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Creating Magic Lamp for Doordarshan: In Conversation with Shukla Das

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Interviewer: Sashank Kini; Interviewee: Shukla Das; Cameraperson: Rishikesh Thakur; Interview Date: October 19, 2017; Location: Mumbai

 

Background: Shukla Das is a veteran in the film and television industry, having most notably been the Vice-President of both Star TV and Sony TV. Early in her career, she worked in Bombay Doordarshan, having helmed the wonderful English children’s programme Magic Lamp between 1974 and 1979. In this interview, she discusses her experience working on the show and get candid about her views on Doordarshan.

 

Transcript Begins: 

 

SASHANK KINI: For how long were you associated with Doordarshan?

 

SHUKLA DAS: I was associated with Doordarshan for 7 years, between 1972 and 1979, in which I did a much more than children’s programmes and specialized documentaries, two of which won international awards – Mother Teresa and Ravi Shankar. I also used to do youth programmes in which I launched some of the most memorable names like Kavita Krishnamurthy and people like that, big names. In my children’s programmes, very very big names were involved who at that time were small names like Ronnie Screwvala.

 

S.K.: Yeah…

 

S.D.: They were all puppeteers. And of course in my big programmes I did a series on Dance. I took some of the greatest dancers of India – the Jhaveri sisters who are the best known in Manipuri. I took them to Manipur and made programmes. I made on Bharatnatyam, on Birju Maharaj in Kathak. So I have done a number of cultural show, youth shows, documentaries and Magic Lamp.

 

S.K.: So it was a very prolific career…

 

S.D.: Yes, it was a very very widespread… and I was very fortunate in getting total liberty to do what I want.

 

S.K.: And that’s what happened in the case of Magic… especially in the case of Magic Lamp, right?

 

S.D.: In the case of Magic Lamp, when I came from Delhi to Bombay, the then Director VS Shastri, who is the brother of Lakshmi Shankar the very famous singer, and that’s how I had access to Ravi Shankar and all that… He was a brilliant man, and I think he saw something in me… I had not come for children’s programmes. I had just taken a transfer to Bombay where the film world was where I thought my future would me but when he gave me children’s programmes, he gave me as a challenge. He said, “I want to take this programme Magic Lamp and turn it around… and make it one of the stars… star programmes in Bombay Doordarshan. The thing is I had six months. He said, “I am giving you a carte blanche now you make something out of it. And it is… I spent about six to eight months on that carte blanche reviewing everything I knew about children’s programmes. For instance, I was very influenced by Sesame Street very influenced by the world that they had created, although that world was not the world that we created for our children here. Ours was for urban children while Sesame Street was as you know was for lower income black people to teach them numbers and letters and education while their parents were away. That was not our objective. My objective was to create a children’s world in India, in contemporary Bombay, in contemporary India in an urban society, and of course I hoped it would go all over India but it did go but it travelled, it was not satellite linked therefore the show could not be seen at one time, and there were many reasons why many of the programmes like Panna Club could not give out their projects all over India. In spite of that, we had 3500 clubs all over… only in Bombay and Pune. For children between 7 and 12, and to create leadership, teamwork… which I will discussed later. And this… this is how I… I dreamt about this 6 to 8 months. I dreamt about this character Alu and Phullu . Alu was the boy, Phullu was the girl and Alu was typical of a child who could make mistakes and get away with it. You know, we always tell our children, ‘You can’t make mistakes, but I was very sure that Alu would be a child who could make mistake because he was so imaginative, he was such a talented child and therefore, he would make mistakes. You know, he was a scientist and an artist which I always believe go in combination. And he lived in an Apple Shape house, which was designed by MS Sathyu, the famous art director and the girl who stayed with him was Phullu. And they were playmates, and they stayed in the house together. And there were things of Phullu was a Virgo so she was very particular about things, and Alu was a Pisces so he was very imaginative.

 

S.K.: It’s very interesting that you are stressing so much on characterization and how important that is while scripting your show. So I can understand where those six months went…

 

S.D.: Oh those six months were a dream… I used to dream about it...

 

S.K.: that when you came to Magic Lamp, there was already an existing show right? With the same name?

 

S.D.: Yeah with the same name. We did not change the name. I don’t know why we did not change the name but I just didn’t change the name because within the thing of Magic Lamp we had several names, like Hulla Gulla Pathshala, which was the Topsyturvy school.

 

S.K.: It was learning.

 

S.D.: It was learning… and it was such fun… it began with song ‘Hulla Gulla Pathshala, Hulla Gulla, We all love our pathshala hulla gulla! We love to dance, we long to sing! We love to make a many a thing! Hulla Gulla Pathshala hulla gulla!’ We had the Apple House where we would do the conceptual programming. And what is conceptual learning… sharing, friendship … these were the most difficult shows to do because they were abstract. Then we had Nafisa’s corner shop where they would go buy thing, eat thing… whatever they wanted to do. Then we had Dr. Ronnie who would attend to them. And yeah then of course we had Monu the Menace, a very small thing of animation who taught them the road rules, what you do for road rules, what should children be careful about. So they had everything in that programme. Later on we introduced to the rural characters. We had two small rural characters with a cow, the Moo-Cow, and they would often visit Alu-Phullu, tell them a little about the rural areas, so we tried to integrate slowly, very slowly, these characters with the Magic Lamp urban characters. Star Quiz that I would like to tell you was one of the last things we introduced to bring parents to watch the children’s show. And we would always… the three stars would be Alu, Phullu, somebody… they would give different answers. And even the parent would answer… it was a… a subject for a parent, the child would answer… a subject for the child, a parent would answer... So all these things would show us how the children were really up. Alu, Phullu, the other characters Sloppy, and the Monster… all the characters we created…all of which had a reason, a raison daitre, a reason to be… Sloppy was there because he had eight arms and he rose from the sea because there were so many letters and he could carry them. And that was the idea… the monster was the fear in Alu, the fear in the child.

 

S.K.: I mean in the beginning it was just these two and later on you expanded?

 

S.D.: Yeah but very quickly… very quickly… We evolved very quickly and we found that the need was there. And there was a wonderful exchange between me and the children because they would write plenty of letters to us, invite our characters to birthday parties or come to their birthday parties… one o’clock at night. See we used to study their letters and see what they really wanted. So although we began scripting with a wonderful writer… uh… Ms. Vasvani…  It was just brilliant…

 

S.K.: Mohini Vasvani…

 

S.D.: Mohini Vasvani… It was just brilliant. So she was just brilliant. So she would write songs and everything. But everything was done by original. Everything was original. All the songs she scripted, all the songs which were tuned were done by a sixteen-year-old girl called Barbara. And Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we had a core group of children which is an idea I picked up from America… you know in American there was this thing called Zoom, in WGBH where they had a core group of characters with whom they played. And we had a core group of children which were part of Magic Lamp, you know, and they could go out of Magic Lamp but they were Magic Lampers. The others were viewers, you know.

 

S.K.: Like an audience?

 

S.D.: Like an audience but we never took school programmes, other programmes and brought children there are performed. That was an absolute no-no.

 

S.K.: Was that… Like that is what was happening?

 

S.D.: That is what was happening… that you bring a school concert, that you bring school children and you get them to perform… We did have performances where Sloppy rose from the sea. He brought so many letters… One of those letters belonged to Omung Kumar. Omung Kumar today is one of the biggest art directors, and he said ‘I can do the snake dance’, and he did a snake dance there. So it’s not that we would not encourage talent but we would be very careful in how many talents we would introduce because we already had characters in that show who created a world for the child, for the contemporary child of Bombay which would have a contemporary school…. Halla Gulla Pathshala is nothing like the school we have… they would have a contemporary house… everything was contemporary. The biggest thing that happened on Magic Lamp… was Panna clubs. Panna was a little frog; he was a Russian puppet who came to us… Panna Club… Panna said ‘I’ll start a club. I will be the President’. Since he was the smallest, he could be the President with the hat and everything. And every month he would give a project. It would be ‘Swim for the Blind’, ‘Have a Fete’… it could be oriented towards bringing up money with activities. It could be like ‘Do well in your exams. Exams are coming. Who’s coming first?’. It could be Save a Coin, teach them how to save money. It could also be related to athletics. Every year we had an athletic show, and each of the Panna clubs, there were so many Panna clubs, each had a name, each had a flag, each had a logo, each had their own participants, and we would take them out to a real athletic field as into real swimming pools and CCI and all that and Vijay Thakerey, he used to be a real fan of Magic Lamp. He would be there to judge and Panna would be sitting there. The whole athletic meet would run like a professional athletic meet. We had students coming from college to run and devise this, what games, what kind of things, what kind of rules, everything… and best club would get the prize, always the best club carried the prize. There would be one, two, three… that would be… when we found that certain clubs were not appearing, we had so many clubs and if some of the clubs were not appearing, for three months or four months, we would immediately tell the parents of these areas that… there was no adult interference in these clubs at all, it was total election – Captain, Vice-Captain everybody. They would go and try and find out what had happened and get the letters… and there was always some problem which had made them stop to you know participate in… so we would try to revive them. In one case, I’ll never forget, the captain had died and before his death, he wrote a letter to the Vice-Captain and said ‘We have been one of the best performing clubs. Please take over as captain and lead our Panna club to heights’. I would never forget the letter, there are many such letters, beautiful letters that Panna club had, you know. And we never had anybody had anybody tagging alongwith them. They would sell cards, they would go knocking on doors, they had a fete in which they called Mehmood you know as the Chief Guest and each of the clubs had their thing… and each club had their own stalls and the money they raised they gave to the crippled children.

 

S.K.: It is very interesting that these were…

 

S.D.: It was all were… Plant a Tree, that was also a project.

 

S.K.: So a lot of issue based projects…

 

S.D.: Lot of awareness of what is society, the needs of society and that a team can help in society… Team spirit was very important, very important and it had to be built and it was built through Panna clubs. Panna would appear in the main thing, but otherwise he was behind the scenes, and they would come to Panna to receive an award. If it was an athletic outside or if it was something like Save a Coin then inside.’ So the whole idea was to break the glass boundary of television.

 

S.K.: Once in two months, I suppose?

 

S.D.: Once in two months, and the best part of it… We got some of the most amazing people to come to our studio like Admiral. He would come and be a part of Magic Lamp you know. And it was… and that time it was not commercial TV, so we used to have hoardings, we would print our shirts, we would do a lot of merchandising and nobody bothered and the advertising companies were willing to help us. In fact, they would say ‘Please hand over Magic Lamp to us’, and I said, ‘I can’t because the Director General won’t allow’. Julian Scott who was the head of Britannia said ‘I would like to print a book on Magic Lamp and bring out a record’ and the DD didn’t allow it, and so everything of Magic Lamp is gone today like a lot of very archival footage… So Magic Lamp was very different from any of the children’s programmes that I have seen in India at my time and even today in creating a world for the child where every desire, every need of the child is met.

 

S.K.: And I can see that… that you can’t do that just with one show….

 

S.D.: No… it has to spread…

 

S.K.: Because Doordarshan was in its inception, and it must have been a very challenging thing to come up with a show at that point of time…

 

S.D.: I faced no challenges because I just take on challenges. So to me a challenge is not a challenge. I had a budget of Rs. 3000. I had two assistants. I had one desk in which I used to share a room with Naina, Mariam and Suhasini… and everything used to happen in that room… So I had nothing, but I had a lot of imagination, and I had two of my assistants – Rashmi and Rekha, who would go out into the field and to whom I would give only one thing, ‘Going out there, don’t come back with a No. You have to come back with a Yes’ for everything. We faced challenges in making the puppets, in designing the voices for the puppets, in training for the puppets. They were never as sophisticated as the Sesame Street puppets. Never – there’s no question of it, because later on I heard that Sesame Street has three different kinds of puppets, one is at a lower level, one is at a higher level, all these we didn’t have, so in that money we used to create everything.

 

S.K.: The best of…

 

S.D.: The best of it.

 

S.K.: I heard you had the creator of Sesame Street coming over and…

 

S.D.: Not the creator… yes, Norton Wright who was the creative director and Ed Palmer, who was the research thing… We had a we had a seminar kind of thing in FTII where I took Magic Lamp and where they had come to train us… And to see what kind of shows India does, and when they saw Magic Lamp, they said ‘We never took it here. How did it come here?! How did you do it?!’. And we showed them the kind of animation we do. They were so impressed. A little flower crying. So we had a flower. We had tear drops cut into the cartoon. So all we did was we pushed a white paper… and the little flower cried! See we used very interesting ways of doing animation…

 

S.K.: So why do you think Doordarshan did not have this vision to you know what do they say… so when Julian Scott came for instance, why was his proposal…

 

S.D.: Because even when I started DTH in the 1990s, why was why was it not started by Star? By Rupert Murdoch? Why was Rupert Murdoch held on for four years because he was never given the license to start the DTH Thing? He stood for four years… and they stopped him and they began themselves and then began… So in the same way he was the director General of Television. He knew what content he had, and he did not want to give the content to any commercial house. And he said DAVP will bring out the book and the record. And I said, “Sir, I do not want that. Because I know the level of DAVP. I know what kind of paper they’ll use. I know what kind of artwork they’ll use. I do not want it brought up by them.  Amar Chitra Katha also wanted to bring out a record and in effect we went out to record it, but I don’t know what happened to those record… that was around the time I left… what happened to the recordings because they would have been wonderful original children’s programming…

 

S.K.: So why do we not have shows with children in it, with live action in it as much as animation?

 

S.D.: In my opinion there is no reason for animation to take over. It has taken over because the people who are in the channels are afraid to take risks. They have seen in animation a couple of things. One, it has shelf life as they say. Second, it works with children. In animation you can do a lot of things, you can become fat, you can become thin, you can go different places… in live action it would cost money… so basically they are into animation because animation has worked, so more animation more animation more animation more animation… Only I would say basic lack of determination and visualization… and understanding of what children would like. There is no reason why live action would fail. Bournvita Quiz…

 

S.K.: So you do believe children’s programmes can look at its past and seek inspiration?

 

 

S.D.: Absolutely. Seek inspiration... You have to be determined and you have to be supported. Now Doordarshan’s support was it never interfered with me – that was its greatest support. And when the programme were very popular they were appreciated. This in a commercial channel today if it doesn’t get TRPs but it is not going to get TRPs immediately it will take time.

 

S.K.: So do you think Doordarshan in a way is the channel… since it is coming up with DD Kids in future, do you think there is…

 

S.D.: I think only Doordarshan can do it. It has got the infrastructure. But will they do it? I don’t know. Where will they get the manpower to stay with them? I was working with them for seven years…

 

S.K.: So why do people leave it then? You’re saying it has the infrastructure, it has…

 

S.D.: People live on with Doordarshan to become Director Generals, get a pension, get a gratuity. Their aim is different, their aim is not to be creative, their aim is to be administrative heads. There is a completely different… and all the IAS people and all that have come… They have a completely different mindset. They were not creative people. We were young… we had just a… there were just the 7 or 8 of us… we were a very young lot which had come and been taken up by 72… and we did a lot of things. It wasn’t just me, there were other producers also who did a lot of things. We were lucky and we gave our heart and soul into it but even we could not carry on because of the burnout.

 

S.K.: Considering there are 400+ million children…

 

S.D.: And who but Doordarshan? Who has the money? It’s with Doordarshan. Who has the equipment? Doordarshan. But who hasn’t got the mindset? Doordarshan.