The news, according to...
Once upon a time, before the era of 'breaking news' and the onslaught of 'know-it-all' television anchors, we had newsreaders known for their cool sophistication, distinct personality and professional standards. They spoke with crystal-clear diction and never once thrust their opinion on viewers. Most important, they spoke with a sense of quiet authority. The public face of our national television broadcaster Doordarshan (DD), they remained unfazed through the rough moments—remembered the oft-repeated 'Rukawat ke liye khed hai'?—and never once let the mask slip. Each newsreader had a carefully cultivated, unique style and viewers looked forward to the dreary news of the day, thanks mainly to their personal charisma. And the colourful saris and ties they donned were regular drawing-room conversation, much like the news they read. Have their perfect diction and polished manner served as an inspiration for today's television news anchors? Dhanya Nair Sankar walks down memory lane with six DD veterans
His deep baritone is synonymous with Hindi news reading and got an entire generation of viewers hooked to their TV sets. Even today, his voice continues to reverberate. You hear him at the Nehru planetariums in Delhi and Mumbai and on the Metro IVR system in Delhi. And his rendition of Sarab Sanjhi Gurbani is the voice of Sikhs globally, even after all these years.
Known for raising the level of sophistication of Hindi news reading, Narang was the default poster boy of the field. Today, he runs a digital studio in Delhi and composes music for advertisements. But he candidly admits DD is where it all started. Narang was already a voiceover artist when he joined DD in 1982. "I owe a great deal to DD, because I became a well-recognised face there," he says. "The DD bigwigs never discouraged me from developing an exclusive style." He believes the newsreaders of those days were so loved because they were more interested in gaining their viewers' trust than becoming style icons. "The aim of every newsreader was to reach out to the audience with truthfulness and authenticity and with no melodrama," he says. "We didn't believe in selling a personal image. If we were recognised on the streets, it was because we conveyed truth; without the sensationalism of today."
Conviction and belief in content, with no personal or emotional involvement, was sacrosanct in those days. "As news readers, we were asked to put across information as simply and truthfully as we could," shares Narang. "Any dilutions, additions or deviations earned you a rap from the news director. Also, there was no pressure over TRPs and one-upmanship." He believes today's competitiveness and battle for TRPs has forced newsreaders to resort to hysteria to grab eyeballs. He also makes the point that changes in the field reflect larger societal changes. "Privacy is no longer privacy in the classic sense," he says. "Some of the socalled 'Page 3 Privacy Believers' even lure newsreaders to peep into their private lives. Often, it's a two-way street where hunter and hunted are hand-in-glove."
In his time, observes Narang, the connection with the audience was what motivated newsreaders most. "There was so much conviction and truthfulness that the audience saw themselves and their concerns reflected in us." He remembers once reading out a news item about a new pension scheme for ex-servicemen. "Two days later, I found a retired havaldar and his wife at my door, with a letter pleading for the man's pension to be enhanced. He believed only I could get the needful done." Narang promised to find out the Army's policy on the matter from his father, who was posted in the Pensions Department at Army headquarters. "They went back satisfied and I managed to contact them with the relevant details a couple of days later," Narang recalls. Imagine that happening today.
She would grace our screens with poise every night, her crisp voice reminding us it was time to listen up. Seconds later, she would begin to read the news in Queen's English that could give international newsreaders a run for their money. It was the 1980s and 1990s, the Golden Age of our national broadcaster before satellite TV changed the game.
After the DD days, Delhi-based Neethi Ravindran has been keeping busy as a voiceover artist, making documentaries, short films and anchoring special programmes. It was her voice that led us through the death of Mother Teresa in 1997 and she was the brainchild behind award-winning documentary Fifty Years of India's Independence, made for the Ministry of External Affairs through the United News of India. With her characteristic charm and enviable poise intact, Ravindran agrees to walk us down memory lane.
In those days, newsreaders did not shout—and they definitely didn't pass judgement. It is no surprise, then, that 'old-school newsreaders' like Ravindran feel the 'trial-by-media' attitude today's anchors adopt is nothing short of painful. Ask her what comes to mind when she watches today's news anchors and she quickly replies: "Their lack of originality". "We were not trained or advised on style of delivery so each of us developed our own personal style," explains Ravindran, who holds an honours degree in economics from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. "The general atmosphere guided our understanding of being credible newscasters within the parameters of a government-controlled broadcast. There is greater freedom of expression today, competition as well as a refusal to be cowed by any form of repressive authority.
But instead of diversification, it has brought about sameness in content and delivery style."
"Some of the telecasts have become judgemental to a fault," she observes. "Once we draw attention to an issue, it is best to let the courts carry out their duties. There is a very fine line between projection of news and being drawn into the minute details that really need not be in a news bulletin." But she is glad for one invention—the remote control—that the audience can use to switch off the television! "The final, most scathing indictment lies in the remote in your hand; at least, viewers are free to change channels!" she adds with a chuckle.
Ravindran is also quick to point that it wasn't all hunky-dory back then, especially if you were a roving, curious correspondent. The government kept a tight fist on information going out, which left many doubting the system. Ironically, like many of her peers, Ravindran too practised journalism outside the ironclad walls of DD. "I also worked with United News of India, so DD gave me a somewhat free hand," she says. "I also wrote for Films Division, for private producers, writing and voicing scripts and making documentaries. All this gave me immense satisfaction."
However, DD's biggest gift was the recognition and reputation its newsreaders enjoyed. "We were recognised all over India and in many parts of the world," she recalls with a smile. "Once, when I was travelling in a remote part of Rajasthan with a young man, we stopped at a dhaba for a cup of tea. A little boy came running across to me; holding up his finger, he said, 'Newsreader...TV newsreader'; that warmed my heart."
This former news presenter feels the responsibility to clean up the Fourth Estate lies with those who are part of the fraternity. "Competition, ambition and ego have resulted in temptations that are difficult to resist. We need a code that channels need to set for themselves before an intelligent audience turns away."