We got our first television set when i was in second grade. It was a B&W TV by a company called CROWN. I couldn't have been happier. It barely mattered that my school friends had colour TV and watched several channels while we were stuck at the mercy of a rooftop antenna. This was years before we got access to cable. Many things changed between these two phases of entertainment except one: the TV shows (or programmes, like we called them) were predominantly women-centric with strong female protagonists. Be it Swabhimaan (co-written by Shobhaa De, when she used to be more responsible with words) on DD or Hasratein on Zee. The 90s was the season of women empowerment for television. It was subtle and there was no chest-beating about it. Very matter-of-factly. There were shows (not just on the two aforementioned channels) that featured women who could think for themselves and weren't afraid to express what they felt. Unlike the goody-goody-good halfwit characters paraded nowadays, these women were remarkably believable. Tara. Shanti. Sailaab. Heena. Dastaan...the list goes on and on.
So, what really went wrong?
I believe the laws of economics came into picture. The aforementioned shows were screened once a week. One episode, half an hour long, with two to three mini-breaks in between. Things changed drastically with Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) when it piloted in the July of 2000 on STAR Plus. Now, you'd wonder how a quiz show managed to help change the course of soap opera in our country. Well, when Amitabh Bachchan asked us "9 baj gaye kya?" in the ads leading up to KBC's debut, he was basically summoning India's attention the way Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra did (sans any ads, of course) with their Ramayan and Mahabharat in the late 80s. Once STAR Plus had people's attention, with the 9pm-10pm slot, it was easier for the production house to keep the audience entertained around—before as well as after KBC. The resulting shows (read: Kyun Ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (KKSBKBT), Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki (KGGK), Kasauti Zindagi Kay, etc) were slightly different from predecessors as they boasted 3-4 episodes a week. Each episode, half an hour long, with 3 not-so-mini-breaks in between. Instead of waiting for a week for the next episode, the audience were being fed wholesomely by Ekta Kapoors of the world. The only problem being, an assembly production line approach to screenwriting made sure that the quality of the show suffered. No wonder they (the writers) introduced the painfully cringe-worthy exercise of shots focusing on the face of all the 3847592 characters in a given show with blaring metal music in the background that would put even WWE to shame and a person with BP to premature death. This gimmick was for the writers to buy time; in other words, stretch the episode as much as possible. Anand Gandhi, who went on to direct the gorgeous Ship of Theseus (2013), was one of the writers for KKSBKBT before having an epiphany!
Speaking of filmmakers, the likes of Anurag Kashyap and Imtiaz Ali used to make short films (one-hour specials) for Star Bestsellers. Epic stories, touching chords the way Netflix and HBO is currently doing, were portrayed in these weekly episodes. This was before the K-fever took over the television. The worst part is, the imitation game is so strong in India that any trend becomes endemic after a while. Something similar happened to TV as well. Like India blindly apes the West, the regional TV apes the Hindi TV opera. The regressive show plots were fondly copied by vernacular mediums as well. And even today, in 2016, the paradigm shift that took place at the turn of the century has the same repercussions on television where it's almost impossible to come across shows wisely written for the society. The thirst for TRP is so high that it's beyond ridicule now. Dumbing down comedy is one thing but isn't dumbing down drama next level idiocy? Exactly what has happened with Indian television throughout. Instead of enlightening the housewives (the primary targets) and other family members of the country, the ongoing shows—barring a few notable exceptions—are degrading the collective intelligence with their heavy reliance on petty characters who have nothing to offer. It's worth wondering when are we going to pull ourselves out of this nauseatingly lame swamp of sub-mediocrity. Especially when the disease has reached a point where even news channels are gladly sounding like Hindi TV opera.
PS. If there was one genre that remained uncontaminated by this wave, it has to be horror. There's no doubt that Zee Horror Show inspired the writers of the TV horror series that eventually followed, be it Aahat or Mano Ya Na Mano or Ssshhhh...Koi Hai. These shows managed to do what Hindi horror films STILL can't: scare you instead of making you laugh. And they did so primarily because of two reasons: they hired good writers who cared about the genre and they weren't asked to churn out four insipid episodes per week!