Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ 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.


April 17, 2008

It’s the last week of classes here (grading to be done and so on) and it looks like I will have to take a break from blogging for a week or so. But I did want to announce the launch of an exciting new “multiblog” – Interjunction – that aims to facilitate conversations between the media and academia. While a magazine like Seminar does bring together academics and practitioners at times, and The Hoot focuses attention media in the subcontinent, there is no dedicated space for enabling dialogue between media studies and the world of media production. Interjunction is an important and timely intervention in this regard.

NDTV Imagine: A Family Drama

April 2, 2008

I am participating in a TV promos-themed week over at MediaCommons and my piece is featured on the site today. Here’s the video along with my note.

Over the past two decades, the landscape of television in India has shifted from one dominated by state-regulated Doordarshan to an increasingly fragmented environment in which numerous transnational (Star Plus, for e.g.) and translocal (SUN TV, for e.g.) channels compete for attention. In a post-Doordarshan world, success has been defined by carving up Doordarshan’s “national family” into a number of identifiable and marketable units – youth, children, women, and so on. In many ways, this is hardly surprising.

However, in an environment in which every major television channel is scrambling to devise further levels of differentiation (AXN’s “elite weekends,” for e.g.), it is surprising to learn about a new channel – NDTV Imagine, launched in January 2008 – that positions itself as TV that will cater to the “6-69” demographic and re-unite the “national family.” As Sameer Nair, the CEO, announced, “NDTV Imagine heralds the return of the General Entertainment Channel, the return of family entertainment for the entire family…bringing the entire family together to watch television.”

At first glance, and as several trade analysts noted, this does seem like a smart branding tactic. As the NDTV news reporter in the video suggests, perhaps the nation is tired of watching conniving mothers-in-law and extramarital flings and ready for other stories. But as I see it, the real story about NDTV’s imagination of the “national family” emerges only when we pay attention to NDTV Imagine’s brand ambassador, Karan Johar. A Bollywood filmmaker who has been responsible for redefining the “national family” with immensely popular diaspora-centric narratives, Karan Johar offers us a glimpse into how the “national family” is being re-imagined. At a launch party, Johar announced: everyone is saying that India is on its way to becoming a superpower. But the one thing we need to keep in mind is India’s biggest strength: family. And this will be NDTV’s strength…NDTV Imagine will also be a family, a joyous and hope-filled family…a happy, positive, and real family.

Karan Johar’s imagination allows us to consider how television channels’ branding strategies are caught up in broader struggles to define the “national family” in an age of globalization. In the Indian context, where a specific vision of “India Shining” has been aggressively marketed by a neo-liberal state with the help of media corporations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to carve out a space for other imaginations of the “national family.” For all their problems, I can’t help wondering if we’re better off with conniving mothers-in-law and their dysfunctional families than with Karan Johar’s “real,” positive, joyous, and shining families.

Copycat, copycat…

April 1, 2008

Via American Public Media’s Marketplace, a story on whether the entry of Hollywood studios into the business of film production in India might affect how industry professionals in Mumbai think about “copying” everything from scripts to lighting and camera angles. You can listen to the story here, and here’s a part of the transcript (full text here):

Rico Gagliano: Late one Wednesday night in the city of Mumbai, I do what hundreds of thousands of Indians do every day: head to the local cinema to catch a flick.


This one’s called “Welcome” — the slapstick story of an average Joe who finds himself engaged to the sister of a mob boss. Now even though the characters inexplicably break into song every 20 minutes, and even though the Hindi dialogue isn’t subtitled, I find the film strangely familiar. That’s because “Welcome”‘s story is the same as an American film: 1999’s “Mickey Blue Eyes.” And it turns out in Bollywood, that’s hardly unusual…

Sometimes it’s more than dialogue. Anjum Rajabali is a successful Mumbai screenwriter. He says he’s been on sets where everything was copied directly from a video of a foreign film.

Anjum Rajabali: There was a video monitor, and the VHS was actually playing. The angles of the camera would be taken directly from that. The actors would actually watch, and say, “OK, this is how you want me to do it? Fine.” Camera angles, lighting, properties…

…All copied. And film songs, of which there are several per Bollywood film, might not always be 100 percent original, either.

The story also relies on some quotes from CNN-IBN’s entertainment editor, Rajeev Masand, but what intrigued me most was Anjum Rajabali’s presence. Now Rajabali is a key writer in an industry that is only now beginning to recognize the importance of well written screenplays and, in fact, Rajabali heads the scriptwriting division of Whistling Woods International (the media and film school founded by director-producer Subhash Ghai – story here). It is odd, however, to hear Rajabali suggest that filmmakers are merrily “copying” scripts simply because they can get away with it and that once Hollywood studios begin investing more in Mumbai, this practice will wane.

I find this odd because Rajabali wrote Ghulam, an “adaptation” of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. A story of a petty criminal (played by Aamir Khan) who rebels against a more powerful thug, Ghulam is, as Ranjani Mazumdar writes in her book (Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City), an important film in several respects – for offering what Mazumdar terms a “jagged history of the national movement,” forcing us to think about contradictory relationships between history and memory, playing with anxieties surrounding masculinity and sexuality (Aamir Khan is a boxer in the film), and so on. By all accounts, Rajabali’s adaptation worked and it would be unfair to dismiss Ghulam as nothing more than an imitation.

Given his own work, I find it disappointing that he did not offer a more nuanced explanation. To be sure, there are several films each year that are direct lifts and have nothing original to offer. But in an industry that produces over a hundred films each year, there is more than just “copying” and I wish Rajabali had pointed to Ghulam as an example of how well a writer can factor in historical and cultural contexts to re-tell stories.

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.