Naseeruddin does better than Streep

DOORDARSHAN'S only regular science and environment programme has been drawing a much better response from viewers since it went fortnightly in April. Turning Point, launched last September, has stabilised to become one of the few bright points in an increasingly dismal network.

Recent editions of Turning Point have offered fastinating glimpses into how a woman's brain is different from a man's; the health hazards from solar radiation; how satellite TV works. it also featured a Lucknow engineer who has devised a water pump powered by river currents.

Its biggest draw, however, continues to be not its content but its host, Naseeruddin Shah, whose puckish wit makes him more of a natural for this programme than Meryl Streep was for the Race to Save the Planet series that DD had aired more than a year ago. Turning Point's producers,Times Television, say that their mail from viewers has picked up considerably since the programme went fortnightly, and about a third of it is basically Naseeruddin's fan mail.

Two other environment programmes which DD had featured in recent weeks are worth a mention but for different reasons. The first, on the river Kaveri by the Environment Society of Madras, Golden River Kaveri, was hopelessly inept. It casually dropped the startling fact that 95 per cent of the residents of a little village on its banks, who dyed and bleached cloth for a living, had been stricken with cancer. The point made, the film moved on without another word in elaboration.

What was worse, it came back to the visual of the.village of dyers at the end of the film to gush on the myriads of colours born on the banks of the river, Kaveri". Does anybody vet these programmes for sense and sensitivity before they are telecast?

More recently, the network featured Leopards of Garhwal, a documentary on the man-eating leopards of Pauri Garhwal. The fact that the camera had actually captured a leopard on the prowl in one of the villages was most impressive, so was the number of victims that they had managed to track down. But far too much time was spent on the victims and too little on analysing the reasons why these leopards, have become such a hazard for the local villages.

Meanwhile, other important films that will never surface on Doordarshan in the current milieu continue to be made, and are worth taking note of. Is medical technology a boon or an instrument of state coercion for a large numbers of voiceless Indian women? After you have seen-Deepa Dhanraj's latest film Something Like a War, you begin to wonder. The title is based on the words of the country's health secretary during the emergency: "If some excesses appear, don't blame me. You must consider it something like a war. There has been pressure to show results." There still is.

In 1976, they coerced men. Today they coerce women. Dhanraj assisted by Abha Bhaiya made this film after six months of field research because they were disturbed at the anti-poor, anti-women nature of the entire programme.

Bhaiya says they wanted to put pressure on the government and on international funding agencies financing family planning in this country.

There is no commentary in this film. Only voices of people talking. Of the doctor who boasts of the 3.15 lakh Laparoscopy operations he has performed; of the desperate government functionaries whose salaries will be with held if they cannot meet targets; of the wife whose husband wanted her to undergo the operation because the patwari had promised him a well; of the big guns in ICMR who seek to blandly justify unethical Norplant trials.

What is missing is the voices of key politicians and bureaucrats who refused to speak to the film-makers.

Shot in 1991 for BBC's Channel Four in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Haryana, the film uses a health workshop for rural women as a linking device.

A major shortcoming is the omission of dates, names and places. It is important to know that the spirit of 1976 is frighteningly alive in 1991. As Indira Gandhi said, in a quotation used in the film: "Some personal rights have to be kept in abeyance for the human rights of a nation." Does the Narasimha Rao government also subscribe to this credit?