serials to have its title track sung by legendary Lata Mangeshkar. Swayam Siddha was not a hit and more because of its difficult subject and the serious ness with which it was treated (it was shot in 35 mm).  The story was about her establishing her own identity and beginning her life all over again, and it was indeed difficult to pull off.  There really was not much discussion about why she and her husband parted and where the faultlines were drawn, why and what were the triggers after a few years of married life, and what gave her the strength in spite of not being an employed person or having her own source of income.  But she had put in her heart and soul into the series and that much was evident.

Across the globe cinema stars are seen to be much higher in the pecking order though in terms of talent at least in my personal opinion, the TV stars are equally if not more talented and work a lot more harder. This is evident from the fact that TV has also produced superstars like Shah Rukh Khan.   Today with the influx of investment from cable and digital tech brands like  Netflix, HBO there are a lot more seriousness with which TV stars are treated and get a lot of top billing like film stars do.

The difference is that TV stars are soon forgotten as the frequency with which TV stars air there is literally a flavor of the season every month while the cinema hitsusually become celebrated and etched in our memories. 

Priya Tendulkar’s case is perhaps the best illustration of that.  But for a few of m generation she shall always be one of the most talented artists who ushered in the new television movement while also representing an idealism (rooted in middle class) that has long died and now been replaced by a more materialistic glamour driven era that celebrates short bursts of fame.

Its for these values also that Priya Tendulkar remains in our memories.