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    Volume 8 Issue 97 | December 11, 2009 |

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Food for Thought

TV Times
A Blast from the Past

Farah Ghuznavi

A scene from ‘To Catch a Thief’

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in front of my television, disconsolately surfing various options and grousing to myself about the fact that I had access to over 100 channels...and there was absolutely nothing to watch! Despite my frustration, I had to chide myself when I recalled that in the not-so-distant past, options had been considerably more limited.

Hard though it will be for some people reading this to believe, there was in fact a time when BTV was the only channel Bangladeshis had access to. The programming was certainly nothing to write home about, yet in school we spent much of the day anticipating the single English language programme that would be aired in the evening. So you can imagine our excitement, when BTV started showing not one but two English programmes every day!

Another highlight of the viewing week was the highly anticipated "Movie of the Week". Making the time to watch the Sunday afternoon matinee film, back in the day when Sunday was part of the weekend, was considered to be a sacred duty. This was the case even though the films screened could be wildly diverse, ranging from film classics like the stylish "To Catch a Thief", part of a memorable spate of Cary Grant films, to rather less exciting, little-known "B movies", most of which I have (unsurprisingly) forgotten.

Films such as "To Catch a Thief" provided a window into an alternative world, an exotic and exciting place, inhabited by the likes of the elegant Grace Kelly; and, in the course of BTV's other Alfred Hitchcock film screenings, the unforgettable Ingrid Bergman. The latter had a particular place of honour in my family folklore, since Ingrid Bergman was credited with interrupting the promising academic career of one of my uncles. After attending a matinee film featuring her, he was so smitten that he allegedly lost all interest in his studies and spent his time working on portraits of her instead, to the understandable despair of his parents!

Rather less well known than Bergman was another of Hitchcock's muses, Tippi Hedren, who nevertheless featured in one of his most famous films, "The Birds". That Hitchcock's darker side was not limited to his directorial offerings was illustrated by an anecdote Tippi Hedren's daughter, Melanie Griffiths, herself an actress, shared several years later. After Hedren had turned down his advances, Hitchcock sent her young daughter a doll made in her mother's image, dressed up to resemble a corpse in a coffin. Perhaps he felt she owed him something for the recognition she received as a result of starring in “The Birds”?? Anyway, directorial talents aside, he sounds like a strange character, knighthood or no knighthood!

The film had a particular significance in my life, as the Monday following BTV's weekend screening, a rather disturbing incident took place at our school. Most of us had watched the film over the weekend, and were still suffering from a degree of residual terror. As usual, Hitchcock had managed to create something sinister out of something very mundane: a story in which groups of birds inexplicably turned vicious and carried out frenzied attacks on unsuspecting humans. This may sound less than frightening to the uninitiated - particularly to a generation that has been raised on casual cinematic violence and a series of terrifying Japanese films like "The Ring", not to mention their watered-down Hollywood remakes. But for the time in which it was made, the technique used by the film was groundbreaking and highly effective. And for those of us who watched it again a couple of decades later it still seemed pretty scary.

That day, when several of the large, hideous crows that had been perched in the branches overhead, suddenly began falling down from the tree under which we were having a PT class, it was impossible not to be alarmed by the strange movements and grotesque cawing of the stricken birds. As we all scrambled to take shelter in the school building, it was with equal measures of relief and irritation that we discovered that the school caretaker Francis-da had left poison out for the birds to ingest the previous day, leading to the bizarre mass deaths that followed when school reopened on Monday.

Like most children, my love affair with the television began early. For the longest time, I was convinced that if I could just sneak up to the back of the TV quickly enough, I would be able to look through the two small oval shapes carved into the back of the television set, and see the little people that I was convinced secretly lived inside the TV (and were viewed more conventionally through the screen in front)! Sadly enough, I never quite managed to sneak up on them quickly enough to catch them in action; all I ever saw, peering into the back of the television set, was a mass of wires. But my conviction remained unshakable for several years...

Not that I was the only one glued to the TV, of course. If my classmates and I were regular viewers of the movie of the week, our household staff were equally loyal in their devotion to the Bangla films that were also a regular weekend feature of BTV's family programming. My beloved ayah would sit with her eyes glued to the screen, heightening her enjoyment by chewing vigorously on her beloved paans, which she deftly put together without ever taking her eyes off the screen, her nimble fingers effortlessly repeating the familiar ritual.

Most of the time, I remained quiet in order to let her enjoy the cinematic experience; although I did take advantage of the fact that, on these occasions she would completely forget about my mother's dictum regarding the necessity for me to take a regular afternoon nap. Like most children, I considered almost anything preferable to those hateful periods of enforced inactivity. So sitting through a film like "Taal Betal", or listening to ayah hum the popular film song "Shey je keno elo na, kichu bhalo lagey na", were a small price to pay for an afternoon of freedom.

In later years, there were the occasional Bangla films like Satyajit Ray's brilliant satire "Hirok Rajar Deshay", which made an impression on an audience wider than ayah and her cronies. Given the political situation that prevailed in the country at the time, many of us overheard our parents discussing the underlying political messages of the film. This in turn allowed us to try and sound knowledgeable about such adult matters, while actually enjoying far more the opportunities it gave us to adapt the clever rhymes for the nobler purposes of caricaturing our teachers and aggravating our less popular, often somewhat annoying classmates.

But if BTV's standard fare was less than exciting, there was one advantage to the lack of variety on offer. It allowed a generation of us to grow up with a set of common reference points. And perhaps precisely because we were given absolutely no choice in terms of what to watch, it made us all the more appreciative when something really interesting did come on.

The quality of programming changed gradually; the precursor of today's popular magazine shows came from programmes like "Jodi Kichu Money Na Koren" and "Tok Jhaal Mishti", which received a rapturous welcome from the general public. But for most schoolkids, the real focus remained on the foreign programmes, particularly the American shows. Over time, the mandatory Tarzan movies (with their shameless stereotyping of white jungle heroes and ignorant black natives) gradually gave way to more nuanced approaches to race relations, such as the popular sitcom "Julia", which followed the fortunes of a young African-American widow raising her son alongside a family of white neighbours.

But although the lead actress in "Julia", Diahann Carroll, was definitely a class act, the real glamour in television only arrived with the onset of shows such as "Charlie's Angels" and "Wonder Woman". To be perfectly honest, the only time I ever watched "Charlie's Angels" myself was during my exams, when I would use just about any excuse to avoid studying. It was a completely different matter where the "Six Million Dollar Man" and "Bionic Woman" shows were concerned! Indeed, the latter even inspired the opening of a "Bionic Refrigeration" store on Elephant Road, which is still in business decades after the show went off the air. As for why it was so popular, well let's just say that since several of those shows have more recently been made into Hollywood movies or re-launched as television series (in the case of "Bionic Woman”) for a whole new generation of viewers, their mass appeal probably speaks for itself.

Meanwhile, as we grew older, and presumably more sophisticated in our tastes, "Dallas" and "Dynasty" came along just in time to transport us to the love affairs, intrigues and low-down business dealings in the glamorous, jetset world inhabited by the Ewings, the Carringtons and the Colbys. While both series debuted within a short time of each other, "Dallas" was undoubtedly the more popular; though this was probably helped by the fact that vigilant censors who managed to do a hatchet job on every kissing scene had more to butcher in the case of Dynasty than Dallas!

Fans of these shows took their viewing very seriously indeed. So much so that at one point, the rivalry between the two groups was as intense as the one that raged between the pop music fans of Abba and Boney M on the highly evolved Dhaka pop music scene. And believe me when I say, in those relatively civilised days in the life of our capital city, that's about as bad as things ever got (nostalgic sigh)….


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