The Great Indian Dream – Televising India in its most honest form?

Something’s not right. There has to be a solid reason why I get so ticked off every time I hear the TV blaring in my living room and realize it is set to an Indian channel. I have grown up on these channels (well, not all of them, of course) and I tell myself that I must have some measure of tolerance towards them. But I tell you, I am running out. Fast. Here’s a good reason – every time I turn to look at the TV which seems to have a crush on Indian broadcast network services, there is someone crying and someone else, behind the curtain, rejoicing. I hear talks of disloyalty, poverty, bastard children, unethical behavior, sons killing mothers, fathers hating daughters and so much misery that I feel angry without cause. That is what I see on every channel. This is the face of Indian television. This is not Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, this is kahani har ghar ki. No kidding.

Phew! Even writing this I can feel my ears turn a curious crimson, just thinking about those scenes. It is not that they move me. Far from it. God knows I can differentiate between good acting (hell, just ‘acting’) and ‘nukkad natak’ brand of over-acting ‘nautanki’ that these channels tape and telecast. It is just that they are so many, in such large numbers, and so widespread that it makes my head spin just watching my family go from one channel to another, one saga to another, and not blink an eye at the sheer semblance in them all.

A more bewildering thought is knowing that they (my family) have their own struggles, their own ups and downs and the how and the what and the why of everyday lives, and yet they choose to tune in and be mentally marauded each night by these strange (and quite ugly behind all that make-up, as you would find in People magazine and other tabloids) human beings who have made their lives willingly painful and pain-inducing, at prime-time.

I remember a time when there used to be a total of four soaps running on television, and they used to be splattered across the week, sparing the weekends entirely, and flavouring Fridays pleasantly with Bollywood song countdowns and a movie. It was so refreshing to have a little to watch and a little to anticipate, each time we saw a serial, that it was worth following for the 52 weeks that each serial was allowed, by default. Then, Shanti happened and all the peace from a regular TV-watcher’s life was sucked out with a 1000-horsepower vacuum cleaner which I’m sure Mandira Bedi was operating, wearing her only strappy blouse and that flock-of-seagull haircut, which, I’m sorry, but only suits lesbians. They have the panache to carry it and Mandira has nothing. (Oh come on! Are you really going to wag that finger at me and pretend that you like her? Have you completely forgotten the episode during those cricket matches, and be honest now; aren’t you even a little tired of seeing her shoulders all these years? I mean, they are just shoulders. Cover ‘em up, Mandira! You’re old now!!) But I digress.

Shanti did not just run for 120 years, it started a pandemic to which a cure will never be found. It was like the virtual, Indian Adam and Eve falling, bringing down the future of television for eternity. Except in this case, Adam would be called some strange pagan name like Arslaan (yeah, this is a real TV name and yeah, it has the word ‘ars’ in it. See what I’m saying?) and Eve would most definitely be a 14-year old mother named Surahi or Khajoori from an unknown district in Bihar, for all we know. And they would not bite the apple. They would have to sell it because their fortunes of INR 600 crore would be lost to an unnamed, unspecified, and always-precarious-till-the-last-moment tender which their own half brother would take from them. Then their children would kick them out, all Rajesh-Khanna-in-Indian-Avataar-style and they would make it on their own somehow. Tears would be shed with abandon and their own relatives would drive down in their unnumbered big car to the basti, middle of the day and all, dressed up as if to attend Mayawati’s wedding and stop their car to scoff at the poverty of their unlucky relatives while they shed some more glycerine tears and their wigs with white and black (very stylish) stay in place. Then, after 60 years of living and living and living (and not dying. Never dying.) their step-son, who was conceived by the Indian Eve Khajoori with the owner of the house where she used to cook and clean when she had first moved to town to make it big, shows up and saves them but then he marries a rich spoilt girl who parties all night, plans big family scams and makes the poor old Indian Adam and Eve’s lives hell again which they keep at till the network cancels the show.

Of course, the same man turns out to be the brother of the mother of Khajoori’s now husband, which is why she had somehow sired her own brother-in-law on the maternal side. Ew. And then the story follows up on how the various branches of their generation, who are acutely incestuous in their own way, are living on, plotting each other’s deaths, cheating on one another and then making mean faces in their own rooms (and looking pretty insane too), being cruel to their old ones and generally having a good time of it while an endless ‘aaa-aaaaa-aaa’ plays on in the background all the time. All the damned time.

I won’t say Shanti alone accomplished this feat. But it sure did open the gates of hell, as far as channels go. Since then we have had Junoon and Swabhimaan which took over afternoons and the more modern range right from Kasautii Ziindagi Kay, Heena, Saans and the chronologically impossible, the very own Indian challenge to Garcia Marquez’s novel spanning over six generations and the ever-enticing Kyunkii Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi
(Thii? Thiii?). That was the last time that I told myself that I should give Indian TV a chance. I never looked back. It just got too much after I saw that each serial was inevitably trying their level best to one-up on the immorality or inhumanity shown in their counterpart last week.

TRPs became the television equivalent of Emmys and the more important they seemed to be to the serials, the less popular they seemed to become in real life. And not surprisingly, ever since the late 90s, there have been monthly additions to this horrid parade of insensitive, weepy and consistently disappointing soaps on all Indian channels with a ferocity once associated with a good ODI match. And this was not a one-off thing.

Everyone started jumping off the shallow end, irrespective of their respective brand of entertainment potential. Case in point: Shekhar Suman went from doing an awesome rip-off of The Tonight Show (some think it’s Letterman he had copied, but you should check the backdrop. That had Leno written all over it) to hosting the almost boring Simply Shekhar, for no reason at all. Well, none aside from insanity. Case in point: Nikhil Chinappa, the guy who made MTV Select what it was, turned to hosting one of the cheapest, most offending reality shows on television, Splitsvilla, yet another rip-off of Temptation Island but not nearly as well done. Case in point: Mona Singh, who could have made herself a nice career in dancing or generally not being on TV, but instead decided to act in a third copy of a French soap (Yo Soy Betty La Fea, or something) about an unusual and ‘ugly’ girl who wins the world with her honesty, earnestness and charm. People loved her. They identified with her. They wanted to be her. Well, of course ‘people’ did! People want to be everyone that is anyone on TV!! Why do you think so many guys have taken to wearing green contact lenses and non-matching three piece suits all of a sudden? Thank you, costume guys on Star Plus. We owe you our style. Forget the fact that it is usually too hot or too cold in Delhi to pull any of it off, but kudos to you for making all the girls/guys dress the same way. Identical. No one has achieved such an effect of mass-production since that gory video of Another Brick in the Wall, I swear. And then some.

My point is simple: I don’t see the point. And did these people fall down and smack their big, pointed heads on the sidewalk? Because last I checked, TV was supposed to be entertainment, not permanent detainment from leisure. Do you know that there are women in our country who, even as you read this, are lying in their beds, or boiling potatoes, or adding more detergent to a bucketful of clothes, or absent-mindedly helping their son solve a fraction, and worrying about how Ketaki is going to react when she finds out that she has been left out of the will, or how Angad is going to succeed in manao-ing Pia/Tia/Sia/Jia’s parents for their second marriage? These are not people they are related to. They are characters from the fictional soaps that they watch, day in and day out, week after week, season after endless season, and get horrifyingly involved. So involved that they are not worried that their son still needs help with fractions but care if the poor rich girl from one of their soaps suffers from a headache she got from walking in the sun, spying on her husband.

Jeez. Is it as annoying as it sounds to me or is it all in my head? What have we created? And what are we unknowingly nurturing? There is never going to be an end to this, but can there at least be a toning-down? Or are we so far gone with this virtual reality that never seems to let up, never seems happy, never seems at rest, that we are consciously choosing it over happier, more real experiences, which at one time used to define our lives? I don’t know the answer but I sure hope it’s on the flip side of this dark channel.

And here’s something that only helps the collective moral that TV today is rallying for – a little peak into our advertisement culture. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of them with a certain style too, but then there are these: a special website by a watch company that urges the average youngster to log on, brag about their sexual escapades to their current partner and appear very cool. (It’s Exbox on Fastrack. Don’t scratch your head); a biscuit ad that tells you that it is okay to choose your fake-moaning girlfriend over your friends because she is fake-moaning; a candy/chewing-gum ad that has a wise guy hanging out at a mall and shadow-speaking while two women talk to each other, indicating that women can seldom have a hearty conversation without underlying jealousy, greed or pride; yet another ad that says that it is okay to two-time guys for a living, as long as you do it with a good colour in your hair, and don’t get me started on the fairness cream parade. Two reasons: it’s been done, and I myself am dark skinned and if I say anything here, it would sound like I am venting a bitter old grudge against all naturally fair people. And I think the point is well made. The ad-world isn’t out to teach anything right to the audience. It is out to sell. And sell anything. Lies, sex, revenge, jealousy, greed, news, dishonesty or simply a capitalist mindset that can’t be all good.

And to top it all off with a cherry as red as money is green – there is a show doing the rounds on NDTV Imagine which shows the photograph of an Indian actress while the presenters ask the people (read ‘egg on non-existent callers to keep dialling, without any presentation skills and no conversational matter whatsoever, and for hours on end) to call in, say the name of the star and win a certain cash prize. By the way, the photograph invariably has a picture of a bust with the breasts almost wanting display, as a hint to the star’s face.

Karishma Gaur

*This piece has been selected as the Winning Entry of the Day for the ‘Viewspaper Express Yourself Writing Competition’*