Mayank Shekhar: When the '90s were a thing of cool
How Channel V, going off air, inspired us to say, 'We're like this only!'
"So, what can I do for you," asked a young Vinay Pathak, sitting in the room with Sunita Rajan, Channel V's marketing head, exuding a swag natural to someone who'd just been signed up as the channel's video jockey. "You can't do anything for me. I'll do something for you. Will turn you monkeys into overnight stars," said Rajan, instantly putting Pathak in place. "Because that's what we do," she added. "Turn crap into gold."
Channel V gave us a set of characters that defied the norm, and wholly redefined cool, like Lola Kutty, a sanskari Mallu aunty
While Pathak's show had but been on air for a week max, Channel V took him on a tour of college campuses across India. And boom, the kids were lining up, going wild with joy, looking at this guy in their midst already. The channel's marketing team would arrive a day before the visit, distribute postcards, flyers, posters, all over the campus. Pathak was considered 'cool', as it were - as "one of them"', rather than a "star in a traditional sense," as Pathak puts it.
Honestly, I don't know a better instance of Say's law in economics, wherein supply creates its own demand! Indians were, of course, familiar with video jockeys, or VJs; a profession that I suspect really arrived with MTV's short slot on Doordarshan, with Rahul Khanna as the understated anchor taking us on a ride of American music, which most of us starved to consume anyway. Some of us even picked up VHS tapes to watch music videos!
Nonie Tau, Danny McGill were the firangi faces that first connected us to contemporary chartbusters, while for several generations, up until the economic liberalisation in the '90s, India Top 10 (for western music) had remained the same - going back to Pink Floyd (The Wall, Wish You Were Here), The Eagle's Hotel California, Queen's I Want To Break Free, Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire… You know what I mean; Toto's and Ghetto's playlist, basically.
MTV delinked from Star TV network in 1994, with Star starting its own music station, Channel [V], with a bracket in the logo that made it look suspiciously similar to MTV. What did Channel V do that made it stand apart? It recognised a bi-cultural generation that was finding itself at one with the West, while losing itself simultaneously. The easiest job in the creative industry I know is to survey audience tastes, and pull out material that you believe has worked, and therefore will work again. Anyone can do that. I don't know why people pick up an MBA degree for it.
What Channel V tested was a set of characters that defied the norm, and wholly redefined cool. And so Udham Singh, a crass Haryanvi Jat, or Lola Kutty, a sanskari Mallu aunty, who would otherwise be the desi folk that most urbane kids might be embarrassed by (and they could well be uncles and aunties in their own homes from a generation ago, depending on where you're from) could be viewed for who they were - very much us, that we could laugh at. The channel's tag line tersely hit the nail on its positioning: We are like this only, stressing on the 'only' - the sort of Indianism that we've spent years correcting others, so we could totally get rid of them from our own English, that should be decidedly British/American, never Indian. Young desi stand-up comedians you catch on YouTube, with accents peculiar to where they're from, have inherited that same chutzpah, to be who they are.
For once, I guess, we appeared comfortable enough to laugh at our cinema, with Quick Gun Murugan, a 'Sambar Western' character ("One peg whisky, one plate 'masla' dosa!"), who became cult enough for the creators (director Shashanka Ghosh, writer Rajesh Devraj) to spin a whole feature film around him. Or, my favourite, Space Khallasis, with the two claymation Punjabi astronauts Banjo, Macho, hanging around in space with a giant dog. This is how 'memes', I guess, were actually invented. Only that term is millennial.
But even more than that, if you look closely, the mid to late '90s were in fact the shortest lived golden age of Indian (non-Bollywood) pop music, where taking a serious leap of faith, Channel V would programme a Madonna music video, with Alisha Chinai (India's own Madonna), or Baba Sehgal (with a track like Mein Bhi Madonna), with the same gusto, and repeat view (and some of them were phenomenal: Silk Route, Daler Mehndi, Sunita Rao, etc). The flexible Bollywood, of course, has this inherent tendency to eventually co-opt every counter-culture going mainstream around it, but that's another matter.
Sometimes, maybe the guys at the channel went overboard with the mishran/mixture, getting Sting on stage, I distinctly remember, to perform Every Breath You Take, with who as the Hindi co-singer? Shiamak Davar! A lot of the times they got it right, for instance, their personally curated band Viva, whose debut track Jaago Zara, remains a really under-rated track still.
Finally they forced the American giant MTV to go totally desi, which in its 'glocal-isation' is far more significant than McDonald's serving aloo tikki burger. Channel V, I hear, is going off air. Or has it already stopped? I'm not sure. Who watches TV anymore?
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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