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Still Showing you the money

AMERICA IS going through a renaissance of television where its best minds have turned to creating shows such as Mad Men, The Wire, Entourage, Battlestar Galactica and Six Feet Under. People who once took pride in not possessing a television now take pride in being addicted to these shows. India may be miles away from any such dream but some of us are newly willing to admit we watch desi television. The saas bahu shows are not all dead but Indian television may be taking itself a little seriously again.

For a decade our shows have been built around slender premises. Plots and writers didn’t matter. Two years ago I was invited to write a new show. The brief went: “We will set the show in UP. We will run it for a few weeks as a drama, if it does not work then we can turn it into a comedy.” The newer shows, such as the popular Balika Vadhu, are not as subject to absurd diversions. We are no longer required to deal with characters who are 300 years old. (Some of those shows seemed to be secretly written for stoners.) It might be too much to say our television is intelligent again. But we can ease up on the suspension of disbelief a little.

Hope came with the arrival of NDTV Imagine and Colors. Look at one of NDTV Imagine’s popular shows. Radha Ki Betiyaan Kuch Kar Dikhayengi tells the story of a woman and her four daughters who move from Meerut to Mumbai. Their story is breezy and romantic but moving and grounded, nonetheless. The eldest daughter is underpaid but needs the job. Another sister is brilliant but struggles with English.

The big shift is the return to values. The K-shows were right-wing and regressive but morally ambiguous. As cynically as Kapoor set up male characters as eye candy, the narratives worked through frequently violent wish-fulfillment. In the short time since capitalisation has come home to the idiot box, good storytelling like Star Bestsellers have been anomalies. But giving marketing control over creativity is the price the industry pays for its scale — its own magazines, massive followings, stars, publicity and ads. It’ s the only way in which it could become an industry parallel to Bollywood — unimaginable in Doordarshan days.

Many of the Doordarshan shows we remember loving are enhanced in retrospect by virtue of nostalgia. But what Doordarshan did well was emphasise storytelling. We did not have mothers killing their sons because TRPs were low that quarter. Each show had the stamp of the writer and did not attempt to satisfy everyone with a mass-product feel. You had modern romances likeKashish and Nupur, you also had the complex historicals like Mriganayani. I was first introduced to great Hindi literature throughEk Kahani. Bharat Ek Khoj, Byomkesh Bakshi and Mr Yogi — diversity could be taken for granted.

To understand how much today’s channels can interfere with production look at producers Tony and Deeya Singh’s record. They produced a good show like Banegi Apni Baat for Zee, the mediocre Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin for Sony, some terrible shows in the worst years of television programming and now are making Radha ki Betiyan. The only variable factor is the channel. Channels tend to operate like the Hollywood studios of yore. Everything is replaceable but profit. Little autonomy is given to the story-tellers and the universal solution has been to desperately manipulate audiences. After the arrival of Ekta Kapoor everyone followed her winning formula. Content may have gotten a new lease of life, but it’s certainly not bringing along a different-strokes-for-different-folks approach yet. Many new shows probe women’s real concerns but Ekta Kapoor’s legacy is still in place. Plots are still bent to accommodate the marketing of new Bollywood releases. Post Balika, channels deduced that the ‘sensitive portrayal of victimisation of women’ and ‘specific settings’ are hot, and girl child lament serials like Bandini, Laado and Uttaranwere splashed across hoardings. Eating watered down gravy with universalised taste is an intrinsic part of the Mumbai eating-out experience. The television industry in Andheri dishes out what it orders in.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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