The Trendsetting Legacy of India’s VJs

Their 1990s shows on music channels like MTV and Channel V were neither Doordarshan nor Bollywood, giving rise to indipop and lending “cool” to Indian youth culture.

Bedatri D. Choudhury

November 11, 2021

The Trendsetting Legacy of India’s VJs
Shenaz Treasurywala

When I was growing up in the early 1990s in India, MTV wasn’t a channel. It was a few late hours of forbidden TV on the Star network that introduced me to Michael Jackson, Vanilla Ice, and Madonna, under the able tutelage of video jockeys, or VJs as we called them, like Kamal Sidhu and Danny McGill. VJs would host music shows, sometimes take call-in requests, and play music videos, peppering each transition with something interesting to say. I still remember Sidhu’s gorgeous curls and her Canadian accent. But MTV Asia represented an idea of “Western” cool that was somewhat unattainable for folks like us who spoke English differently.

With the advent of cable television in 1992, Indian TV suddenly had a young audience that existing channels didn’t know how to address. This was an India that was wearing Levi’s and drinking Coca-Cola. And while it still aspired to be “global” like the accents and wardrobes of the first generation of MTV VJs, it was time for them to see people more like themselves on television. Around 1994, Star ended its contract with MTV, paving the way for new channels — Channel V and MTV India — that introduced homegrown VJs who came with a distinct but accessible “coolness.” They spoke the same Hindi-English hybrid we spoke with our friends, and weren’t Bollywood superstars.

“The VJs became kind of a doorway into this whole new world for youngsters who were trying to break out of the old ways,” said Purab Kohli, who hosted several Channel V shows. The music channels created a liminal space between mainstream family television and the big screen. This short-lived period would give rise to indipop, VJ superstars (some of whom would go on to star in Bollywood), and its own visual style — lending freedom and "coolness" to an entire generation.