Friday, June 02, 2017

When we became "cable connected": TV memories from the early 1990s

[This is a slightly longer version of a piece I wrote for Mint Lounge’s 1990s special]


Longtime movie buffs can get spooked when the stars they grew up with behave like Dorian Grays, unwilling to age normally. If you were a timid 12-year-old watching Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989 and thinking of Salman Khan as a full-formed adult (even when he didn’t behave like one onscreen), it feels odd, three decades later, to see the same man playing buff young heroes while your middle-aged bones creak as you reach for the remote.

With TV actors, the ageing process is more relatable because of the grounded, real-time nature of the medium. But it can be unsettling in other ways. Last month I began binge-watching the new show Riverdale—a dark, wittily meta, sometimes gothic take on the sweet world of Archie comics—with almost no prior information about the cast. Then Luke Perry shuffled into the frame.

Luke Perry! Beverly Hills 90210’s too-cool-for-school Dylan McKay—a lean, mean teen icon from another epoch—now playing Archie Andrews’ dad, grizzled and affectionate and full of senior-citizen wisdom. The question that leapt to my mind wasn’t just “Gosh, how old is this guy now?” but also “How old am I?” And: “Has it already been a quarter of a century since THAT happened?”

“That” being the heady, life-changing moment when satellite TV came to town.

We got our cable connection (the term sounds nearly as quaint now as “trunk call”) exactly 25 years ago, in early 1992. My sole initial reason to be excited about this wealth of riches, falling on us from the newly liberalized skies, was the Sunday-afternoon Hollywood classic on Star Plus. There were no other expectations.

That quickly changed, though. New addictions formed each day; one viewing experience opened doors to others; shedding our soft-socialist skins for unapologetic consumerism meant becoming impatient and grasping, less willing to wait. Looking through my 1992-1996 diaries, I’m surprised by how much TV I watched (and this was mainly American TV, with a few exceptions such as the addictive British game show The Crystal Maze) – everything from prime-time shows to daytime soaps. Not that those categories meant much to us in India: The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara were granted privileged nighttime slots since they had the highest ratings among Indian viewers; meanwhile, celebrated old Emmy-winners like M*A*S*H*, which had been weekly (and seasonal) shows in the US, came to us daily.

Compared to the multilayered narratives of today’s shows like Breaking Bad – with lengthy arcs conceptualized well in advance – the old prime-time serials were simpler in structure; episodes often worked as stand-alones, anchored by familiar characters, and this made them comforting and easy to absorb. (It’s a bit like the difference between the formula-based Hindi cinema of the past and today’s edgier, more detail-saturated films.) Among other things, we learnt that a tender coming-of-age tale could be built around one of the most turbulent periods in a country’s history (The Wonder Years), that humour and tragedy could play musical chairs in hospitals (St Elsewhere), newspaper offices (Lou Grant) and courtrooms (L.A. Law), that a prim little town could be a battleground for hot-button subjects like the ethics of euthanasia (Picket Fences), that a 14-year-old could become a doctor (Doogie Howser, MD), and that lifeguards, even the hot ones, took their work as seriously as officegoers in less glamorous professions (Baywatch).

No one who didn’t live through the period can know what a rich stew of experiences this was, and how startling it was for us Doordarshan-era waifs to realise that we had been hungry for so long. It was such an impressionable time that I have strong memories of even the shows I only skimmed. Despite the Luke Perry nostalgia moment mentioned above, I didn’t follow Beverly Hills 90210 closely – only enough to feel like I was on nodding terms with Dylan and the other regulars. I wasn’t a Baywatch fan either, beyond the novelty value of the first few episodes, but I remember the enormous grin on the face of a classmate who worshipped at the altar of Erika Eleniak, when we went for the action film Under Siege and she emerged from a cake and took off her top.

Today’s young viewers, who take instant access to global pop-culture for granted, may also have trouble grasping that in satellite TV’s first few years, we lived in a time warp. Our early/mid-1990s experience included a few bona fide “90s shows” such as NYPD Blue, but it was mainly about first-time exposure to much older television – which we were just as excited about. (It was often easier for middle-class Indians to relate to the older offerings anyway: consider Bewitched, originally telecast in the US between 1964-1972, and set in a conservative suburban world where a woman juggles magic powers with her many duties as a housewife.) Occasionally, it felt like we were inhabiting two or three time periods at once: around the same time that I saw Bruce Willis as Butch the boxer, intoning “Zed’s dead, baby” in Pulp Fiction on videocassette, I could see a younger, hipper, more verbose version of Willis on TV, in his star-making Moonlighting.

Also walking the line between the old and the new was MTV. Crushes on VJs like Nonie and Danny McGill became catalysts for becoming interested in the music… and the visuals that went with it. I would sit by our VCR, finger poised over the recording button, thrilled when the song that came on turned out to be by a favourite band like the Pet Shop Boys or R.E.M. And even more thrilled when the video was a masterpiece of condensed storytelling: the
stop-motion animation of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, the dreamlike rotoscoping in A-Ha’s “Take on Me”, the operatic melodrama of Meat Loaf’s “Objects in the Rear-View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”.

Speaking with hindsight as a professional critic, this intense TV-watching period forever blurred my ideas about High and Low art. I had recently moved away from Hindi films, into the stratosphere of “respectable” world cinema – the realm of the Bergmans and Kurosawas – and cable TV kept me grounded; it showed that creativity and rigour could be found – even if in small doses – in things that weren’t outwardly respectable. It was possible, I learnt, to be stimulated to thought even by something as plebeian as a daily soap: I won’t provide an extended account of my love affair with Santa Barbara here, but my mother and I fell into a ritual of watching it together every night, discussing characters and their motivations and the politics of issues such as rape – and I maintain that some of the writing and acting was of a surprisingly high standard for the medium. Even as an adult, I have visited the show’s fan sites and stalked one of my favourite actors on Facebook.

Does all this amount to nostalgic defensiveness? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s an acknowledgement of everything that can go into one’s personal history, and how ideas about art and culture and the examined life may be formed over time. I still have my dusty videocassettes, with the songs and cherished episodes recorded on them. They haven’t been in working condition for years (and where would one play them now anyway), but throwing them away would be like denying the many effects of the past. To rephrase my deep-voiced friend Meat Loaf, objects in the rear-view mirror are closer than you might think.

[A somewhat related post - on diary writing, and memories of 1990]


  1. Regarding the old videocassetttes, you can have them converted to video CDs; there are studios which do that.

    1. Oh, I know - had considered it briefly during the onset of the DVD era, but never did it. Doesn't seem to matter much now, since so much is available on YouTube. And I'm sure the cassettes are spoilt by now.

  2. What a lovely, lovely piece, J; reminded me of why I started reading your blog all those years ago. This brought about so many memories of carefreeness, hope, a lost time, but mostly happiness, the kind that is rare these days. And of course Meatloaf, though my favorite song of his will always be "I would do anything for love", still gives me the chills everytime I watch that video.
    And thank you for mentioning your crush on Nonie and Danny McGill. I think these two were absolutely genderless in their appeal. I also remember Angela Chow who is doing quite well and VJ Sophia who sadly passed away a while back. Ah, those memories. I think I am going to weep some more.

    1. Prani: thank you! And yes, "crush" was absolutely the word I intended to use for McGill - didn't think twice about that. Heard about Sophiya Haque's passing too - brought the same strange feeling when I hear about the death of a much-admired singer from the period, such as Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots.

  3. That Dorian Gray reference is everything. I was an infant when you got your cable connection but I remember how my sister would watch extremely age inappropriate tv shows, but because it was all still so new nobody really bothered to check up on her. I think this is where my dad's idea of 'MTV is Porn' comes from.

    I also remember being very excited while reading God of Small Things and that wonderful passage of Baby Kochamma watching Bold and the Beautiful came up. Another similar reference that comes to mind is the ode to Titanic in Hosseini's Thousand Splendid Suns. cultural nostalgia is so wonderful I feel particularly because it connects so intimately with the shared memories of so many !(also, I wrote a little piece about it a couple of week ago and I am quite chuffed to read your post, even more so than usual).

    I was wondering if you have seen this show Fleabag ? It is just six episodes and it would be everything if you would review it. I KNOW you will like it (assuming you haven't watched it already).

  4. So pleased to see your Pet Shop Boys fandom; it reaffirms my faith in your critical faculties. Harriet and I went to see them recently in NYC on tour supporting their "Super" album. From "West End Girls" on I've been a fan!