In the early '90s, when television opened itself to satellite channels and the cable network, TV serials exploded not just in Tamil Nadu but all over the country. Until then, people who were used to the content that played on the national channel Doordarshan aka DD, were introduced to a whole world of new possibilities. From then to now, in less than three decades, television serials have changed tremendously, going from weekly series to daily soaps, most of which are melodramatic and have plots that have little resemblance to reality.
TNM spoke to two popular actors who had been a part of TV series up until a few years ago, on their memories of having worked in the medium and how they think it has changed today.
Down the memory lane
Actor Devadarshini, who is today one of the most promising comediennes and character artistes in cinema, started her journey on TV in the late '90s. As a 17-year-old, Devadarshini began her career by anchoring shows that had scripted lines and no scope for improvisation.
“You just had to deliver the lines and it was a quite fun job to do as a teenager. Your friends find it exciting and it's also good pocket money. That was how I entered, I got pulled in by the magic of the medium,” says Devadarshini, who was recently seen playing the role of Vijay Sethupathi’s friend in 96.
Her first appearance in TV serials was a show called Kanavugal Illavasam that aired on Doordarshan.
“It was produced by 7th Channel Communications and I played the show’s second heroine. Actor Rekha was the lead and I play her friend. My story was told on a parallel track," she says.
At just 18, Devadarshini played the role of a “meek and weak” working woman stuck in a bad marriage. The show aired for 13 episodes and Devadarshini filmed for about 15 days during her winter holidays in her final year of college. “It was a well written script,” she adds. The opportunity came her way when the show’s producer saw her photo that was published in Kumudham magazine.
“Anchor Priyadarshini (DD’s sister) too was playing a role in the show and it was her mother who connected the team with me. At first, I was very reluctant to do the show. I was too young and had no previous experience,” she shares. But having done the series, Devadarshini tells us that she was bowled over by her own performance on the show.
Actor Devadarshini | photo courtesy: Instagram
“They gave me this magic liquid called glycerin and tears rolled down my cheeks. This, I actually mistook to be my fantastic acting skills. I remember I had to cry on the balcony for a scene that was filmed during the night. There were people watching me from below and with the way I performed, I thought I was a born actor!” she laughs.
It was only several years later, when she recently got a call from a friend, telling her that the show was being re-telecast on TV, that she was able to see for herself the very place from where she started out.
“I wanted to hide myself when I saw the show. I was super raw as an actor, which I can clearly see today,” she chuckles.
Actor Shylaja Chetlur, who is today an active personality in film circles, conducting cinema appreciation sessions and also applying herself behind the camera, began her journey in 1999 when she was 30 years old and mother to two children.
“My first TV series was a Malayalam show called Sarthagam directed by Sushma Ahuja who would later go on to do Malini Iyer with Sridevi. My first Tamil serial was with Minbimbangal called Oonjal, directed by Sundar K Vijayan, where I played the role of a mother,” she says.
Shylaja distinctly recalls K Balachander’s response when she expressed her hesitation to take up the project because she was a mother to two children.
Actor Shylaja with director Naga
“He said, ‘Even if it is a story about a 60-year-old, if they are the protagonist, then the story is about them.’ This was how Balachander made his series. There was always so much variety,” she shares.
Oonjal marked the television debut of SPB Charan, singer Shalini and Shylaja, and went on to run for about a year.
“The story itself was quite interesting. It explored live-in relationships and human emotions. It was a very absorbing story and not just written for the sake of episodes,” she adds.
While Oonjal was her first Tamil TV serial, Master Mayavi, another comedy show targeted at children, made it on air first.
"I was, in fact, inspired by MS Bhaskar who would promptly come 2 hours ahead of schedule at 7.00 am every day and work with technicians. On the sets, we also discussed world cinema and aspects of filmmaking. My initial days were very intellectually stimulating and I also learnt technical aspects of filmmaking during this time," she adds.
Shylaja would later go on to host Cinema Kaaram Koffee on Vijay TV, a talk show on cinema, and this, she says, fueled her interest in other aspects of cinema.
“I did a film appreciation course and later founded the Cinema Rendezvous club where we host a number of interesting discussions on different aspects of cinema,” she says.
While Devadarshini found her soulmate on sets, having married her Marmadesam co-star Chetan, Shylaja says she has evolved as a person with help from the medium.
Devadarshini candidly says it was director Naga who played cupid, quite unknowingly.
"Chetan had come into the industry with passion whereas I got here by chance. Every time, after filming, Naga sir would advise me that I had lot to learn from Chetan and he said that I should observe him closely. Perhaps I observed him way too closely," she laughs.
Shylaja had to put up with quite a lot of resistance from her immediate circle when she made the shift to acting.
“When I first took up acting seriously, my father, who'd encouraged me to go up on stage and act in school, was against it. I lost a lot of good friends who spoke badly behind my back. I’ve also heard people telling me that I’m acting because I wanted male attention, which was ridiculous. Yet I braved through it all and I can see a difference today. Having seen my performance in Naga’s Rudra Veenai, my father called and appreciated me for the very first time. I think in these 18 years, since I first began on TV, I have changed too, as a person,” says Shylaja.
Wealth in variety
Both actors say that director Naga had his unique stamp in creating TV shows, not just restricting his content to one genre. Devadarshini, in fact, tells us that her big break in TV came with Naga’s Marmadesam, the TV show with a cult following, where she played the role of a young and inquisitive Reena.
Here, she talks about how serials had live recordings back in the day, and how this aspect helped her make it on the show.
“It is actually an open secret of how I got the role because of my diction in the language. A Telugu actor was initially considered for the role but she had a heavy Telugu accent. To replace her, I was brought in,” she recalls.
Devadarshini also tells us that these shows, which were weeklies, would be filmed with utmost care, some episodes taking up to 5 days.
“Back then, we had no restriction of the daily deadline which today is one of the worst challenges the industry faces,” she adds.
But her fondest memories are from the comedy show Ramani vs Ramani II, another one of Naga’s classics, where she played the wife.
“I’d say it was my most challenging project to this day. More so because I was also new to the industry and also because I was scared of the genre,” she begins.
When she expressed her fear about pulling off a character like that of Ramani, a young saree-clad woman with a distinct body language, a style she had to learn and develop by herself, it was director Naga who convinced her otherwise.
Contrast this with her previous role of a skeptical and intelligent young doctor from Marmadesam.
“I always thought comedy should come naturally. But Naga sir was the one who took me through the process. He said, ‘Don’t be too judgemental. It will take a couple of episodes to perfect the body language. You should discover what looks funny on you.’ And that was how Ramani worked for me. Even today, if you look at some of the initial episodes and compare it with the later ones you’ll be able to tell the difference,” shares Devadarshini, who has impressed us with her comic timing in films like Parthiban Kanavu (where she plays Vivek’s wife) and Kanchana (where she play’s Kovai Sarala’s daughter-in-law).
Here again, Devadarshini discusses how live audio was a challenge. “There was this one episode where I had to narrate the names of 52 types of dosas in Ramavi vs Ramani. If I got even one name wrong, the entire short had to be repeated. Today it is different. When we started bringing in actors from other industries I think things began changing,” she tells us.
Shylaja too throws light on how TV shows were vastly diverse back in the day. “We had family drama, show for children, comedy, mystery, micro/macro shows and so much more. The choreography of scenes was also interesting. Not like how it is today. TV has a lot of potential which is very under-explored. We need different genres. TV has to reclaim its audience,” she says.
TV serials today
TV serials were not introduced by cable channels but there was a boom in the industry after more players entered the market. Shylaja recalls that while she was used to watching English series like Santa Barbara and The Bold and The Beautiful, Sun TV came in with the advantage of being the first private channel in Tamil.
Devadarshini says that when mega serials like Radhika's Chithi started, a new environment was created.
“I still remember, when Chithi was airing, I would ask directors to let me go early by 9.00 pm, so I could go home and watch the show. That was the kind of impact it created," she recalls.
Devadarshini would go on to reprise Radhika’s role in the Malayalam version of the show titled Parvathy, that ran for a brief 100 episodes before being shelved. She would then star alongside Radhika in Annamalai, playing an innocent Valliammai with her signature 'shoe-flower' aka the "speaker poo" in her hair.
“But somewhere down the line, with the one-day-one-episode pressure, and tendency to do do what is a hit among the people, I think production teams ended up stereotyping the content. The flavour of variety started coming down and so I stopped doing TV. Earlier with weeklies, you had the luxury of taking time to work on the script. For Ramani Vs Ramani, we’d take 2 to 3 days for an episode. Now production value seems to be very high,” she remarks.
Shylaja lauds a few production houses for braving through the temptation of Hindi-dubbed serials and retaining original, native content.
“It (dubbed serials) means we are only looking at money returns. It’s sad. Our stories need to be told by our people. A north Indian may not understand "Vidathu Karuppu". We have such a widespread diaspora. It is an economic compromise when we dub other language serials. In that sense, I appreciate Radaan and others who are working on local content," she says.
Observing that TV is not particularly sensitive in its portrayal of emotional violence, and the way the repeat plot-lines seems to insult the viewers' intelligence, Shylaja says that the content value too has come down. She adds that the stereotyping may make artistes lose interest altogether in the medium. “When I started getting more and more Brahmin woman roles, I got bored,” she says.
“Right now, TV has restricted itself to a particular set of the audience and on the way, it had lost many others. For instance, young people don't watch TV serials that are being made today. It is time TV regained people’s interest. With online apps and streaming platforms, I believe a change is in the offing,” she finishes.