Channels multiplied. Years gained years. And while they did, one man sat on a chair and spoke on television, in a way only he could speak, of things humane and social, quietly watching the changes it brought to the world around him. T. N. Gopakumar may have changed in the 22 years he hosted his show Kannadi, but the picture of a serious-looking man, with a head full of white hair and a matching white beard, continues to be the most familiar one to every new generation getting introduced to Malayalam television. How, when new channels springing up is not even news anymore, do shows like Kannadi continue to run, and continue to be popular, is a question that surprises even the show runners sometimes. The same channel has also seen the running of Munshi, a short satire on the political and social practices of the times, for years. In Kairali TV, Pravasalokam, with its touching theme of finding missing Malayalis abroad, is also 15 years old. What works for these shows, that doesn’t for others which faded away through the decades, the people behind the show, say, or find out, with us. Let’s begin with TNG in the 1990s.
Back then, he was in Delhi, and had come home to Kerala to the idea of Asianet. They were a group of friends, a tiny think tank among themselves, beginning an experiment together. TNG had not left his newspaper job in Delhi then. He did later. The idea of Kannadi dropped from him, but without any plans to present it himself. He had made documentaries on social issues such as dowry deaths and illiteracy among women. That was set, social issues would be in the show. In those early days, Kannadi touched on political issues too. Those were days only Doordarshan and a newly founded Asianet were there. But he left out politics in the years that followed, when he saw many other channels and many more programmes cropping up.
There were quite a few other programmes that began the same time as Kannadi, but somehow they all withered away. “Kannadi has always been successful, and somehow there never has been a gap except when I became unwell, one-and-a-half-years ago. That it ran so long with hardly any break has been a surprise to me too,” Gopakumar says, sitting in his office chair at Asianet News in Thiruvananthapuram. He is now Editor-in-Chief, and in one side of a wall, he has hung three television screens playing programmes of three news channels. Oh yes, he watches them all, but not his own programme. That has been done with, and TNG, the kind of person he is, would already be on toes for what’s next. “There has never been a big fall, and we have always enjoyed a comfortable rating.” The reason, he supposes, is the high level of credibility of the programme, and the recognition it’s got.
When you run a show for 22 years, solving many people’s many problems, it is difficult to dig out one beautiful memory. There’s been many, and many more. A lot of people benefitted — bedridden patients, and miserable people, with nothing but death to look forward to. “A family in Kasargod,” he says suddenly, an old story he recalled, “where the mother had died and there were three kids. The eldest child — a nine-year-old girl — ran the house – Sumithra is her name. There came lots of money once we aired the story, the collector gave them a piece of land. It was 15 years ago.” The money started coming so much for every show, they started a trust — Asianet News Charitable Trust.
“I am also happy I could tell stories related to environment, issues people didn’t know – of the spoiling of rivers and hills and forests.” He remembers a sand mafia that had even shocked A. K. Antony. He had told TNG how he thought he knew everything about Kerala and something would still manage to surprise him, like this. TNG would be surprised too. “It never fails to surprise me how insensitive people are, how we allow this to happen.” But goodness comes out too, of people sitting far away, and sending money to help. TNG played the postman first and then the postmaster later to deliver some of the money himself in the first days.
He has only been happy to see other programmes similar to Kannadi come. It would be better for society, he says simply. It is that simple thought to serve that helps, it would seem, to run a show for years and years. You will hear P. T. Kunhi Mohammed speak on similar lines when you ask him about Pravasalokam. “The idea was conceived by Rafeeq Ravuther, 15 years ago,” he says. It had then started a phone-in programme. For its hundredth episode, there has been a gathering in Kochi of the missing people and their families. Watching them all, they decided the show should include the family too. The phone-in programme changed to a visual presentation with an emotional touch to it.
Kunhi Mohammed picks out a random memory, as he remembers the many faces he has seen.
“There was the story of a man missing from Bahrain. For 12 years, the family had not heard from him. There came news that the man was spotted, and the wife waited at the airport with bated breath. But the man who showed up was another fellow of the same name, who has also been missing for many years. Seeing that wife break down there, we all cried with her.” With all these stories, he somehow became the man people went to with their troubles.
Once in a Kozhikode hotel, where he went with an NRI friend, a waiter came to talk to him. He said he had gone to Malaysia on a two-year job contract, but after a year, he was sent back, and lost his money. ‘But what do I do,’ Kunhi Mohammed asked him. And the waiter said, ‘It is not to get anything, but you hear out everyone’s problems (in the show)’. It turned out that the man with Kunhi Mohammed had come from Malaysia, and knew the waiter’s boss. They got in touch with the boss, and got for the man his money.
He feels content with the transformation that the show has brought him, and the little help he could do for the society. It keeps his feet on the ground, reminds him of the many comforts he has and the people he talks about do not. It is the genuineness of the show that continues to make it a success, he is sure.
Both T. N. Gopakumar and P. T. Kunhi Mohammed are the faces of the shows, faces that never changed in all these years. In Munshi, the short satirical show, however, the faces have changed. A lot. Only the man behind the camera, the director, Anil Banerjee, has not. He has always been known for his media shyness, and would reluctantly tell you about the show that began running 16 years ago. “There was this cartoon series that I used to regularly read, it was by P. V. Krishnan and came in the Kunkumam magazine. It shows a fellow who observes everything around him. I thought it would be a good idea to serialise it, I had spoken to him (P. V. Krishnan) about it,” Anil says. He knew it would be a good concept but he had no idea it would last so long. “Every evening, we would pick something that happened that day,” he says. All the changes -- if there have been any – Anil says, have not been from a conscious decision, it just evolved into what it is, and what it continues to be.
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