Archive for March, 2008

Aliens in America and America’s “muslim problem”

March 28, 2008

I’ve heard several folks suggest that CW’s Aliens in America is really about “middle America” – it’s really about the Tolchuk family – and does not warrant all the criticism that revolves around the show’s portrayal of a Pakistani exchange student. In a recent article in Flow, Ellen Seiter explains that the show is indeed about America’s “muslim problem.” Calling attention to efforts such as the Brookings Project on U.S. Race Relations with the Islamic World, Seiter writes:

What makes Aliens in America interesting is the uses to which it has been put. The sitcom was screened for a special Ramadan Iftar dinner hosted by the Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World. The show’s ratings have been abysmal, and this would not be a story worth recounting if it weren’t for the promotion of Aliens in America in the world of public diplomacy.

It is also interesting, though not surprising, to learn about how decisions regarding the show’s cast, setting, plot, etc. were made:

Opportunism (we will be the first US sitcom to use a Muslim) and desperation (how to compete with Disney’s domination of the high school sitcom) probably explain how this inane comedy about a Midwestern small town where no one has seen an immigrant before (a fallacious premise, but never mind) got greenlit. Even the show runners seemed mightily surprised to find themselves doing press for a “controversial” show and facing questions about how they are avoiding getting “Salman Rushdied”.2 The sitcom bears resemblances to Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years — the host family includes an overbearing mother, a conformist sister and a lonely but intelligent son. The writers gave Raja his Pakistani origin in a late plot twist (the character was originally a European exchange student). Arab Muslims seemed too dangerous, and it was thought best that the country be an ally of the US. Research on Pakistan consisted of reading wikipedia entries. A staffer on the show was elevated to the role of adviser. (According to Kamran Pasha, there are only two Muslims among the entire membership of the Writers Guild). The actor cast in the role, Adhir Kalyan, had grown up in South Africa and was selected from an on-line audition in London.

Contrast this with CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie: the show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz, worked closely with a team of writers and helped them learn about Islam and other aspects of being Muslim in Canada; they tested ideas by screening pilot episodes in canadian-muslim communities; the costume designer worked closely with Sitara Hewitt to create a smartly dressed cosmopolitan Muslim woman; and so on. To borrow a phrase from one of my colleagues, if we can think about television production as a “care structure,” the contrast between Aliens in America and Little Mosque on the Prairie becomes clear.


What is so feminist about the documentary film?

March 8, 2008

Feminism and Documentary have almost always shared a commitment toward telling the ‘truth,’ presenting the ‘reality’ of their subjects’ lives and experiences and therefore, presumably leading ultimately to ’empowerment.’ This is especially true in India where the documentary film genre remains inextricably tied to that which is explicitly political (the ‘hungry’ films, ‘Third Cinema’ so on and so forth). It is only in the past decade that one sees more abstract, ‘personal’ films seeing an entrance and challenging the norm. This shift from the explicitly political to the more intimate representations of sexuality, bodies and other such ‘personal’ issues remains, sadly, largely un-theorized. This, despite a number of documentaries made about those issues. Most scholarly excursions have focused exclusively on masculanist political films made by men and films that speak about women’s experiences are lumped under that most amorphous of modern categories – Third World – film. As part of my research, I am looking at how Indian feminist filmmakers have defined the discourses of gender & sexuality. Films like Shohini Ghosh’s Tales of the Night Fairies (2002) and Paromita Vohra’s Unlimited Girls (2002) are just two examples of such engagements. These films stand out for me because of their departure from certain tried and tested narrative strategies. For instance, Shohini Ghosh’s presence as filmmaker-subject in Tales complicates easy understandings of the lives of the other subjects (the Shonagachi sex workers from Kolkatta). She blurs the lines between the personal and political and that blurred lines is really indicative of a new aesthetic in the Indian documentary

Tales of the Night Fairies.

Tales… cameraperson Sabeena Gadihoke interviews Shikha.

What is really interesting for me is to see that experimentation that has gone on in the past, especially those radical fellows at the early 1950s Films Division – Pramod Pati, Vijay B Chandra, SNS Sastry and Biren Das – who experimented with found footage, animation, etc to make their short films. That mixing of styles was largely absent from the Indian documentary film after that period, giving the genre that sad, enduring tag of being boring. With greater access to technology and changing perceptions of the nature of the documentary, I can only hope that this bitch is the new black, yo.

Paromita Vohra’s latest short film Where’s Sandra? (watch the film here), although not terribly experimental, is one that I loved and examines how Christian/ Anglo Indian women have been sexualized on and off screen. The ‘Sandra from Bandra’ phenomenon is examined and I love that the filmmaker Vohra’s voice is present – troubling that pesky insistence upon ‘objectivity.’

Paromita Vohra’s Where’s Sandra

Essential Afternoons and Elite Weekends: Changing face of “Elite TV”

March 5, 2008

I’ve begun paying closer attention to the rapidly changing landscape of television in India – like I said in earlier posts on TV, it is difficult to not pay attention to the astonishing pace and extent of changes taking place. Ownership, production logics, marketing and advertising, program formats/genres, audience categories, policy and regulation – every aspect of TV is in a state of transition and it will be interesting to observe these and other shifts over the next few years.

As someone who grew up with Doordarshan and later, with early cable & satellite TV (when there were all of four channels), I am struck by the many ways in which audiences have been carved up into identifiable and marketable units – youth, children, women, and so on. This logic isn’t surprising at all. What is surprising is how quickly this structure of TV has been normalized. So much so that now, TV channels are scrambling to figure out further levels of differentiation.

So how do english language “general entertainment channels” like AXN, ZEE Cafe, and Star World compete? By creating “essential afternoons,” “elite weekdays,” and “elite weekends” when these viewers can catch up on their favorite shows – everything from Aliens in America to Lost. According to this story on the trade site

To hook viewers to its fare, two timeslots were created. “The Reality Stash” slot showcases reality content from 9 – 10 pm. This is followed by “Elite Weekdays,” showcasing international drama series at 11 pm.

“Elite Weekends” which is the non-primetime slot on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 3 pm. The aim is to allow the dedicated fan base to sit back and enjoy catching up on their favourite international series which they have missed out over the week. “We have, therefore, ensured they get to watch all the series back to back and have clearly positioned the band as – ‘Catch all the week’s action on AXN Elite Weekends’.”

…Clients find English entertainment a very important differentiator in the content arena and a strong association for their brands with evolved audiences.

Sounds like Vir Sanghvi’s prayers for television that speaks to People Like Him are being answered – only the best that American television has to offer and none of the shows that “middle India” watches 😉 Snark aside, this domain of english language “general entertainment” will be an important space to watch as powerful players like NBC Universal and Disney consolidate their position in the Indian TV market over the next few years.

Digital Popular Culture

March 2, 2008

Tasveer Ghar is an amazing initiative that seeks to digitize Indian popular art (thanks for the link Ambu). Going through the online galleries, especially the ones about the commodification of gender and sexuality, I am struck by how much easier it is for someone like me, interested in the constructions of gender and sexuality, to have access to such digital archives. I think I am going to send them my own treasures that a friend had sent me a while ago.