The 1980s was a momentous era for Indian television. The Asian Games and the arrival of Doordarshan in the drawing rooms of the country changed the entertainment industry forever in the country. The quality of films was going down and television was coming up with a different kind of engagement hitherto unknown to the masses. And the biggest changemaker at this juncture was Manohar Shyam Joshi, the father of soap operas on Indian television.
The writer of television classics like Hum Log (1984), Buniyaad (1986) and Mungerilal ke haseen sapne (1989), he changed the narrative of entertainment forever. Such was the pull of television that leading filmmakers left the cinema halls for a whole decade and reached out to the masses through prime time programmes. The reels of Hum Log are supposed to be lost except the first episode. But thanks to YouTube, I happened to see all the 105 episodes of Buniyaad and I was quite bowled over by the quality of writing seen in Indian television in its inchoate days.
The gods of Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra hadn’t descended yet on television. Mukesh Khanna’s Shaktimaan was still a decade away. And Ekta Kapoor was still a school going girl. Things changed the moment she grew up. That’s when Manohar Shyam Joshi brought out his magnum opus Buniyaad, the partition saga telling the transition of a Punjabi family from Lahore to Delhi.
The story begins during the dark hours of partition, just before independence. A time, when people on both sides believed that partition was just an alteration of the borders and people would continue living the way they did. No one thought that they would leave their homes one night, never to return. The symbol of that unwillingness to accept the rot in public life was Master Haveliram (Alok Nath), who lived in Lahore with his wife Lajo (Anita Kanwar), his sons Bhushan (Dalip Tahil), Roshan (Mazhar Khan), Satbir (Kanwaljit Singh) and daughter-in-law Lochan (Soni Razdan). The family is pushed to leave their home and on the way, Masterji goes missing and his wife Lajo reminisces the times leading to their marriage in 1916.
Over 25 episodes of the serial dwelt on the pre-partition times of Lahore. The characters have their well-defined curves and are a mixed lot. While Masterji and Lajoji are fired by idealism of the Arya Samaj to fight the British, his family members are steeped in the mundane issues of everyday life. Masterji marrying a widow causes consternation in the neighbourhood. But they raise a family of their dreams until the partition throws the wind out of sail.
The rest of the episodes dwell on their effort to start from the scratch in the Purana Quila refugee camp in Delhi. Many old connections arise out of nowhere and the buried past rises its head again, posing questions that challenge their long held beliefs. In Delhi, Satbir gets employed at the firm of Lala Vrishbhan (Vijayendra Ghatge), who was previously engaged to Haveliram’s sister Veeravali (Kiran Juneja). Also enter characters who spew venom in the lives of these characters, such as Vrishbhan’s business manager Shyamlal (Vinod Nagpal) and Masterji’s own daughter-in-law Lochan. But the beauty of screen writing comes with the history given to these characters too. They have their own grouses against these two families, which they use to justify their actions.
Kanwaljit Singh’s Satbir was caught between the idealism of his father’s generation and the loose morals of his time
The story spans across several decades and finally ends in the early 1980s, when Master Haveliram is celebrating his birthday with his great grand children. Times have changed. The families have prospered and they are leading a life in Delhi. The new generation knows of partition only through stories. But Haveliram remembers it all and still hopes that time will set everything free.
The work on Buniyaad began soon after Hum Log and in their July 1986 issue, India Today called it the transition of television from Hum Log to Punjabi Log. For long, partition was a subject that no one wanted to touch for it would have reopened wounds of the past. When the first two episodes of Buniyaad were aired, it led to several critical reactions for it showed the violence of partition, though they tried to sanitise it as much as possible. The vehicle thrived on selling nostalgia to a generation that had been through the pain and also told a story to a new generation that had only grown up on its stories.
Initially, each episode of Buniyaad cost around 3 lakhs, which was double what was the norm back then. The production costs seems to have been curbed after the first 25 episodes and the 16mm films also were done away with and replaced with cassettes. One corner of Film City was transformed to Lahore under the watchful eyes of art director Sudhendhu Roy. Experts were hired to get all the details in place. Krishna Sobti worked on the fine details of the Punjabi-laced Hindi used in the serial. Pushpesh Pant was consulted to get the accuracy of popular culture used throughout the serial to indicate the time period, be it songs, plays or movies.
The impact of Buniyaad was phenomenal. In North India, its viewership was said to be 90 per cent and in the south, it was 40 per cent. Vinod Nagpal related an incident during the last days of the serial. He was taking a stroll along Andheri when a few people pelted stones at him as they were angry about his vile behaviour with the family of Vrishbhan. Actor Abhinav Chaturvedi, who played Jay Bhushan won a huge following. Such was his impact that when he was about to die of leukaemia towards the end of the serial, doctors from the Tata Memorial Hospital are said to have written to the makers of Buniyaad to not let him die as it would negatively impact the morale of cancer patients. Letters poured in from college girls to keep him alive.
Alok Nath, who had done several serials prior to this and had also played villain in some films, won over the nation as Master Haveliram. People forgot whatever he did before this and the lasting image of an idealist celebrating his 90th birthday stuck on. He was thereafter the Babuji, who reinvented this character a zillion times on cinema and television.
Several prominent actors we know today were products of Buniyaad. Some, like Mazhar Khan, could not better this feat and many like Vijayendra Ghatge, Kiran Juneja and Kanwaljit Singh went on to become leading TV stars.
Ramesh Sippy saw opportunity in television, especially since his ventures after Sholay (1975) failed to set the box office on fire. Video cassettes of Buniyaad were in huge demand across countries which had Punjabi diaspora. Doordarshan is said to have made around 100 crores from advertising revenue and a 2016 report said that Sippy still wasn’t fully paid by DD, despite six re-runs of the serial.
Manohar Shyam Joshi was a writer with terrific memory and remembered exactly what was written several episodes before and knew how to close the loose ends over a period of time. But Doordarshan did not know to value this gem of a writer. He made several proposals after this to DD, which were mostly rejected, except two or three. Dejected, he moved to cinema and was disheartened with the quality there too and moved to the US, where he died later. Television changed dramatically after satellite TV came in and post 2000, the idea of a family drama was to change forever. But that’s another story.