Thought Box

Usha Dixit talks television

Usha Dixit talks television

by Aparajita Krishna April 27 2021, 11:20 pm Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 41 secs

Aparajita Krishna singles out one of her most reticent but accomplished colleagues from the past, Usha Dixit, and ropes her in for a stunning conversation. 

Writer Usha Dixit’s email reply to my questionnaire for a profile on her read: ‘Jawaab bhej rahi hoon... kuchh kaafi lambe ho gaye... kya karoon? Daily soap ka dialogue writer aadat se majboor! Mujhe Question 1 personally bahut achha laga kyonki uske baare mein maine kahin baat nahin kee hai.’  

‘Daily soap ki ye dialogue writer aadat se majboor’ boasts of a television career in writing, direction, editing, voice-over that is as good as recording the start-up, evolution and history of our television broadcast - DD, DD2, ZEE, Sony, Colours… 

She says “DD (Doordarshan) ko uske bachpan se dekha hai maine. I have also partaken in some of the programmes of Mumbai DD. I had also produced, along with Dimpi Khera, 8 episodes of a show for a children’s program. When DD got commercial then Mrs Manju Singh produced the first sponsored show – Show Theme. Thereafter I got connected regularly with Doordarshan… so… the relationship is really an old and tested one.” 

CUT to Balika Vadhu (2008—2016), Ahilya (2021).

Let us rewind to the beginning and journey her work. She has been a colleague of a past that was very significant for us and wherein I developed the utmost regard and respect for her multi-talent creativity and work ethos. 

Do acquaint us with your family background and studies. You are essentially from Bhopal? 

I’m born in Bhopal, but my memories of childhood rest with Mahasamund, which now comes in Chhattisgarh. My father was an accountant in the Social Welfare Board. Mother was a housewife. Yes, she would write stories back then, which would get published in the small magazines of Madhya Pradesh. My father was also intrinsically of artistic bent. He was a very good painter. Exceptional drawings! I regret that we have not retained any of them. He was also a singer. He had a cultural group called Kala Niketan. We would travel all over Madhya Pradesh, in cities, towns, villages, with the group for cultural shows. I recall sitting under a red paper lit light and fan in the performance of Sita’s agnee-pariksha. I had sang on the stage at the age of around four, the song ‘Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye…’. Sitting in the audience was a police officer who gave me rupee one as a token of appreciation. Because of his job and constant transfers my father could not pursue his creativity. But in 1969 after coming to Bhopal my mother did a lot of work for All India Radio (AIR) Bhopal. My own beginnings started from there. 

You started in childhood with Radio as the medium. You started as a child artiste announcer on AIR Bhopal and went on to do radio plays, then became a casual announcer, news reader. Right? Do share some memories. There are B/W photographs of a very young you getting awards from politician Arjun Singh and Amitabh Bachchan.

Yes, I started with Akashvaani Bhopal. It was with the program ‘Baal Sabha’. Then I did ‘Yuv Vani’, became a casual announcer, did radio plays and also partook in discussions. In those days apart from Indore, which had its own radio station, it was AIR Bhopal that would get relayed in the whole of Madhya Pradesh. In this way I became a known, familiar voice of Madhya Pradesh (MP). For the ‘farmaaishi programme’, song-request, a listener wrote on a postcard Usha Dixit instead of Singer Usha Iyer/Uthup! 

When did you shift to Bombay and what was your future plan? Share your beginnings in Bombay. 

In Bhopal my dreams were small. I did a Masters in Sociology from Bhopal University. At AIR I was working as a casual announcer for 25-26 days in a month. But I wanted a permanent job at AIR. Thereafter I applied to each and every upcoming Akashvani Kendra in MP. But every time in the written test I would fail. They of course could not fail me in the audition because I was an approved voice of AIR Bhopal. 

In those days after films and advertising-films the job of an announcer was considered a glamorous field. With A+ transmission reports I remained a casual announcer. I also trained some voices for the radio who had never even seen the studios of Akashvani but had high connections. For AIR Bhopal, I also co-created advertisements/commercials/jingles. For the recording of these we had to, every fifteen days, come to Bombay. Apart from AIR there was no other recording studio in Bhopal. 

It was at Radiovani that I met Manjuji {Mrs. Manju Singh}. For Mumbai radio she would record programmes here. She saw my work and asked me to come to Mumbai. So in 1981 I came to Mumbai. Initially I neither got the chance to write nor to lend my voice. Like a production assistant I would keep running between the studios and advertising agencies. I thought to myself that Bhopal was better than this! During the Diwali season I would have 28 spots (ads) running! So after spending a year in Mumbai I returned back to Bhopal in 1982. Again for a year I gave  interviews for AIR and DD. Again rejection! 

I had in the meantime got selected for Vividh Bharti Mumbai. Mine was the first name, but it vanished suddenly from the list. How? I don’t know. At Bhopal I suffered losses in the advertising-agency I was running with some partners. It was a one-woman-show but still I was not getting my due. My despondency was at its lowest. Then in 1983 one day I received a call from Manju Singh. She asked, ‘Usha, do you now want to work for TV?’ I asked her what would I do there? She replied that whatever I wished to do and that all the creative work would be mine. So I took the earliest train and landed up in Mumbai. Since then I have stayed put in Mumbai. It has been 38 years!  

You partook in Manju Singh’s Doordarshan programme Show-Theme. For those times these were all novel formats. Share some nostalgia related to Show-Theme and the celebrities who participated in it. 

Show-Theme was initially named Show-Time, but when a film magazine of that same name started, the TV program got re-named as Show-Theme.  Television was new for us all. The film stars would most agreeably and with keen interest come participate in the program. I not only wrote the anchor script for it but also chose the topics, the scenes, shooting etc. It was collective work. 

My best friend there was Production Head Dimpi Khera. She would personally go and get the film reels from the producers. I would carry the reels in search of the required scenes to transfer on hi-band. Video had not come in yet. What was considered as my bad habit back in school, college days, came in very handy for Show-Theme. My fondness for films and my recall of the scenes! In the course of the show I got to interact with many celebrities and we became friends. A family bonding developed. I have not forgotten Smita Patil making for us special bhajiya and chatni; Jackie Shroff standing with me for half an hour at the Napean Sea Road bus stop. 

For Ek Kahani, a serial of short-stories, you were the screenplay and dialogue writer as well as assistant director. Share some working anecdotes. 

Ek Kahani was my first fiction show. It was produced by Manju & Jyot Singh. The idea for the show was given by Amrita Pritamji to Manjuji. It had literary stories across Indian languages and we would go shoot in the state to which the story belonged or was set in. We would cast actors from that region. I was the main assistant director and also wrote the screenplays and dialogues for many stories. 

There were many directors working for it. Back then Sunil Shanbag and Dayal Nihalani were working for Shyam Benegal. Ek Kahani was their first show as independent directors. In this program I got the opportunity to work with directors like Dayal Nihalani, Sunil Shanbag, Vinod Pandey,  Jyoti Swaroop {film Padosan waale}, Bharat Rangachary, Gogi Anand, Jahnu Barua. This learning experience I perhaps could not have gathered at any institute. In January 1987, I shot as an independent director - a Tulu story ‘Bali’ by Vijay Shetty. Then I worked on  Sudhir Ghosh’s Bangla story ‘Aleek’ with Milon Mukherjee, Suryabala’s ‘Na Kinni Na’ with Shahnaz Khan, Amrita Pritam’s Abhinetri {2 auraten} with Rajeshwari Sachdev and Oriya story ‘Prem Patra’ with Natasha Rana and Shweta Prasad Basu. 

There are so many memories knit around Ek Kahani that I can write a book on it. 

You were also linked with the making of Surabhi produced by Siddharth Kak. Do share the recall. 

I wrote the anchor script for Surabhi from the first episode itself. Lent my voice in commentary to many a story. I also worked on it as segment director, editor. In those days wherever I would go people would refer to me as ‘Surabhi waali’. One of the features I did was on Asgari Bai who was noted for her singing at the Tikamgargh Fort Darbaar. At that time she would be around 80. Her livelihood was just about getting managed by making and selling bidi. For the shoot when we accompanied her to the fort she removed her slippers at the gate of the main qila. The whole day she roamed around bare foot. I regret not having any photo of that program, but that feature would still be on record with Mr. Siddharth Kak. My fascination for travel got fulfil led in the course of the making of Surabhi.  

Plus Channel (India) Ltd. - headed by Amit Khanna and Mahesh Bhatt was back in the 1990s, a pioneer television software production house/music company/events cell/film production. It produced television programmes across genres. These were aired on Doordarshan, DD 2, TV Asia.  You were a very important part of the programming. 

I worked with Amitji from 1990 to 1997. In front of me the name of the  company changed thrice. Plus Channel was the third name. Earlier in Amitji’s feature film Shesh I assisted him. That was my first film experience. That time there was no concept of a monitor. We started with Bollywood Plus, a video magazine, and later as TV program. Then followed People Plus, Mirch Masala, Bollywood Reporter, Sangeet Sitare, Rangoli with Neesha Singh and with Sudha Chandran in Tamil. I worked on script and direction. I also worked on stock market reports for Business Plus, something I still cannot fathom. 

One got the opportunity of getting to know many a big talent from close quarters. Ashaji, Panchamda, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Udit Narayan, Usha Khanna, Talat Mahmood, Gurdas Maan, Ravindra Jain... bahut se log...! With Ashaji (Asha Bhosle) one got so close that whenever she would be around Juhu she would drop into the office to catch-up. We would get immersed in talks, golden nostalgia of an era. 

In course of an interview with Amit Kumar, Panchamda (R D Burman) himself landed up to give a quote on Amit Kumar and to help him recall many memories. For four consecutive years we covered, live, the Filmfare awards. We were creative directors. The rehearsals for it would go on through the nights. Back then to cover a live show was a challenge! There was just half-hour of deferred telecast time, which would run up to being as good as live as the show progressed. I recall my shouts from the edit control.  UFFFFFF... what fun! Amitji had given us all the freedom. It was another kind of a working satisfaction! I, rather you and me, were counted amongst the privileged.  

Back then you also learnt editing on the job. We started with low band format, graduated to high band, then beta and then covered the digital experience. From analogue to digital editing. 

Yes. I learnt everything on the job. When I had first landed up in Mumbai, one did not even know the difference between scenes and the shots. People would ask, ‘Are you from the film institute or from the NSD?’ My apologetic reply would be ‘No’! Now one feels proud of the fact that one learnt while working and continue to do so. I edited, apart from shows like Ek Kahani, Rangoli, Sangeet Sitaare, Surabhi, also serials such as Reporter, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Mast Mast Hai Zindagi. My journey as an editor stopped at Beta format. 

You were also associated with Sahara Television Channel (1997) at the time of its launch.

I had joined Sahara as Head Of Promos. Then joined the programming team. The work atmosphere was different then. The channel and the producers would mutually work together on the show. After 19 months of the job I quit. One got tired waiting for the launch of the channel. Then after two months the channel got launched. 

You also worked with Jaya Bachchan on television shows. 

I met Jaya di during Plus Channel days. Our offices were in neighbourhood. One also shared a Bhopal connect. Her younger sister Rita di and Rajeev ji were known to me. Jaya di wanted me to work for her. Once she told Amit Khanna ‘How much harder will you make her work? Give others a chance too to work with her!’  

I wrote the screenplay and the dialogues for a show produced by Saraswati Television. Dekh Bhai Dekh was also produced by her. She would come at around 1-1.30 pm at night and see me work. She would reprimand Anand Mahendroo, ‘Maar daaloge ladki ko….?’ At Sahara she was my boss to whom I would report. At the time of the Kargil war I was continuously editing for 3 days and nights in the studio. The next day I was to go to Lucknow for a meeting. Jaya di sent across, at night for me, Shweta Bachchan’s black trousers and white shirt. With the Sahara boss this uniform was mandatory. 

For Sahara One you directed D-Line?

Yes. It was a psycho thriller. One enjoyed it. 

For TV programme Star Bestsellers you directed the story called Kabaad. It had Surekha Sikri and Raghuveer Yadav as actors.

Yes. Along with Surekhaji and Raghuvirji there were Loveleen Misra, Lalit Parimoo, Nishigandha Wad and Ravi Gosain! I would be so impressed by Surekhaji and Raghuvirji’s dedication. Story Kabaad was very different. People still recall that story. 

Usha kept getting writing offers for television serials and kept writing their dialogues or screenplay. In the long list are programmes such as Astitva Ek Prem Kahani, C.I.D, Kahani Ghar Ghar Kee, Punar Vivaah, Saat Phere, Balika Vadhu, Ahilya. 

In our TV serials one does not get to see a screenplay. Episodes begin and end where ever they wish to. Yes the dialogues really talk and jabber. How important are the dialogues? 

Dialogue links the viewers directly with the characters. Isiliye ahmiyat toh hai! If there is a good storyline and well defined characters then sone par suhaaga! 

Balika Vadhu was a flagship serial. How was the experience for you? How do you assess its importance? 

For Balika Vadhu I got a lot of help from my own rural background. It was not difficult to learn some Marwaadi words. All that I saw in those villages, all that I learnt, the expressions, thoughts, problems and solutions, woh akhad andaaz, all that came in very handy. Those who have directly tasted the jamun that fall from the trees onto the ground can only know the true taste of a jamun.  

Balika Vadhu was a great experience. It will not be wrong of me to say that the show not only gave fame to those new people associated with it, but also a new identity to older ones like me. It gave Surekha Sikri her first award! Take me for example. After 27 years with TV I got for this serial a line-up of awards. People living in the cities did not know, that till today child-marriages happen. 

Ahilya is running on TV.  You are associated with it. 

I had initially said ‘no’ to Ahilya. I have been weak in history from the very beginning. I was then given the assurance that the serial is focused on Ahilya Bai Holkar’s personality and aims to introduce her as a character to people. The language was yet another problem. I did not want to use a language and dialect, which the audience of today would not be able to understand - there would be no English, no slang. There would be conversational Hindi with some liberty. There would be a historical context, but the story is around a particular character. When I started reading on Ahilya Bai I realized that she as a personality ought to be known by the people at large.  

A general perception is that television is a writer’s medium. Do you agree?

I too have heard of this, but this is not so. On TV star system and TRPs rule.

The good old DD days and the initial Zee TV years carried very innovative and creative content of programs. Then what kind of a turn beset it? Regressive, uljalool serials crowded the medium. These have been ruling the medium for years. The tragedy of our TV content is that its beginning was matured, literary (1980s, 1990s) and in the name of progress of years it subsequently became  regressive. Do you agree? If so what is the reason? 

Bhedchaal! Herd mentality! It was so with films too earlier. If one show runs then soon 2-4 of the same kind crop up. It is true that television is now in no way connected with literature. Sad! Maybe because daily soaps are very long running. No one any longer believes in limited episodes. Then every week as per the TRPs the stories keep changing. With literature you can’t do that. THANK GOD! 

Which are your favourite television serials? It could be yours or that of others. 

Out of the older shows it is Hum Log, Buniyad, Katha Sagar, Tara, 9 Malabar Hills, Banegi Apni Baat, Hasratein…! Out of the recent shows I like Ladies Special, Mere Dad Kee Dulhan, Patiala Babes. 

Are you working on any digital content, web-series?

You won’t believe that no one has contacted me for web series! Perhaps people wonder if someone writing Balika Vadhu and Ahilya would know of abuses. Though I do want to work on at least one web series. Is someone listening? 

Tell us about your future work.   

Presently Ahilya is on air! Talks are on for some projects but everything is suspended in course of this lockdown

Are you still fascinated by films? What of film songs? Which film and song is closest to your heart and hums in your ears?

I cannot get rid of my fascination for films. Though one no longer yearns for the first day first show craving. That madness is not there. My favourite film is still Guide and the song closest to me is ‘Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo makaam…wo phir nahin aate…’

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.