Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

News media and regulations in an age of social media

January 28, 2009

Besides attracting attention to the failures of the intelligence agencies and political establishment, the recent terror attacks in Mumbai also focused attention on television news channels. Even as the 60-hour ordeal came to an end, we began wondering if television news journalist may have hindered security operations. And to anyone who followed this news coverage, it was also clear that the debate over how to react was a limited one – quick and decisive action was the only response that was entertained.

Not surprisingly, discussions about media’s role (and responsibilities) in such situations came to rest on the question of regulations with petitions being introduced and debated in the parliament. Media organizations, for their part, argued against any regulations. An editorial in the latest issue of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) provides a very thoughtful overview of this debate (link), and invites us to think about what is surely a complex issue: oversight of commercial media institutions.

Arguing that the “entire drama is little else than a contest of wills between the political establishment and the media, and a subtle effort to spread the blame thin for what was a patently flawed response to a national tragedy,” the editorial concludes on a deeply pessimistic note:

The manifest failures of the political establishment though, cannot obscure the fact that older notions of the media serving as a vigilant watchdog over public affairs have once again proven hopelessly romantic and outmoded. The media is a slave of the market. Its social role is little else than to serve as an echo chamber for the voices of the rich and the powerful, however shrill, irrational or lacking in coherence these may be. If there is to be any credible oversight of the media, the initiative has to come from the public at large, rather than from an official establishment that is deeply implicated in its functioning.

In this specific instance, I am inclined to agree with this assessment – that the ratings discourse-driven television corporations have no incentives to rethink their practices. But I wonder what the editors have in mind when they say that media oversight initiatives need to come from the “public at large” – are we talking about an Ofcom like organization? Build on terrific existing spaces like The Hoot? Work to expand the reach and influence of news sites like India Together?

This is an important discussion that needs to take place, and I would add one other element to this: mobile media technologies and practices (social media, broadly speaking) – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, mobile phones – which played a key role in shaping the flow of information during this time period. I would argue that any “public”-led media oversight initiative will work only if it is able to able to understand and build on these mobile media practices.


Guha on Indian media and entertainment

November 7, 2008

I had an opportunity to attend the South Asians in Media and Marketing summit (SAMMA) held in New York City this past weekend (line-up here). The summit attracted a range of industry professionals who are involved in one way or another with “South Asian” media production. Like other industry conventions, this included panel sessions in which media professionals spoke about business strategies and new market opportunities, keynote addresses by industry leaders, and workshops with successful entrepreneurs. As such, it was a wonderful site for understanding what sorts of shared understandings regarding South Asian and South Asian-American culture and identity are shaping media industry practices. I will describe the summit and specific panels in future posts, but wanted to rant about Pradeep Guha’s keynote address.

Former President of the Times of India group and, until recently, CEO of Zee Telefilms, Guha is, without a doubt, one of the most influential media executives in the world. And given his track record and vast experience, I understood why he had been invited to speak at the SAMMA summit and was excited to hear what he had to say about the dynamics of the media and entertainment industry in India. I was disappointed and even outraged at some of his comments and thoughts.

Predictably enough, his presentation began with a series of powerpoint slides that illustrated how the media and entertainment industry, like other sectors, was “shining.” Drawing from reports produced by consultancy firms like Pricewaterhouse Coopers and KPMG, Guha seemed intent on reinforcing diasporic media professionals’ beliefs about the booming media industry in India. No complaints about this part – harmless enough I suppose.

But there were two arguments he made about the relationship between media content and audiences that made me cringe. The first relates to the print media and the criticism that newspapers such as the Times of India look more like tabloids and less like newspapers. With initiatives like Medianet (which allows businesses to buy editorial space in the Times of India) becoming standard operating procedures across many major newspapers in the country, and the utter disregard for stories that are outside the “India Shining” discourse leading to what Sainath calls a disconnect “between mass media and mass reality” (link), it’s no wonder that businessmen like Guha have come under criticism for “dumbing down” content. And how does Guha respond? At this keynote, he argued that the surge in literacy levels as created “neo-readers” who need banal content. These neo-readers, according to Guha, cannot possibly be drawn to newspapers if the content was not entertaining. And hence his catering to the “lowest common denominator.” As Sainath points out, this argument isn’t that different from a drug-peddler saying he does it because the junkies demand it.

The second argument Guha made related to mainstream television in India. He draws a distinction between the film and TV audience, claiming that Bollywood now addresses the urban and diasporic audience much more than television does. Arguing that television corporations are completely dependent on advertising revenues (and the ratings game, given that subscription-based revenues are next to nothing), Guha thinks TV will continue to speak to “heartland India” and not to urban and diasporic audiences until the revenue model for television changes. And what’s more, he lamented that he himself doesn’t care for this kind of television programming, but could hardly help it given that he had to run a profitable business.

What surprised me even more was the fact that these comments did not seem to bother anyone else in the room, leading me to wonder if South Asian-American media professionals knew enough about the media industry in India to question Guha’s assertions and if they have completely and uncritically bought into the “India Shining” rhetoric. It’s interesting also to consider the fact that an organization like SAMMA, at this historical juncture, needs the Indian media industry (and folks like Guha) on their side so they can position themselves as brokers b/w L.A./NYC and Mumbai. More on SAMMA later, but for now, here’s Sainath taking the Indian print media business to task:

p.s. I suppose a brief explanation of my break from blogging is in order. I had hoped to resume blogging on a regular basis after returning from fieldwork in Bombay this past summer, but other distractions on the home front (visiting parents/parents-in-law and several road trips with them) kept me busy. Then the semester began and so on. In any case, given that I have neither the time nor the inclination to make this blog anything more than a space for working through some thoughts about desi media and culture, I suppose a few blog breaks are perfectly fine.

Labor and Reality TV

July 21, 2008

Over the past few weeks, media outlets in India have focused considerable attention on the pressures that reality show contestants face. What began as an examination of the case of Shinjini Sen Gupta, a contestant who is now under treatment for severe depression that is being linked to the harsh comments she received from the show’s judges, has now drawn in a range of opinions and even a call from Renuka Chaudhury, Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare, to establish norms and regulations for reality TV programming (link).

In the process, comparisons are being made to other television cultures such as the U.S. and the U.K., and the very idea of “participation” in a reality show is being re-framed as “labor.” While I don’t think this move is necessary, there is no doubt that the issues are important enough to ask parents and industry professionals to take a step back and consider how children are (or not) dealing with a range of physical and emotional pressures. But in this post, I want to turn our attention to another, largely neglected site of “labor” in the world of reality TV: the studio audience.

In Mumbai, I had an opportunity to spend some time on the sets of an immensely popular reality TV program (a singing talent show). I was able to attend rehearsals one afternoon and return the next day when two episodes were shot (in a studio in Film City). Day one in particular was a wonderful learning experience for me since I was able to walk around and observe every step of the process: music arrangement with the band, song and stage rehearsal, choreography, camera and lighting rehearsal, the “reality bits” in which contestants talk about their experiences and each other, and stage design. The one aspect that took me by surprise, however, was the management of the studio audience.

As with other several other reality shows, this one also employs an audience coordinator whose job is to ensure there is a lively and energetic studio audience. For any given episode, the studio audience includes a number of friends and relatives of the contestants (say 30-40 people, seated to the right of the contestants) and about 100 other high-school/college-age boys and girls who occupy the stands on either side of the stage. On the day of the shoot, these audience members begin lining up outside the studio nearly two hours in advance and are asked to enter the studio 30-40 minutes before the contestants and judges take their seats.

And for the next 20 minutes or so, the director of the show, with the help of the audience coordinator, asks these audience members to perform for the camera: clap for 2 minutes; clap, hoot and whistle for 2 minutes; stand up and cheer for 2 minutes; dance to three different songs, and so on. They do all this during the shoot as well. For a day’s labor, they get lunch and are paid 200-300 rupees (varies from one who to another). It was, quite frankly, not that easy to begin thinking about the studio audience as wage labor.

I was also surprised to observe the manner in which these audience members were being treated by the audience coordinator and other production staff. I learned from the cameraman sitting next to me that these audience members were regulars at Film City – these are kids who skip school/college and often hang out at Film City to look for these day-long gigs. And it was apparent that the audience coordinator had come to know some of them – every 5 minutes or so, he would yell and swear – “you #$*&er in the black cap, I know you – stop talking/remain standing/I won’t let you back in here/one tight slap is what you need” – and so on. The audience members, in turn, seemed to know how far they could push the audience coordinator and would pipe down at the right moments and do exactly as they were told. In between all this, the director would chime in every now and then to thank and commend the audience members on how well they were doing and how central they were to the show’s success.

The day I attended, there were 5 contestants remaining and that meant each episode took about 3-3.5 hours to shoot. With the exception of an hour-long lunch break, these audience members were on their feet, performing the role of enthusiastic fans. And because they wouldn’t get paid until the end of the day, it didn’t make sense for anyone to leave after lunch. Besides, I’m sure they know that they could be replaced rather easily.

To be clear, these audience members are not your typical media consumers/fans who might go on a tour of a film/TV set and witness the process of media production. At the same time, I did notice that during the shoot, these audience members were participating very enthusiastically without much prodding from the audience coordinator. It was evident that they were regulars on the set (I don’t know how many watch the show when it airs) and were rooting for their favorite contestant. Would it be fair, then, to suggest that these youth are also fans of the show? Perhaps not, considering that they serve as audiences on many different television shows and there is no reason to assume any loyal fandom here. Are they, then, fans of television in general who simply enjoy being a part of the production process (with some pocket money thrown in)?

The trouble with “ethnic” television

May 15, 2008

I’ve written about MTV-Desi in previous posts, but here’s a story that points very clearly to a shift in the way American media execs are now thinking about “ethnic” programming (link). According to this story, we will soon see a bouquet of STAR-owned channels (Star Plus, Star One, Vijay, and so on) on Comcast’s International line-up. Comcast owned International Networks has just signed a deal with the Star Group (owned by Newscorp). Good news, for the most part. But I also think that such relationships between U.S.-media companies and transnational entities like Star point to an important shift in how “ethnic” programming and the very notion of an “ethnic” audience community is being imagined.

Take a look at this statement from David Wisnia, senior VP of distribution and sales of Star North America and Europe:

International Networks is the leading aggregator of ethnic language programming in the U.S. and we are thrilled to have them represent five of our Indian channels to MSOs across the country. We look forward to increasing our distribution to cable homes across the U.S. so that more South Asian viewers can enjoy top-rated entertainment from back home.

It is abundantly clear that this exec, and arguably those at Comcast, conceive of South Asian viewers as remaining connected to their “home,” as viewers who can speak Hindi, Tamil or some other Indian language. Why are South Asian-Americans being defined primarily in South Asian terms? I would argue that there are three elements at work here.

First, we need to acknowledge the limits that marketing discourse imposes on distribution and programming decisions. The failures of MTV-Desi and AZN, one would imagine, have added to industry lore that such niche channels simply do not work. Besides, there is a very well-etablished tradition of marketing and advertising executives (including many who are of South Asian descent) who work hard to define ethnic difference.

Second, and perhaps the biggest challenge for the industry, is the problem of content. Why would a company seek to invest in original program production when it is clear that audiences are already watching programs from various television channels via YouTube and even by borrowing tapes of saas-bahu serials from a local desi grocery store. It is, without a doubt, financially more prudent to enter into a deal that brings in top quality content.

Third, and more broadly, this new definition of “ethnic” television that ties migrant populations to their “home” (the where are you really from question) completely ignores second and third-generation desis. South Asian Americans are now caught between two powerful nationalist imaginaries: an American television/marketing industry that is struggling to think beyond old notions of “community,” and an “Indian” television industry that includes desis but doesn’t need to worry about those desis who do not understand Hindi or Tamil or, for that matter, might not be “desi” in these very limiting ways.

Workers and Unions in Bollywood Inc.

April 12, 2008

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (link) pays attention to an aspect of film production we don’t think about very often – who gets to be an extra in contemporary Bollywood films. Pointing out that directors these days look for “extras who fit the scene,” the reporter Amol Sharma documents the emergence of entrepreneurs who work closely with directors to help cast extras. And what’s more, these entrepreneurs, who carry CDs with images of potential extras and broker deals with directors and producers, are proving to be a threat to a well-established institution in the film industry – the Junior Artists Union.

Indian directors say they need to be picky about extras as they try to go global and appeal to the United Kingdom and the U.S. markets, where higher production values are expected. “You can’t keep using the same faces every time,” says Sudhir Mishra, director of the recently released “Khoya Khoya Chand” (Lost Moon), a love story set in the 1950s. Mr. Mishra bypassed the union to hire actors he felt could more authentically portray prostitutes, bouncers and pimps in a brothel scene.

Directors also try to boost the international appeal of their films by using foreign extras, often European or American vacationers rounded up at Mumbai tourist spots — a tactic that is particularly galling to unionized extras. Film producers “give excuses, like ‘We’re shooting in a pub, so we want to have some foreigners there,'” says Firoz Khan, a 25-year-old member of the Junior Artistes Association, the union for male extras. “It’s just excuses.”

The Junior Artists’ Union is fighting back valiantly, trying to figure out how they can renegotiate their place in an industry that is currently besotted by the language of “corporatization.” Read the whole article here, and here’s a video that accompanies the article:

It’s important to note that this isn’t an isolated domain of the industry that is under siege. In an article in Anthropological Quarterly, Clare Wilkinson-Weber maps the changing world of costume design and the growing marginalization of “dressmen:”

Dressmen have always employed informal methods and techniques in their work, and they now find their skills, knowledge, as well as their privilege of maleness in a male-dominated industry being eroded as Hindi filmmaking is transforming itself aesthetically and organizationally in response to global forces.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with a number of such “dressmen,” Wilkinson-Weber explains how the “de-skilling” of dressmens’ jobs has to be understood in relation to changing industry logics and specifically, the entry of a number of young, urban women who “claim superior knowledge of filmmaking techniques and of the fashion world that informs film costume” [The Dressman’s Line: Transforming the Work of Costumers in Popular Hindi Film, Anthropological Quarterly, 79(4), 2006].

I know very little about the history of workers’ unions in Mumbai, but this story points to the importance of industry-focuses studies that can provide nuanced understandings of production culture in “Bollywood Inc.”

Taaza Khabar

April 11, 2008

Aswin’s post about Khabar Lahariya reminded me that filmmaker Bishakha Dutta had made a documentary film called Taaza Khabar on the women who produce the newspaper. I have not seen the film but the Nirantar wesbite has some clips of the film here.

To add to the discussion: this initiative appears to have resolved to some extent the problematic NGO impulse to seek out the ‘voiceless’ and give them ‘voice.’ Nirantar’s role seems limited to training the women, not dictating the ‘issues’ they need to be concerned about. The women, at least from the website, seem to have autonomy in choosing what they want to investigate and report on. This is significant.

Grassroots journalism: Khabar Lahariya

April 6, 2008

There have been a number of commentaries of late criticizing the logics of mainstream journalism in contemporary India. In one widely circulated piece, Naresh Fernandes, editor of Time Out Mumbai, reminds us about P. Sainath’s “rural journalism” and how the space for such writing does not exist anymore (here). It is, as Fernandes points out, quite clear that English-language urban dailies like the Times of India operate with a very specific and narrow notion of who the reader-consumer is. Given this state of affairs, non-market and local initiatives become increasingly important.

Via India Together, I learned about one such initiative – Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper run by women for audiences in the Bundelkhand region of India. Kalpana Ram provides an overview of how this initiative came to be and argues that more than circulation figures, Khabar Lahariya is important simply because it exists.

Khabar Lahariya began as an experiment in 2002, aided by Nirantar, a resource centre for gender and education. It is based in Chitrakoot district, one of the 200 poorest districts in India, where there is practically no industry and the majority of people survive on rain-fed agriculture. Literacy rates are lower than the national average; female literacy is only 35 per cent. The sex ratio is also below the national average, only 872 women to a 1,000 men. Incidents of sexual violence are high and the justice delivery system barely functions as criminal gangs operate with impunity under the nose of a complacent and often complicit administration.

Against this background, a group of Dalit and adivasi women felt the need to start and run their own newspaper because the existing media in the area did not report on the issues that concerned them. They wanted to break the stereotype that lower caste women like them would not dare enter the public domain. Despite their lack of education, they wanted to prove that they too could be journalists.

You can read the rest of Ram’s piece here. The Nirantar website carries more details, and to get a sense of how these women cover current affairs (taaza khabar), national and international news, women’s issues, panchayati raj, and much more, you can read an entire issue of the newspaper here (Hindi).

Circles of Sexuality

February 28, 2008

The latest issue of HIMAL SOUTHASIAN draws attention to the many transitions and conflicts surrounding sexuality.

Discussions on the wide range of human sexuality have begun in Southasia, albeit only in certain circles – universities, NGOs and within specifically interested communities. For the rest, alternative sexuality exists the way it always did, mostly clandestinely, at other times through rigidly defined ‘communities’. However, as television and film producers, authors and journalists continue to try to push certain envelopes, and appeal to additional (and younger) audiences, these discussions are inevitably cropping up with greater frequency within the mainstream.

But just how realistic is all of this talk? More importantly, just how pertinent is it to the lived experiences of Southasians, particularly long-oppressed sexual minorities?

Articles tackle the state of homosexuality in Nepal, class and conservatism in Pakistan, “virtual closets” in Bangladesh, NGO-isation of sexuality, and much more.

On being desi in post 9/11 America

February 20, 2008

After a session on Goodness Gracious Me, I usually get students to watch Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic in an attempt to talk about cultural citizenship and the ways in which religion has become an increasingly important fault line. And until now, I’ve never found a film like My Son the Fanatic that might help us talk through these issues in the context of South Asian-Americans. Mississippi Masala only gets us so far. Last night, I learned about “Punching at the Sun,” a film that takes on the question of what race, nationalism, and citizenship mean for South Asian muslim youth in post-9/11 Queens, NY. Here’s the trailer, and you can watch the entire film on Jaman:

Links to reviews and interviews with the filmmaker Tanuj Chopra here.

To Indira, with much love….

February 19, 2008

I was about seven years old, we had acquired a telephone at home and there was always a big fight over who would answer the call. Imagine my good luck when I happened to be the closest to the telephone on October 31st, 1984 and very proudly picked up the phone. It was my grandmother in Bangalore yelling something about the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi being assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. She also yelled something about turning on the television, also newly purchased – talk about newly realized middle class aspirations. My aunt in the US had called and told her about the assassination, which she had heard through the BBC. Sadly, All India Radio and Doordarshan, most likely waiting for the higher-ups in the hierarchy to release orders from the shocked government, were mum until later that evening.

As the news of the assassination spread, every evening for the next few weeks, our living room would be packed with neighbours and their friends and family, with theirs and my family’s eyes glued to our black and white television set (the one with the wooden doors that could be opened and closed). Salma Sultan, with her single rose bud in her tight hair bun, shed a single tear when she read the news of the assassination that evening, dispelling annoying myths that she was actually an early robotic experiment conducted by scientifically-minded folks at Doordarshan.

Indira’s death perhaps did more to resuscitate the Congress Party than anything else. It also, more importantly, changed how one thought of television and women in television. That critical historical moment did two things: one, it helped resurrect Indira’s image as a martyr – a female subject who could be recuperated either as a Mother figure or as a political subject who could be aggressive, non-submissive, and agential (an enduring figure that continues to be resurrected, think Lalithaji!). Secondly, television was recognized as an extremely influential medium to mobilize political support. Images of Indira Gandhi, her funeral and her grieving family became a mainstay in the political advertisements that were instrumental in Indira’s successor – her son Rajiv Gandhi – coming to power. Not surprisingly, Rajiv recognized that power, pushing for expansion and investment in the television sector. What happened after that event is also significant, because we see how deeply entrenched state regulation was in the dissemination of information or ‘news.’

Being in the South of India in Hyderabad, we were completely disconnected from the planned and systematic persecution of Sikhs in Delhi. What we continued to be exposed to on television were images of a supposedly grieving nation, and it was through national television that a ‘national family’ was imaged, a cohesive unit that somehow was beyond and came before class, caste, and gender differences.

The events of 1984 remain, in the history of the country, somewhat of an academic stepchild. One acknowledges its pesky presence but never bestows upon it historical veracity or legitimacy. This sort of makes it really difficult for me, Swati Bandi – a mere student of documentary studies, from the South of India and astonishingly illiterate in the ground realities of 1984 – when I am called upon to introduce a fiction film that meshes popular memory and history to address that pesky issue of the Sikh massacres post Indira-assasination! Yes, I am talking about Shonali Bose’s 2004 film Amu, being screened at an International Women’s Film Festival in Buffalo, NY.

As so much has already been written about the film, I think, for this blog, I will extrapolate and talk about what really interests me – the marriage of documentary and fiction film aesthetics to talk about an event that is fraught with tensions inherent in the recounting of historical ‘fact’ as it intersects with popular memory. Truth be told, the film underwhelmed me. It was self-absorbed and except for certain powerful moments in the flashback scenes in the refugee camps in Delhi, I was vaguely dissatisfied throughout. Yes, vaguely, like there is nothing outwardly terrible about it. For instance, I could not point out one scene and say “see, this is why you disappoint me, you film.”

The story is unraveled as the protagonist Kaju, a recent UCLA (film?) grad, ‘goes back’ to Delhi to discover her roots. The story is documented through her trusty video camera. This narrative device, seen often in documentary films made by filmmakers in the diaspora who ‘go back,’ is employed quite unproblematically by Bose. Amu, along with her native boyfriend, are allowed easy access to ‘documentary subjects,’ who recount the ‘truth’ – helping her uncover not only her own story as an orphan whose parents were killed in the massacres of Sikhs in 1984 but also legitimize, through the documentary camera, that version of historical memory.


As I said before, I really would have to do much more research before I could talk about the horrible events of 1984 with any authority. Yet, since Bose does present Amu as the only film that addresses the anti-Sikh riots and argues, rightfully, for more attention to those events, it would have helped to move beyond certain narrational devices like forced moments between foreign-returned desis and natives, surficially addressing generation gaps, uneven accents and an exploitative ethnographic gaze.

This marriage between documentary film aesthetics and fiction film has huge implications for television. It is in this sector that one can move toward larger distribution of documentary films. NDTV already dedicates some hours towards screening documentary films. More exposure to the public can only help break the chains that bind the doc film genre in its ‘boring,’ ‘educational’ moulds. It is also in television that our notions of documentary ‘truth’ and our investment in the notion that the camera never lies can slowly be eroded (thankfully!). As the lines between fact and fiction blur (think TV news, for instance), documentary film can finally emerge as truly, wonderful entertainment.

Ok, I am dreaming but Indira Gandhi was on her way to film a documentary interview with Peter Ustinov when she was gunned down. Go figure.


TV and taste: the “saas-bahu” question

February 15, 2008

In a recent article in the avowedly “upper-class” Mint, columnist Vir Sanghvi wonders why television in India speaks to PLT (People Like Them) and asks the readers of Mint, People Like Him, why “so many of us (readers of Lounge, for instance) thrill to masala Hindi movies while remaining resolutely unmoved by the appeal of the mega-serials that have much of middle India so completely enthralled?” He writes:

As much as you may have enjoyed Om Shanti Om or even Saawariya, do you watch Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? When you flip from one Hindi entertainment channel to another, can you really tell the difference? Isn’t there a certain stultifying sameness to the manner in which over-made-up, overdressed women waddle around lurid and garish sets, pausing every five minutes or so for an extreme close-up, accompanied by loud and, frankly, disturbing explosions of music? Do you really find the jokes on the many stand-up comedy shows (spawned by the success of The Great Laughter Challenge) genuinely funny? Can you understand why Navjot Singh Sidhu laughs so hysterically at every weak gag uttered by each aspiring comedian?

It’s a strange thing, but even as Hindi cinema has become the great leveller, television has become a world unto itself, carving out a solid constituency in the lower- to middle-middle class (look, I’m sorry if this sounds snobbish, but there’s no other way to say it), while almost completely ignoring the upper-middle class and the elite.

Given that these shows remain highly popular and continue to draw the highest ratings points, it is rather easy to imagine what Ekta Kapoor, the architect of many a saas-bahu television serial, might say to Sanghvi and People Like Him. But it is not as easy to brush aside Sanghvi’s assumptions about taste, class, and the expectations of a medium like TV – in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that academic culture is yet to take saas-bahu serials seriously. I have heard nothing but dismissal of shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law) as regressive and that they do little more than reinforce gender stereotypes. But is this all we have to say?

Does the study of TV begin and end with this all-too-easy ideology critique? Would it not be worth exploring how Ekta Kapoor, a young woman, managed to become one of the most important figures in the TV industry? What about looking closely at how writers on this show think through characters like Tulsi Virani (Smriti Irani)? Do we have nothing interesting to say about Smriti Irani’s move from a TV soap into the realm of politics? And tempting as it may be, are we really prepared to call women and men (yes, men watch these shows too) across India who enjoy these serials cultural dupes? Without falling into the trap of 80s-anglo-american-style “resistant reading” ideas, would it not be important to explore the politics and pleasures of these TV serials in relation to everyday life?

In many respects, this piece by Vir Sanghvi reminded me of the discussion about taste cultures in the context of television scholarship/writing in the U.S., and the fact that there is hardly any “ideological and cultural diversity within television studies per se” (more here). Talking specifically about discussions at a conference (Flow), Henry Jenkins picks up on Greg Smith’s question – why JAG, a popular show never gets the kind of attention that a cult hit like Buffy does – and writes:

I would argue that our inability as a field to write intelligently about shows like JAG has something to do with our sense of cultural isolation from those people who live in Red States. One challenge may be to broaden our object of study. An even bigger challenge may be to expand who studies television and what kinds of perspectives are welcome at our conference. Very few folks at the Flow conference rose to defend JAG as a worthy object of study. My bet though is that there are people out there reading this blog who regularly watch JAG. Indeed, it was one of my late father’s favorite programs and I found watching the program with him helped me to understand how his generation saw the world.

Along the same lines, while I cannot bring myself to watch a saas-bahu serial, I did spend many hours watching a Tamil-language saas-bahu show with my mother. This was right after my father had died, and I was with my mum in Bangalore for a couple of months. At one level, the ritual of watching TV, quite simply, provided great solace. And for my mom, these shows with their strong (and yes, in some ways regressive) women characters were almost a balm for grief. During those weeks, I was, in Sanghvi’s terms, PLT. The “saas-bahu” question needs to be framed differently and not just in a banal isn’t-it-regressive vein.

Yizo Yizo (The Way It Is) and Wetin Dey (What’s Up?): Revisiting “Development TV”

February 8, 2008


Thanks to my colleague leo africanus, I could include Yizo Yizo, a groundbreaking and gritty TV show from South Africa, in my course on Global Media. Yizo Yizo is a terrific text with which to invite students to think about the question of “development communication” and the central role that this strand of communications research (carried out, for the most part, in mass communication departments in the U.S.) has played in shaping media policy in much of Africa and Asia. But what sets Yizo Yizo and Wetin Dey apart from other “pro-development” Miguel Sabido-inspired dramas developed in places like India during the 80s is the socio-cultural and political context – post apartheid South Africa.

Where radio and television in India were imagined and controlled by the state as a means for integrating the “nation,” in South Africa, radio and television were central to the project of racial and ethnic separation. Yizo Yizo, however, is in many ways emblematic of “post-apartheid” TV in South Africa – by which I mean not just the re-structuring of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the growing influence of transnational formats and genres on TV in South Africa (Big Brother Africa, for e.g.), but also the ways in which TV has emerged as a key site for the re-articulation of cultural citizenship. And Yizo Yizo is a brilliant text to work with for the simple reason that it is so uncompromising – it lays bare the many issues troubling township life in South Africa (violence, drug abuse, sexual harassment, and so on) in unprecedented ways. And needless to say, the show generated tremendous controversy and attracted considerable public discussion. TV done right.

While I’ve planned to screen an episode or two of Yizo Yizo in class, it looks like I now have to make time for another show – Wetin Dey, from Nigeria. A story in the BBC says that this show, produced by group of international TV, film and advertising producers, is designed to raise HIV and AIDS awareness across Nigeria (here). Nigeria, as we know, gets talked about in both popular and academic settings in relation to Nollywood and the enduring popularity of Bollywood. I’m hoping this show (clips available on BBC) will help add another dimension to our understanding of media production in Nigeria and force us to think anew about TV and the question of “development” in an age of global flows – Wetin Dey is, after all, funded in large measure by the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) and produced in collaboration with a number of NGOs.

[Pic from BBC]

What Brown Can(not) Do For You

November 9, 2007

A week from now, I will be on my way to Boston to participate in a workshop at M.I.T where a group of academics will talk about Unboxing TV. Following the model established by Flow, this workshop is organized as a series of roundtable discussions with each participant outlining a provocation instead of reading a paper for 20-25 minutes. Take a look at the program and the provocations here.

I decided to take this opportunity to think through the MTV-Desi experiment, and use discussions surrounding MTV-Desi to think about the relationship between the South Asian diaspora and TV. Over the next week, I will be working through answers to the questions I raise and will have more to say. For now, here’s what I wrote:

In July 2005, MTV Networks announced the launch of MTV-Desi, a niche channel for South Asian American youth. Launched with great fanfare and made available on Direct TV, MTV-Desi featured Bollywood sequences and Indi-pop (sourced from MTV India), diasporic artists in North America and the U.K., and shows about desi life in the U.S. Recognizing the transcultural nature of South Asian American youth culture, executives and producers at MTV-Desi worked hard to define MTV-Desi as a unique site of cultural production that neither mainstream American television nor Indian satellite TV channels could match.

Eighteen months later, MTV Networks pulled the plug on MTV-Desi, stating that the distribution model failed to draw in South Asian Americans. As one prominent South Asian journalist commented, “we published next to nothing on the channel, because I couldn’t find anyone who watched the satellite channel: no college students, no twenty-somethings with spare change. And it wasn’t just me. All the tastemakers I interviewed – DJs, other music types – said they didn’t know any MTV Desi subscribers either.”

While pricing and poor marketing were cited as the major reasons for failure, it is worth noting that MTV-Desi’s business and content-production strategies were shaped not only by the institutional politics of the U.S. television industry but also by the operations of satellite television channels such as ZEE, STAR, and Sony Entertainment that cater to South Asian audiences worldwide. MTV-Desi executives were also attuned to reports emphasizing that South Asians are now among the fastest growing minorities in the U.S. and, more importantly, as a niche demographic with tremendous purchasing power. Thus, at one level, it appears as if executives at MTV-Desi did nothing wrong in terms of identifying an audience community. So what, besides the premium distribution model, went wrong?

I wish to argue that the MTV-Desi experiment constitutes an important moment in the history of diasporic media production, and that a critical post-mortem will allow us to grapple with challenges faced by media producers and cultural critics in imagining and mobilizing a diasporic audience community. Outlining the changing dynamics of migration between South Asia and the U.S., and competing definitions of desi identity and being brown in the U.S., I will tackle these questions during our roundtable discussion:

– In what ways does the institutional framework of the television industry in the U.S. limit the possibility of imagining a “post-national” audience community?

– If Bombay, as a film and television capital, is dominating and defining the production and flow of South Asian content, what possibilities remain for diasporic television production?

– Does “diaspora,” as a socio-cultural and political critique of the nation-as-community, need TV?

Multiplex Effect(s)

November 7, 2007

One of the most interesting transitions in the world of commercial Bombay cinema over the past few years has been the experimentation with low-budget and offbeat films. While lavish nationalist-diasporic films that the likes of Karan Johar, Yash Chopra, and Subhash Ghai churn out are the ones that seem to define “Bollywood,” especially for viewers and critics outside India, films like Omkara, Dor, and Johnny Gaddar have drawn audiences, critical acclaim and, importantly, made money at the box office. To be sure, films like these would have been unimaginable in the commercial sector a decade ago.

Writing in the Mint (link), Gouri Shah takes stock of this development and argues that these low-budget films have succeeded primarily because of the shift from single-screen to multiplex theatres as the mode of exhibition in urban India (and to a lesser extent, in smaller cities and towns). Shah also writes that recent successes have prompted large production houses to set up separate divisions to focus exclusively on low-budget films with new talent across the board.

Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts Ltd has set up two divisions—Mukta Searchlight Films, which handles small budget films, and Malpix Films, which will launch its first Marathi film, Kaande Pohe, soon. UTV Motion Pictures Plc. has Spot Boy Motion Pictures and UTV Classics, while Percept Picture Co. recently set up Cause Cinema, which will look at projects with socially relevant themes as well as corporate films. Yash Raj Films Pvt. Ltd is also planning to set up a separate division that will focus on small budget projects or independent films, according to people in the industry familiar with the developments.

I agree, for the most part, that this is very much a “multiplex effect.” As Aparna Sharma explained in her Seminar piece, in addition to flexible scheduling that allows multiplexes to accomodate films of varying lengths, low budget films are lucrative for a multiplex because the number of viewers they bring in translates into “a greater, more competitive marginal value” (more here).

At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the fact that an “indie” filmmaker has little hope of getting his/her film into a multiplex unless s/he is working with a large banner like UTV, Mukta Arts, or Yashraj Films. My Brother Nikhil (Onir, 2005), the film that, in many ways, started this trend, would not have worked without Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra’s patronage. To get a sense of how critical this patronage is, all you have to do is take a quick look at the films that NFDC, the government of India enterprise that defines “good cinema,” has produced over the past few years – not only are they predominantly in regional languages like Marathi, Kannada, and Tamil, none of them made it into a multiplex.

“Daily Me” and Democracy

October 22, 2007

According to Cass Sunstein, my media consumption habits, such as my personalization of a google page into a collection of news and information sources (including, *gasp* blogs) would slot me into what he terms a “daily me.” Thanks to “filtering” options, which allow me to read, see, and hear what I want and not what I *should* in order to be a well-informed citizen, I am now one among millions who do not care about many issues and ideas that matter. Sunstein writes in the first chapter of his new book, 2.0:

People who consider themselves left-of-center make very different selections from those made by people who consider themselves right-of-center. Most whites avoid news and entertainment options designed for African Americans. Many African Americans focus largely on options specifically designed for them. So too with Hispanics. With the reduced importance of the general-interest magazine and newspaper and the flowering of individual programming design, different groups make fundamentally different choices.

The market for news, entertainment, and information has finally been perfected. Consumers are able to see exactly what they want. When the power to filter is unlimited, people can decide, in advance and with perfect accuracy, what they will and will not encounter. They can design something very much like a communications universe of their own choosing. And if they have trouble designing it, it can be designed for them, again with perfect accuracy.

Not only does Sunstein assume that I live in an “echo chamber” and engage only with ideas and people I pick and choose, he argues that I could not have been a “daily me” in the “old media” world, that I would have been “exposed to materials that [I] would not have chosen in advance.” And now that I’ve begun blogging, there is no hope. Like other bloggers, I only read/see/hear that which I can blog about. I am utterly uninformed and need to be sent away to an information camp where well-intentioned men will teach me how to participate effectively in a democracy.

Review in The Guardian here. Henry Jenkins’ take on here.