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The Ramayan: Why Indians are turning to nostalgic TV
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Initially meant to run for 52 episodes, The Ramayan was extended to 78 due to popular demand (Credit: Doordashan National)
TV series from decades ago – including The Ramayan and Shaktimaan – are proving huge ratings hits in India. Rahul Verma explores why we’re drawn to the familiar in times of crisis.
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During India’s lockdown, millions of people have been glued to TV from the 1980s and 90s, with marathon ‘serials’ The Ramayan and Mahabharat and cult kids’ superhero show Shaktimaan being lapped up by original viewers, as well as younger generations who weren’t born when they were first aired.

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The first four episodes of The Ramayan’s lockdown rerun were watched by a staggering 170 million viewers, with between 34 million and 51 million people tuning into each instalment, making its state-run broadcaster, Doordarshan National, the most-watched TV channel in the country, when it hadn’t been in the top 10 beforehand. On 16 April, The Ramayan was viewed by 77 million people, apparently setting a world record for the most-watched TV show globally (in comparison, The Big Bang Theory’s finale drew 18 million viewers, while 19.3 million watched the last episode of Game of Thrones).

Initially meant to run for 52 episodes, The Ramayan was extended to 78 due to popular demand (Credit: Doordashan National)

Initially meant to run for 52 episodes, The Ramayan was extended to 78 due to popular demand (Credit: Doordashan National)

The Ramayan’s popularity is not so surprising considering the show was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon and gripped the nation when its 78 episodes were first broadcast in 1987 and 1988. Popular episodes of Ramanand Sagar’s TV adaptation of the ancient Hindu epic, The Ramayana – the story of Diwali – were watched by 80 million to 100 million people and, famously, turned parts of the country into ghost towns during its transmission.

The magic of India’s most successful TV show in history, both in terms of audience and advertising revenue, has clearly endured. “People are religiously watching The Ramayan, it’s on twice a day, in the morning and evening – as a 1980s kid, it’s really nostalgic; it takes me back to when it was on Sunday morning and family and neighbours would gather round and the roads would be empty. Now it’s good time to pass because we’re stuck indoors and bored,” explains 38-year-old Sapna Patel from Delhi.

Multi-generational appeal

Until the late 1980s there was one state TV channel in India, Doordarshan (DD), which meant many of its shows appealed across generations, from children to grandparents, making them popular during lockdown. “I’m watching Mahabharat with my dad,” says Patel. “And a colleague who watched Shaktimaan as a child is watching it in lockdown with her six-year-old daughter – she’s really enjoying it because it’s nostalgic and she’s connecting with her daughter over it – that wouldn’t have happened without the lockdown and DD bringing back old shows.”

First broadcast from 1997 to 2005, the TV series Shaktimaan featured a superhero who attained special powers through meditation and the elements of nature

First broadcast from 1997 to 2005, the TV series Shaktimaan featured a superhero who attained special powers through meditation and the elements of nature

While there are practical reasons for the popularity of these shows of yore – such as they’re on the most widely available (and free) TV channel, audiences are captive, and production of new shows and new episodes of current shows has ground to a halt – all over the world many of us seem to be dipping into entertainment of yesteryear during lockdown.

Earlier this month, music streaming platform Spotify reported a 54% rise in listeners making nostalgia-inspired playlists, and a surge in the streaming of music from the 1950s to 1980s. There’s also plenty of social media chatter around retro video games including Sims, Minesweeper, Pinball and Double Dragon – perhaps lockdown tidying up has unearthed long-forgotten consoles – and PC classics such as Football Manager and Age of Empire. Behavioural science writer David DiSalvo told Spotify: “Nostalgia is an extremely powerful force linked to memory – but it has a way of putting a rosier view on our memory.”

When we are experiencing life as difficult, we can use nostalgic reminiscence to immerse ourselves into our emotional past – Jonathan Pointer

In the UK the BBC has scheduled repeats of memorable sporting moments, from the London 2012 Olympics, including the opening ceremony and Super Saturday, to football tournament Euro 96 and Andy Murray’s first Wimbledon triumph in 2013. How does consuming nostalgic entertainment and culture – beyond alleviating boredom and escapism – help us in difficult times?

According to psychologist, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist Dr Jonathan Pointer, the appeal in returning to treasured TV, films, music, books, video games, sporting moments, and even food, lies in the connection between emotion and memory. “Emotions and memories are linked; emotions reactivate memories, and memories reactivate emotions. So nostalgic reminiscence, when we create an emotional response through reminiscing on past events, is an easy way to re-experience an emotion attached to a particular memory. This can be aided by retrieval cues, such as smells, sights, sounds, from our past,” he says. 

Taken from the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, the TV series Mahabharat originally aired from 1988 to 1990 and has recently been shown again on national TV

Taken from the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, the TV series Mahabharat originally aired from 1988 to 1990 and has recently been shown again on national TV

“When we are experiencing life as difficult, we can use nostalgic reminiscence to immerse ourselves into our emotional past; this can generate a sense of certainty, safety, and comfort. A simple yet effective way to do this is through enjoying and revisiting entertainment that we have enjoyed in the past, such as music, films, and books,” he continues.

Consciously and subconsciously, it seems, entertainment that we know and love makes us feel good by tapping into a positive feedback loop, where the patterns and pathways in our brains are long-established and well grooved. “Mood and memory are linked, so watching our favourite shows from when we were younger has the potential to elicit a positive emotional response, if we were feeling good at the time when we first watched the shows,” explains Dr Pointer.

Familiar comforts

More than The Ramayan and Mahabharat reruns, Patel is savouring the lockdown rerun of 1990s detective series, Byomkesh Bakshi. “It reminds me of my childhood. What I like about it is that he’s very unassuming, he wears a dhoti and kurta, and is a very unlikely detective. Compared to modern shows, the simplicity of the show appeals and it reminds me of simpler times,” she says.

While the character Byomkesh Bakshi has been played by many different actors on screen, Rajit Kapur’s performance in the 1993-7 series is seen as the gold standard

While the character Byomkesh Bakshi has been played by many different actors on screen, Rajit Kapur’s performance in the 1993-7 series is seen as the gold standard

For Yasmin Walker, a humanitarian worker stationed in northern Iraq, returning to simpler times by listening to radio plays she first heard as a kid helped calm her nerves during a stressful and chaotic time. “When missiles were launched at a nearby air base in January and there was talk of evacuating us, I cleaned my entire apartment while listening to The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. It was the same again after getting out of the country on the last flight before they closed the airspace because of Covid-19 – I had Agatha on my headphones,” she says.

“Agatha is from a very specific time in my life – from when I was about nine or 10 and my family used to sit around and listen to them. They’re set in the 1920s and 30s, which for some reason I find a really comforting time. If I’m really stressed, I can almost physically feel the effect they have on me. I clearly remember that feeling when I was cleaning my apartment – your heart rate and breathing slows and it’s like a warm fog goes into your brain and dampens down all the stress. I don’t even really listen to the storyline, the tone is enough.”

Psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, Hilda Burke, agrees it’s possible to find shelter and reassurance in a familiar TV or radio show. “I can imagine that in situations where you’re faced with an unpredictable and dangerous environment, you would find comfort in being ‘cocooned’ by a familiar TV or radio show. Maybe the unconscious driver being ‘nothing bad can happen when I’m watching or listening to x’,” she explains.

Of course one of the hardest things about living day-to-day life in lockdown, amid strict social distancing measures, is a lack of human contact – many people have not had any physical contact, such as a hug, with another person, nor had a face-to-face conversation for more than a few minutes, for several weeks.

Although wrapping ourselves in the comfort blanket of feelgood cultural favourites doesn’t replace touch, or conversation, they can help with loneliness by rooting – and routing – us to people we are close to. “Nostalgic entertainment gives our lives a sense of personal history, meaning and belonging, as we appreciate our connection with our communities and significant others, and ourselves,” says Dr Pointer, who’s recently revisited the Back to the Future trilogy and Edward Scissorhands. In terms of Indian TV, it could be the appeal of fantasy as much as nostalgia: after the success of The Ramayan, DD National is set to bring back another mythological series, Sri Krishna. Either way, it allows us to escape – into another world, and another time.

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