Will Anil Kapoor’s 24 change the landscape of Indian television?
Like much of the world, I was addicted to 24. And like any fully paid-up addict, I would stock up on the good stuff, shut the door on the rest of the world, and mainline. Because I came to it rather late, I could swallow seasons one, two and three in one greedy gulp. Staying up till four in the morning, trying to squeeze just one more episode in, before the rising sun shamed me into going to bed, became a regular feature. And when my stock of old episodes ended and I had to wait for the new season, I suffered serious withdrawal symptoms.
Yes, as you've probably gathered by now, 24 was addictive. The central conceit of the series was that it chronicled 24 hours of a national security crisis in real time. Keifer Sutherland played the main character, Jack Bauer, as a superhero without the cape (and no visible underwear either, thank God!) maiming, torturing, blowing things up, and then torturing some more, to get to the bottom of some diabolical terrorist plot. The storyline tested the limits of our credulity, the stunts were sometimes plain unbelievable, and the twists and turns of the plot often bordered on the ludicrous. But the series was tightly scripted, fast paced, and things went by in such a blur that you didn't even notice the glaring holes in the plot - until much later, in bed, when you were running through the best moments in your head.
Looking back now, 24 was prescient in many ways. In giving us a Black candidate in the guise of the future President David Palmer in 2001, it eerily foreshadowed the election of Barack Obama in 2009. Its brutal rendering of the torture of terror suspects was an early hint of the Abu Ghraib-style security scandals to come. And who knows, the female US President Allison Taylor who premiered in 24 Redemption in 2008 and then starred in seasons 7 and 8, may well be a nod to the election of Hillary Clinton (the Democratic frontrunner for the 2016 polls) as the first woman President of the United States.
But watching all those endless episodes, perched at the edge of my seat, I was never prescient enough to think that I would soon see an Indian version of the series. No, not even when an Indian actor, Anil Kapoor, played an important role in the last and final season, starring as the ill-fated President Omar Hassan of the fictional Islamic Republic of Kamistan (modeled on Iran) who is assassinated by the bad guys – but not before putting in some good old-fashioned action hero stuff in the company of Bauer.
His messy end in the series notwithstanding, Anil Kapoor knew that he was on to a good thing. And after endless negotiations he bought the rights to make the Indian version of the show, with Kapoor himself playing the Jack Bauer role. In some ways, of course, Kapoor is uniquely qualified to play the superhero, or more accurately, the super anti-hero. His Mr India, released in 1987, brought the legend of the Invisible Superhero to us a full decade before JK Rowling wrote about the Invisibility Cloak in the first Harry Potter book in 1997. (Yes, yes, I know, H.G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man a century ago in 1897; we can play this game endlessly.)
As of this writing, the first two episodes of the Indian 24 have been aired on Colors. And I have to admit that my initial reservations about how this would work have been belied. The storyline is strong, the characters are well defined, the pace is fast, the action well choreographed, and bar a few, the performances are strong. Even the so-called Indianisation works. Instead of Presidential hopeful David Palmer we have a putative Prime Minister from a political dynasty that appears to be loosely based on the Gandhis.
So, will 24 be a game changer as far as Indian television is concerned? Will our TV production companies finally move away from their Saas-bahu Sagas and their Mangalsutra Melodramas, and give us quality television of the like that the West enjoys?
Well, frankly, it is too early to tell if there will be a substantive change in the Indian television landscape. Shows like 24 cost money, they need good writers, talented directors, committed producers, and a top-quality star cast to work. And so far, at least, Indian TV shows no signs of being able afford any of the above. So, I don't really see things changing very much in the short term.
What will change, I think, is Bollywood's attitude to television. Until now, Indian film stars have treated television fiction shows with a certain disdain. Everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Salman Khan to Shah Rukh Khan is happy to play quizmaster to the nation. Stars like Madhuri Dixit, Hrithik Roshan are happy to turn up to judge singing and dancing competitions. And the likes of Karan Johar delight in hosting their own talk shows.
But TV series? That seems to be strict no-no (unless, of course, if you are a no-hoper like Vinod Khanna). This is in sharp contrast to the West where everyone from Glen Close (Damages) to Martin Sheen (West Wing) to Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce) to Ashton Kutcher (Two And A Half Men) is happy to transition from the movies to TV (and back again). But rare is the film star in India who is willing to play a role in a TV drama.
That may well be changing though. Even before 24 aired, Amitabh Bachchan announced that he would be starring in a TV series directed by Anurag Kashyap on Sony. And where the great man goes, the rest are sure to follow.