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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, April 14, 2013

57 channels and nothin’ on…

Why can’t Indian TV give us the equivalent of Homeland, Newsroom, Mad Men or Modern Family?

As you may have gathered from my occasional references to my TV-viewing habits, I am a big fan of TV shows. Offer me a choice between a Hollywood/Bollywood blockbuster and a box-set of the most recent TV series and I will always plump for the latter. And every single time I spend the evening feasting on the best Western television has to offer, I set off for bed wondering why we can't do anything half as good in India. 

Why is it that we don't have an indigenous Homeland, the cracker of a TV show that had the entire world on tenterhooks for its two-season run? Even President Barack Obama - who presumably knows a thing or two about tackling terrorism - is a fan, going so far as to invite Nick Brody (British actor Damian Lewis) to the White House for an official banquet. It's not as if we are starved of inspiration given the number of terrorist attacks that have pummeled us over the last decade or so. And yet, we don't have a single TV show that brings this alive on the small screen. The best we can do, apparently, is to have Anil Kapoor threaten a re-make of 24, the thrill-a-minute Jack Bauer series which has already run its course.

Then there's Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin show about prime-time news programming. Despite a weak (and much too wordy) start it took off after a couple of episodes, bringing the dilemma of TV news networks home to us. How do you keep your news judgement and your integrity intact and still score in the ratings while competing with hysterical, jingoistic anchors who fall back on hype and sensationalism. This is a subject that is bound to resonate with Indian viewers given the amount of sound and fury on our prime-time news shows. And yet, there isn't a single Indian TV show that has strayed into this territory. Everyone is busy making saas-bahu serials, the tried-and-tested family melodramas that have become such a staple of entertainment programming.

But even family shows can pack a punch, as anyone who has ever watched Modern Family knows all too well. The show has wit, charm, and some of the best one-liners on offer. But it also offers us the portrait of a modern family, the jumble of trophy wife, stepfamilies, gay parents, adopted Asian baby, stay-at-home Alpha mom, klutzy dad, teenager going off the rails, nerd kids, which really shouldn't work but in some mad, out-of-control way, simply does. In its own laugh-out-loud funny way it gives us an insight into the changing landscape of American society.

And what do we have in India? Oh, we do family shows, all right. But what do they show us? A regressive, patriarchal world populated by large, joint families who live in big, imposing mansions, and spend all their time plotting and scheming against one another. The women wake up in the morning wearing full make-up, swan around in Kanjeevaram saris, brandishing their oversized mangulsutras to prove that they are truly ‘pativrata naris’. Their clothes, their jewellery, their lives, nothing has anything in common with us. It is almost as if these shows are set in a different era altogether.

Not that I have anything against different eras. I am a huge fan of Downton Abbey and Mad Men, both of which skillfully recreate a bygone world. In Downton Abbey you get the sense of a decaying Edwardian England in which the old certainties are crumbling quietly, leaving disquiet and anxiety in their wake. Mad Men evokes the New York of late 50s and early 60s, when the advertising men of Madison Avenue ruled the world and didn’t quite know how to cope with the incipient feminism in the air. Can you think of anything remotely like this on Indian TV? No, me neither. And more’s the pity.


Uddhav Ghosh said...

So when you do go out and pitch something 'smart' to a channel, the typical first reaction is 'Where's the audience for something like this? Where are the numbers?'
Which I suppose is logical upto a point. Especially when it compares to number which a typically successful GEC program has.
The other major factor is a lack of advertiser interest. Which translates into lousy budgets (even if a show were to get commissioned).
The shows that you mention- Homeland, Newsroom, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, they all have massive budgets because they drop some serious cash getting their period details right, their art direction top-notch, their writing edgy and their cast perfect. None of these are major factors out here. The lowest common denominator syndrome trumps all other considerations.
The shows that have been syndicated like 24 and The Good Wife are both star vehicles, which probably is the only likely way that international standards of production would make their way out here. (It also helps that we're getting fairly set templates so the workload is reduced to some extent, not to mention- hopefully capturing an already established fanbase)
There was an attempt by YRF to up the ante on television production with Powder, Mahi Ve etc. But none of them truly made an impact.
And this forms part of the typical answer from the channels. 'If YRF couldn't pull it off, with the kind of resources they have, it's going to be impossible for us at this stage.'

Ankit Agrawal said...

As a part of the new urban, young demographic and having lived the hostel life in one of India's elite engineering colleges I too have developed an insatiable taste for western TV shows. I await the next season of Game of Thrones, White Collar and Sherlock with eager anticipation. However, I am also a part of a traditional, conservative, Marwadi joint business family set-up based in a tier-2 city(in a mansion at that) that consumes the Indian TV shows religiously everyday without fail. I have spent the last 3 years in Bangalore and Delhi working in a private sector job, surrounded by other young, service class professionals of my age.

My observations tell me that the current content on Indian TV strikes a chord with large swathes of population in the country's cities, towns and even villages. On the other hand, the audience that craves western TV is limited largely to select metro cities and even there, to only a thin slice of the population- young, educated in elite schools and colleges, working in the private sector earning reasonably good wages. It is not difficult to see which consumer the producer and Tv channel would go after. The latter category is yet to reach a critical mass enough to make a business case for production of content tailored specifically to its aspirations and needs. No mystery there.

Shoumitro said...

Somehow I think, if given a choice, the Indian viewers too can appreciate good stuff. Did not the good old DD of the Bhaskar Ghose and Chatterjee-era of the eighties beguile the whole nation? The World This Week, Surabhi, Mahabharat, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Yeh Jo Hai Zindegi, Mungerilal, the regional films -- can go on and on.

KrRahul said...

I like SAB TV most. I think it is best family channel. Others are good occasionally...

Swarnima Labh said...

exactly my thoughts!!

Amee said...

This is cool!