Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

Outsourced, an initial review

September 24, 2010

I”ll do a longer post on NBC’s Outsourced in a week or two (yes, I am planning to watch a few more episodes). For now, here’s my review – an edited collection of my tweets as I watched last night.

9:30 pm: Just in time. Finished reading review of #Outsourced in the NYTimes. Two sentences in particular make me optimistic: “the jokes change in tandem with the world’s balance of power,” and ?Outsourced is a comedy about Indian capitalism that mostly makes fun of American decline.”

5 minutes in: so far, Manmeet (“man meat”) aside, the jokes have been meh, but not too bad. But what’s with the color scheme in the office? *aaagh*

10 minutes in: Struck by how terrible the music has been. A Panjabi MC number can be justified, kind of. But the title song of “Omkara,” a Bollywood film about Hindi heartland politics?

White dude in a garish call-center office, and the song goes “sabse bade ladaiyya re…” (“the most bad-ass fighter in the land”)? Seriously?

12 minutes in: I’ve decided I’ll stick with the show for at least 3-4 episodes.

15 minutes in: This Rajiv character fits the “sly native” stereotype, no? And Madhuri the diffident brown woman who becomes the white guy’s project? *Sigh* What to do. It’s hard to completely let go of po-co jargon.

20 minutes in: Is #Outsourced struggling to write past stereotypes? Yes. Offensive? Not really. Not yet, at least.

25 minutes in: someone should write about accents. Thinking of Shilpa Dave’s article “Apu’s Brown Voice: Cultural inflection and South Asian accents” (in this anthology)

End of show: Above all, #Outsourced is problematic b’cos it is a step backwards where American TV’s imagination of Desi identity and culture is concerned. Instead of building on The Office (Mindy Kaling), Parks & Recreation (Aziz Ansari), and other shows, this one fails to imagine and explore Desi culture and identity *within* the U.S.

Once again, Desis are positioned elsewhere. The very idea of Desi is outsourced.

p.s. no longer sure what that NYTimes reviewer saw.

Public access TV and U.S. desi diaspora

April 2, 2009

This is partly in response to Jason Mittell’s recent post in which he outlines very clearly the challenges facing Public Access TV in the U.S. (thanks fr posting the slides, Jason!). He begins by pointing out that PEGs (Public/Educational/Governmental channels) “traditionally have served as community media centers, local anchors in a media system that has skewed toward national and global models.” While acknowledging that digital media technologies and platforms have created many new opportunities for media production and circulation by individuals and communities, Jason reminds us that digital divides do exist even in the U.S (in the case of a town like Middlebury, particularly along generational lines).

At the same time, given the pace of changes in the media landscape and ongoing regulatory changes (see this Flow piece for more details), the future of public access TV does look bleak. Taking stock of all this, Mittell asks if we ought to acknowledge that the public access model has “outlived its necessity.” And if we do, how do we go about ensuring the formation and sustenance of new kinds of community media systems?

I know very little about the history of public access TV in the U.S., but it is a topic I need to learn more about as I think about the history of South Asian-American diasporic media production and circulation. But for now, perhaps I can draw on my own experiences in the U.S. to make a few observations and raise some questions.

During the 1990s, enterprising desis in large metropolitan areas like New York/NJ, D.C., Atlanta, parts of Florida, the Bay area, L.A., and so on began leasing 30-60 minutes from the local public access channel to broadcast a variety program. This variety program, broadcast on Saturday mornings, would typically be a mix of film-related content (songs and some filmy gossip) and news concerning desis in the U.S., with advertisements from desi businesses (restaurants, jewelry stores, etc.) and companies interested in doing business with desis (Western Union, for e.g.). These shows were local, and often, family affairs. Needless to say, in the pre-satellite, pre-Internet era, desi families across North America looked forward to this one hour show each week.

Today, in a world of satellite television, p2p networks, blogs, and YouTube, it is indeed difficult to envision a role for public access television in relation to diasporic media production. And indeed, most of us would point to this mediascape as evidence of how media broker relations between different localities. But if I step back for a minute and leave media out of the picture, I see right away that the struggle over defining the “local” is a defining aspect of diasporic life.

We can now move on to suggest that where diasporic communities are concerned, the “local-ness” of public access TV does not mean a connection to the local in the way Mittell suggests it is for Middlebury residents. Desis used public access television to re-make the “local,” if only for an hour each week. Public access TV allowed desis to keep alive some connections with “home” and, in many cases, created a space for desi parents to introduce their children to some aspects of life in South Asia. Written from a diasporic perspective, public access TV has also had a very global life. And where South Asian-American media production/circulation is concerned, we could even argue that public access TV laid the foundation for satellite television companies like EROS/B4U, Zee, etc. In fact, one dot-com entrepreneur I know began as a producer of a one-hour variety show in southeast Michigan and went on to develop the same content for the Web.

The question is, is there something to be learned from the intersection of diasporic life and public access TV that might help us re-imagine PEGs today? I’m afraid I don’t have anything to offer at this point. I will keep thinking about it though…

Secret Slumdog Millionaire, a reality show?

February 4, 2009

The Economic Times reports that the producers of Slumdog Millionaire are considering producing a reality TV show called Secret Slumdog Millionaire, a variation on a U.K. show called Secret Millionaire. Instead of doling out money in impoverished communities in the U.K., millionaires will now scour the slums of Mumbai and identify “slumdogs.” A television insider says, ““It’s a fantastic idea….The millionaires who sign up will see real poverty in Mumbai and it is going to be very moving when they reveal their identity and offer these people help” (full story). Needless to say, the producers want to get going asap so they can cash in on the film’s tremendous popularity.

They are, of course, “bracing themselves against charges that they are cashing in on poverty.” Bracing? Heh. If the protests surrounding the film are any indication, I’m sure we’ll see much more drama around the television show. Given that Reality TV-as-social-welfare shows like Extreme Home Makeover have not entered the Indian television landscape, this will be an interesting show to follow and see if it sets the stage for other experiments in reality TV.

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.

SAMMA ’08: giving up on television

January 16, 2009

Held in the Time Warner conference center in New York City, the South Asians in Media and Marketing summit opened with a keynote address by Peter Ligouri, Chairman and CEO of Fox Broadcasting. Neal Shenoy, one of the founding members of SAMMA, set the stage for Ligouri with a quick opening note about South Asians making quite a splash in the media world over the past few years. Mohinder-Heroes, Sanajaya Malakar-American Idol, Kal Penn-Namesake, Spielberg-Ambani, Richard Gere-Shilpa Shetty kissing…you get the picture.

However, Ligouri himself did not address the question of media production focused on South Asian-American culture . He chose to speak generally about challenges facing media corporations, and why he thought it prudent to ignore hype surrounding new distribution platforms. “Content is king,” he reminded everyone present. But given the setting, the question of why South Asians continue to remain marginal on American television came up as soon as he ended his talk. And his answer, predictably enough, was that demographically speaking, South Asian-Americans were simply not a commercially viable niche market yet. Ligouri, and everyone in the room, ignored the underlying assumption that no one else in the U.S. would be interested in watching, say, a sitcom that revolved around a desi family.

Here, then, is the trouble with desi culture and television. On the one hand, desi youth in the U.S. are stuck with American television institutions and their advertising revenue-based logic. And on the other hand, they have to contend with Indian television corporations (ZEE, Star, SUN, etc.) that couldn’t care less about desi culture in the U.S. and continue to churn out saas-bahu dramas. Unless media professionals in the U.S. are willing to learn from what shows like Goodness Gracious Me were able to achieve, television, I’d argue, will always remain marginal to desi culture and identity in the U.S.

TV ratings history: a snapshot

August 7, 2008

Given the centrality of the ratings discourse to the everyday workings of the television industry in India today, I find it a bit surprising that we do not have a good historical account of the development of the ratings business. We’ve all heard of IMRB, TAM, and of course, the growing influence of Nielsen in the Indian market. While these large market research companies dominate the scene today, the practice of rating the popularity and viewership of television programs was kicked off by a trade magazine called TV and Video World.

The magazine was run out of a small office in Nariman Point in south Bombay, and was the only trade magazine that covered the development of television and video. I discovered this magazine when browsing through the stacks at the Memorial library in UW-Madison a few years ago, and managed to go through them again this past May. Anyhow, here’s the snapshot:

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.

NDTV Lumiere

April 5, 2008

Over at MediaCommons, two comments pointed to the importance of situating initiatives like NDTV Imagine in relation to the network as a whole. I couldn’t agree more, and as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, transitions in the television industry are central to the film industry as well. It would be a mistake to continue to examine film and TV in isolation, especially given the importance of television rights to producers in Bollywood. Films aside, we are yet to map, in any systematic fashion, the workings of numerous filmy shows on television – song and dance talent/game shows of various kinds have been part of television for nearly two decades now (ZEE TV’s Antakshari began in 1993).

And now, NDTV has added another dimension to TV’s relationship with film with the launch of NDTV Lumiere.

Led by Sameer Nair, former CEO of Star Entertainment India, NDTV Lumiere has roped in Manmohan Shetty, founder of Adlabs, and Sunil Doshi, a film producer. The goal, as the video above suggests, is to develop NDTV Lumiere as a niche space for audiences interested in cinema from around the world. Instead of competing with Zee Cafe and Star World for “elite audiences” (see this), this seems like a smart differentiating tactic.

More broadly, I think this initiative signals the working out of a radically new set of relationship between two screens in India – at the level of industry logics, productions cultures, and audiences’ viewing practices. More on this in posts to come.

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.

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.

Recasting Women?

February 27, 2008


I can never forget Lalithaji, or the crusading Rajni. I’m not sure if there was any intended correspondence between the woman in the ad and the TV character, but it worked. But in a post-DD world of numerous cable and satellite channels, not much changed in terms of women’s choices being framed first and foremost in relation to the family. Husband’s health, kids’ health, soaps and detergenets, colors for the room, and so on – it seemed advertising agencies simply could not think about women beyond a heterosexual/family frame.

According to this story, there are signs of some change:

Over the last few months, several non-gender specific categories such as breakfast cereal, alcohol, health drinks and even services such as radio have launched products aimed at women. The launches are part of a trend that recognizes women not just as primary decision makers in the Indian household, but also a large enough specialist target group or so-called mega niche that marketers can address.

My question is, will this new demographic construct lead to shifts in TV programming? I’d like to know how many women in this category watch the “women-centric” saas-bahu soaps on TV? Why does TV continue to segment the “women’s audience” into either a “youth” (MTV, etc.) or a “saas-bahu-family” category? I’m not suggesting that the U.S. model of Lifetime is necessarily the best way forward. Just wondering if this shift in advertising/marketing might lead TV producers and writers to imagine new programming possibilities.

Movie channels and syndication

February 25, 2008

While soaps, sitcoms, and mythologicals do attract audiences and at times help a new TV channel establish itself very quickly (Ramayan on NDTV Imagine, for e.g.), there is no escaping the fact that Bollywood has the largest program library and a reliable one at that. Every major television channel launched over the past decade or so has relied on Bollywood films to boost ratings and gradually diversify its programming. This trend, in turn, has been a major source of revenue for film producers. All the hype surrounding “new media” aside, TV rights constitutes a large percentage of a producer’s revenue stream.

Now, with major companies like Reliance, UTV, and NDTV entering the domain of “general entertainment” TV, the business of film rights is set to change. According to this report on the Indiantelevision trade site, established TV channels such as Sahara and SONY are syndicating titles to new entrants.

Sony Entertainment Television (SET) India has syndicated 70 titles to INX Media, the Peter-Indrani Mukerjea venture, for over Rs 400 million. For 9X, the Hindi general entertainment channel from the INX Media stable, this was an important part of the overall programming strategy. Movies have primarily driven the ratings of the channel.

Not surprisingly, the decision to buy syndication rights to a specific film or set of films is closely tied to the new TV channel’s branding strategy which, in turn, is premised on exclusivity (will this film air on a competing channel in the near future?). Entire story here. As far as I know, TV channels have not played the syndication game with soaps/sitcoms/other programs. It’s interesting to note that TV industry logics are still being shaped by the film industry.

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.