Must the Show Go On?

Twenty years after cable came to India, our TV entertainment offers us a curious reflection of ourselves as a country.

Life OK’s mythological show Devon Ke Dev Mahadev, about the life of Shiva has boosted the channel to the top rank. {{name}}
01 November, 2012

THE WARNING WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO MISS. Throughout October, television screens in Delhi would go out for several nerve-racking seconds every day, before resuming with a stern reminder from the broadcasters’ association: install set-top boxes if you want to keep watching TV.

Leading up to the digitisation deadlines—1 November for the metros, next April for the rest of India—broadcasters will begin to black out entire categories indefinitely to give you a sense of how serious things are. The sequence planned for these blackouts is revealing of relative popularity: English movie channels will be the first to go, then Hindi movie channels, followed by news channels, and finally Hindi entertainment channels. So if you don’t buy a set-top box before your deadline, you’re staring at a lifetime of blank screen.

If you do go digital, then the options, they promise, are unlimited. Since digital signals can carry a lot of data at a time without distortion, a lot more will be on offer in news and entertainment than we presently have. But before you make that decision, and imagine that future, take a detached view of where television stands 20 years after satellite TV began to broadcast into India, and cable channels expanded rapidly across the country, spurred on by our desire for more entertainment options than Doordarshan could offer. Its physical growth is easy enough to see (500 channels, more than 100 million households), but how did the liberalisation of the broadcasting industry shape TV entertainment in India? What we like to watch says a lot about us, whether we like it or not. Any leap in TV entertainment, irrespective of the carrier, will be based on what our prevailing ideas are of a good show—so let’s review what those are.

The most popular category on Indian TV is “Hindi general entertainment” and is dominated by fictional programming, or the soap opera. Between six major channels—Colors, Star Plus, Zee, Sony, Sahara One, Life OK—about 50 serials constantly compete for the top position, calculated through weekly viewership data and tracked sleeplessly by producers and advertisers. So if you were wondering what we are presently addicted to, it is a serial called Devon Ke Dev Mahadev (with a record television rating of 8.2), a Hindu spiritual drama based on the life of Shiva and his wife Parvati. The show, which has pushed the year-old channel Life OK to the top rank, is something of a new concept: a mythological show-cum-family drama. So a poorly-produced show with a stolid screenplay and lazy special effects, is jazzed up through the time-tested devices of the “K serial”: overwrought dialogue (delivered with the speaker’s back to the recipient), piercing close-ups, ominous background music, regular song and dance sequences (like ‘Hum Jaanat Hai’ at Parvati’s sangeet ceremony) and, above all, an unfailing stress on “family values”. The focus is on Shiva’s life as a householder, which is rife with domestic tension.

The show’s runaway success could also have political implications. Is there perhaps a reinvigorated interest in the idea of Hindutva? A tilt of the public mood towards the BJP? So the pattern of reactions online would suggest, at least. “Really proud to be a part of Hindu,” says a typical comment on a message board for Devon Ke Dev. The fall of the Babri Masjid and the rise of the BJP in the early 1990s followed the telecast of Ramayana (1987-88), which made history for being watched by pretty much every television viewer in India. The past year, four shows that champion Hindu dominance one way or the other have been launched: Veer Shivaji, Chandragupta Maurya, Dwarkadheesh Bhagwan Shree Krishn (“valiant lover and master strategist”) and Shobha Somnath Ki (the story of “India’s unsung heroine Shobha who stood tall and strong in the face of a fiery invasion by Mughal [sic] emperor Mahmud of Ghazni”). Oh, and the original Ramayana is being re-run on Zee and Doordarshan.

As for the K serials, their fall was proclaimed to be imminent after the much-speculated-upon launch of a series of new shows that would portray women in a mature manner, completely transforming the daily soap paradigm. The K serials’ Ekta Kapoor herself produced two that went on the air within months of each other last year: Bade Acche Lagte Hain and Kyai Hua Tera Wada. BALH, on Sony, started as the story of a 30-something working woman who was unmarried and didn’t care about it until she fell into an unfussy relationship, followed by marriage, consummated without any moral pretensions, with a 40-something double-chinned man. KHTW, also on Sony, was centred on a happy family—a couple and their three children—that feels financially insecure every once in a while. On the periphery are loving in-laws—who do not live with them—and the man’s female boss, who is smart and sensitive.

Cut to now. BALH is a vicious battle between the protagonist, now a bejeweled wife, and her bejeweled mother-in-law—actually a scheming step-mother-in-law who is revealed to have charmed the husband’s billionaire father into a marriage, thrown out his real mother, killed the father, charmed the stepson into slavish devotion and thrown out his wife.

KHTW, on the other hand, is now the sad old story of the single and lonely (“main zindagi mein kuch jayada hi aage nikal gayi”) female boss who desires her married male employee and is out to acquire him at any cost. In a crucial episode in April, the boss conspires with a salon artist (a man in a pink feather boa) to ruin the wife’s hair and make-up to make sure she embarrasses the husband at an important office party, to be attended by “politicians and business tycoons”.

Buried under the noise about the “new” women was, clearly, the reality: it’s hard to bring about radical changes in such high-stakes content in the absence of ideological sincerity. In a book that came out last year—around the same time as magazine cover stories on the changing representation of women in TV serials—Ekta Kapoor confessed to hiring schoolgirls for the lead roles because girls above 20 don’t look “virginal” enough for her.

Closely behind the soaps in ratings are talent shows. Unsurprising, if you buy the premise that we are a nation blessed with “sur”—or, actually a subcontinent marked by “sur”, according to the motto of Colors’ Sur Kshetra, which insists that the two most musically talented nations in the world are India and Pakistan, and then, well, pitches them against each other. Supported by the well-meaning Aman Ki Asha campaign, Sur Kshetra claims to be an attempt to bring the two countries together though their common love of music; however, all you see on the screen is the most tasteless of martial imagery: barbed wire, mics on fire, guitars and trumpets on fire. Actually, even the letters in the show’s title are on fire.

The show opened with the Indian team (“jaanbaaz”), led by a rabid Himesh Reshammiya (“jis dharti pe janam liya, uska karz chukayenge”) facing the Pakistani team (“surandaaz”), mentored by a gentler Atif Aslam (“hum toh jang nahin, pyaar karne aaye hain”), a teasing contrast that suggested some promise despite the show’s provocative appearance. By the fifth episode, however, the show, which is shot in Dubai and simulcast on Zee TV in India and Geo TV in Pakistan, had turned into a pathetic parody of a warfront, with Aslam accusing the Indian judge Asha Bhonsle of favouritism (she said in her defence, “aapki ladki ko gale se nahin lagate”) and Reshammiya, who had since moved on to “jai mata di, jai Hindustan”, refusing to even look at Aslam.

Talent shows thrive on conflict—but obvious tension, between old adversaries, as entertainment? On the other hand, every TV producer, in this case the formidable Gajendra Singh of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, knows the ad value of an open India-Pakistan challenge.

Similar in theme and next to talent contests in popularity are reality shows—once synonymous with MTV. That channel stayed on top thanks to the imaginative brilliance that went into Roadies, a show about a mad bunch of girls and guys let loose, and Splitsvilla, a show about a mad bunch of girls and guys held up in a house. Roadies and Splitsvilla were the antithesis of squeaky-clean Indian Idol, showing us young India in all its decadence. Great, until every channel caught on, and the over-the-top Emotional Atyaachaar effectively killed our fascination with degenerate young people.

But somewhere along the way we got Bigg Boss, which was even better. For what can be more thrilling than a dirty fight among wannabes, has-beens and the odd celebrity jailbird? Until that, too, got out of hand. To win back viewers, Colors decided to clean up Bigg Boss in its latest season, which started this October. Well known moralist Salman Khan, the host, claimed to be personally sickened by the show’s ugliness and put himself in charge of making it “family-oriented”.

To readjust the show’s image, they remodeled it as a soap opera—Bigg Boss’s sixth season is bursting with women ready to take on each other.  To ensure a steady supply of conflict, we have three actresses from Hindi serials put together with what is spoken of in the world of the serials as ‘threat’: two models, one item girl and a cropped-haired, freely swearing hairdresser.

So, 20 years after satellite supposedly set us free, our entertainment television comprises, by and large, tormented and tormenting women, displays of Hindu swagger and the apparently timeless thrill of an India-Pakistan face-off. This is not a great distance to travel in two decades. What is the actual value of an entertainment industry that doesn’t represent these decades’ cultural flux—an eventful time for Indian society no matter what your perspective?

The adherence to these tropes can be pervasive. Look hard, though, and you find islands of exception. The cooking show—not to be confused with regrettable cooking talent shows such as Master Chef India or Foodistaan (where India and Pakistan faced off with flaming ladles)—makes for uniquely original, and uniquely indigenous, television. Your only real glimpse of the shifting worlds of the Indian TV audience comes from thinking about the range of cooking shows on air.

Whether it is an overweight sardar in a shiny jacket (Turban Tadka) frying up fish cutlets, the astrologer-recommended stones on his fingers glinting through dough he’s heartily squeezing, optimising preparation time so he can take lots of questions from viewers, such as the one from a gentleman in Raipur who wants to use his local white corn as “the baby corn they have in Bombay restaurants”; or the dude zipping through small towns on a Bullet (Chak De India), stainless steel pots and pans clanking in a sack behind him, to learn regional recipes (from Kolhapuri mutton to Ghazipur chokha) that he will settle down to cook on his handmade fire with the endearing glee of an amateur, the programmes are all well conceived and produced, with an eye to their audience’s quirks.

The thing about cooking shows is that they completely ignore the prevailing approach to Hindi entertainment: patronisation or provocation. Little else on TV avoids these pitfalls. Perhaps the decision on whether or not to get a set top box is easier than you think.