Regression as tradition
The saas-bahu formula is beginning to pall ... a still from "Kyunki saas bhi ..."
KABUL gets cinema and TV once again. A grainy, three-hour transmission that signals a return to freedom of choice. How wonderful television seems when you don't have it, or enough of it. And how bizarre an excess of it becomes when you have too much of it. Kabul is closer to where we were 11 years back. And we are rapidly getting to where those societies are, who in order to retain their sanity, are devising institutions such as television turn off week.
When does enough become too much? When you switch channels only to keep catching the same thing. Maneka telling one thrusting TV mike after another, and another, and yet another that she has no idea why the Prime Minister decided to divest her of the culture portfolio. Indignation and rage on one channel after another over the unfairness of the penalties handed out to the Indian team in South Africa. Bearded Indian reporters in some unheard-of place in Northern Afghanistan doing solemn piece to cameras on channel, after channel after channel. And then a few weeks later doing the same from Kabul.
The sameness does not stop with the news, either. Show me one more simpering mother or mother-in-law with strands of grey arranged fan-like over a jet black coiffure and I'll gag. (One of the few good things about Savita Behn in "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" is that she at least has the gumption to be a totally black-haired grandmother.)
Or one more NRI family, in which grandmother is sweetly bidding restless grand daughter, "Good night, puttarji". Or one more stricken young woman who cannot bear a child. Or any more of those endless viragos who are pushing their daughters into the unlikeliest marriages to save their families' izzat.
Don't let the rest of world watch the stuff we watch. They will think we are a god-awful people. Truly. Nastier, if that is possible, than the families in "Dallas" and "B & B" and "Santa Barbara".
And if you don't think so you have not watched the fare that desperate Sony is dishing out after "Chappad Phad Ke" began to plummet in the ratings. Boy hates girl, girl detests boy, so they are getting married in "Kutumb". Why boss, his puzzled friends want to know. He curls his lips nastily and says, "Because the only way I can torture her as much as I want to is by marrying her". That is expected to bring in the ratings. It is, after all, a change from the saas-bahu formula that is beginning to pall. In the millennium, the Indian middle class's trip is regression dressed up as tradition. That's entertainment in the age of competition.
In the West from where we assiduously copy our TV trends the quest for new formulas that would wrest audiences from the old led to innovations, and then more innovations till they began to border on perversions. We are getting there.
"Temptation Island" made its debut in India last week. And Star sent around a booklet of photographs which screamed, on successive pages, Love, Lust, Frenzy, Sex, Revenge. Pathetic? Pity Star. The trouble with reaching the top is that you get desperate to stay there anyhow. At 10 p.m. on Star World on Thursdays, "Temptation Island" will bring us, as the blurb puts it, four happy couples, 32 hot singles, two weeks in paradise. The rest, alas, is not left to the imagination. This is an interim offering until the leading channels, Star included, get their home made versions of reality nasties in place. Neena Gupta is promising to be successful material for an Indian version of "The Weakest Link", an NBC show which is essential a trivia contest that is fast, psychological and ruthless. As contestants stumble, the hostess tells they are the weakest link and bids them goodbye. She insults the players, to build up the psychological pressure. When the curiosity value fades, such shows may lose their appeal but by then ads have been booked, and an edge won over the competition.
What will make television more diverse, less regressive? Giving a thumbs down to tasteless fare. Writing to channels. When audiences are at stake, they will listen. If the Southern channels are experimenting successfully with more progressive dramatic themes tell channels like Zee, Sony and Star about those serials. If they've copied once ("Chithi") they can imitate this time around. "Dollar Bahu" was supposed to be different. Alas, it is becoming as tiresomely cliched as all the others, with its share of scheming women. And yet so chock full of advertising that you could drive around the block in the interim, as Sachin Tendulkar does in the Fiat Palio ad.
Television has been a boon but it is on its way to becoming a bane. Why is it that boy meets girl, runs around a tree, and sings songs, suddenly seems like clean, wholesome entertainment?
Every dynamic society and surely we claim to be such finds ways and means to fund something that is progressive and posit it as an alternative. Back in the early 1970s, as a student, one discovered the Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper whose headlines each day were unfailingly different from all the other mainstream United States' newspapers. It judged news differently, and brought in depth and context.
Today the Internet makes many kinds of alternative media offerings possible. A media site tracker from Kerala recently drew my attention to www.inequality.org which finds space for issues that the mainstream American media will not centre stage. Given that the U.S. has the highest incidence of poverty among the rich nations it needs a sustained focus on inequality which this website tries to maintain.
But if television is what has the most reach, and the most appeal as a medium, you need to find the space and funds to experiment there. A visitor from Ekushey Television in Bangladesh recently brought with him a video of a weekly TV programme that his channel puts on which has become extremely popular. It is a news show produced by children from the ages of 12 to 16, for children of the same age group, and it is a wonderful programme to watch. Different, brisk, professional and yet natural in its presentation of children, and child anchors.
They find a socially-conscious, child-related angle to breaking news stories, while also doing features. Called "Mukta Khabor", it was undertaken as a project when UNICEF and the Save the Children, Sweden, came forward to fund it. They stipulated that 50 per cent of the children in the experiment would be from poor homes. The children have their own studio in the ETV building, their own camera people including an 18-year-old senior cameraman, and they are taken seriously by conventional news sources such as the police and politicians. What's more, they are avidly watched. The show completed a year on the air last September.
When the issue of social sector funding in television, to fund diversity of programming came up at a seminar in Delhi which showcased the Ekushey TV programme, the president of Zee TV said that given the cost of commercial air time on the leading channels, it would be a tall order for the social sector in India to even think of such a prime time option. But this is a big country, with a huge voluntary sector, and a lot of funding in that sector. It needs to begin thinking about how it can make a difference.
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