Mine is probably the last generation that remembers a time when the most popular show on Indian TV was Chitrahar on Friday evenings. Sundays were special because that was when Doordarshan screened American and German shows and much later, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It was astrologically possible for soaps to begin with any letter of the alphabet – Buniyaad, for example. Uncles in dark suits and aunties in handloom sarees read news in a monotone and the weekly Kaleidoscope was the only cool news program. All of this is today a distant memory, thanks in no small part to the first Gulf War.
Ted Turner’s Cable News Network, once disparagingly called the Chicken Noodle Network, now “the most trusted name in news” or CNN, changed everything with its live coverage of that war.
For the first time, we Indians were not outsiders peeking into the glamorous world of others. Instead television was truly bringing the world into our living rooms. The effect was immediate and electric. American accents and attitudes were in; current events consumed the populace (the ones that received round the clock news, that is); at my Delhi school, kids pounced on an instant status symbol – those who had CNN and those pitiful few who didn’t.
This pattern of first among equals is arguably a part of a market economy. And as evident as it may be today in India, this dichotomy was especially apparent in those first few years of economic liberalization, particularly in Indian TV. Rupert Murdoch made a killing and captured a huge chunk of audience by importing second rung American programs, interspersed with the occasional hit (and outdated) show. While he eventually introduced Indian programming of an execrable kind guaranteed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the Indian news scene remained mainly in the grasp of CNN and BBC. But as neither of these were India centric, Indian viewers perforce turned to DD for their national and regional news updates.
Cut to 2004. Every part of the country is flooded with regional channels airing, among other things, the news for that locale in its own language, much as DD used to but in a much more “with it” style. Meanwhile New Delhi Television or NDTV 24×7 has some of the most recognizable stars on the Indian airwaves. There is a serious effort underway to create a fan base for the anchors, much in the way most TV news corps develop abroad. The idea is simple – since the news remains the same no matter who beams it into your house, the company wants you to like the anchor and his/her views so much, you only want to hear it from him/her.
What raises the stakes in the Indian news market is the sheer number of eager customers. The average Indian is cynical of most things political and social but is not an ostrich. The Indian wants to know what is happening not only in India but around the world and if the number and sale of newspapers are any indication, it is an ever increasing desire.
While the print media retains its hold on the early morning cuppa chai/ office commuter/ in depth reading crowd, the news on television is unparalleled for its entertainment value. Infotainment is a word that is fast capturing the Indian imagination. For example, today Kargil and its bitter and bloody duration is better seen and understood in the company of Bollywood stars.
Sometimes the entertainment part is purely involuntary, as in the case of the decision to telecast the “debates” in Parliament. On the one hand, there is nothing more hilarious than watching the sober and mealy mouthed politicians of television jawathons transforming into little gutter bullies on the floor of what is surely our most hallowed institution – the seat of Indian democracy, the Indian Parliament. After rolling around the floor laughing, however, one is thoroughly disgusted at the complete absence of statesmanship and abundant presence of mere political bickering. Unfortunately, the only ones to notice this deplorable behavior seems to be the viewers and not their elected representatives, who do everything short of actually running the country when the Parliament is in session.
It was Tehelka that truly opened our eyes to the possibilities of television news as something more than a means of reporting. The spectacle of a people’s representative calmly accepting a suitcase full of money, an expected part of the Indian political and bureaucratic scene, was must-see TV. The recent sting operation incriminating the Delhi police, however, was less noticed. Perhaps the interest was lesser as the viewers are sure to be denied the public wriggling and sleights of hand (which would mysteriously exonerate the guilty party and implicate the man who caught them instead) in the case of a few expendable policemen.
But perhaps the two most important debates to be staged in televised public opinion in recent times were the execution of Dhananjoy Chatterjee and the murders of Pushkin Chandra and his alleged male lover.
Capital punishment is no longer the norm in most civilized countries. The hour for a public debate about a practice that provides justice some of the time and injustice most of the time has more than arrived. In this age of television it has led to other problems in India. Even as little children were given to leaping off balconies in the belief that their favorite superhero was about to save them a few years ago, children are asphyxiating to death in an attempt to re-enact the Dhananjoy execution. It is evident that the debate on capital punishment cannot end with the death of this one man. Deeper moral issues are bubbling to the surface with this tragic child’s play. One man’s death is no longer one family’s tragedy.
The issue of homosexuality is even more important. No constitution or society that avers to uphold the equality of human beings can condone the treatment meted out to gay people, not only in India but the world over. The idea of gays as effete crossdressers and lesbians as manly rapists has got to go. A recently televised debate on the issue included among its panelists a gay rights activist last prominently seen on a TV talk show quite a few years ago. He was subsequently beaten up for his “anti-Gandhi” remarks after the show aired. Having experienced at first hand the deep vein of anti-Gandhi sentiment prevalent in parts of Delhi and indeed the whole of India, one can only suppose that the reason he wasn’t sent on his way with a handshake was because of his bedroom habits.
Indian TV is poised to change Indian society in more ways than it has already. People are buying more, eating more and dressing less in an attempt to catch up with the cool dudes and dudettes on TV who are fast approaching frostbite in their bid to remain on top of the game. Even “Indian culture” is more cosmetic today than it was in the past five thousand years or so when we came by it the old-fashioned way – from our parents and grandparents. It may bring us to the brink of disaster as some predict, or it may bring us ever closer to first world nirvana as others insist. But one thing will remain true – like India, Indian TV is bound to astonish and multiply.
originally published at Chowk. com 2004