Indian Television

Of News and Newsrooms

It’s been a difficult week for those in Tamil Nadu, and more so, in Chennai – the state’s Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa (fondly referred to as Amma), who assumed office after winning a historic re-election only this May, passed away after being hospitalized in the city for two months. She had succumbed to complications following a cardiac arrest.
News of the cardiac arrest came on Sunday evening, sparking endless rumours on Whatsapp and other social media channels. Despite the rumour-mongers’ (and my) best efforts, it was announced that Monday was to be a normal working day.

It was around 3 PM when more news reports started pouring in of her critical state, and we were asked to leave office. We were to hope for recovery, but we were also to be safe. The entire time on the tense ride back home, I followed the tickers of the Tamil news channels. After all, the regional news channels of today are far more savvy than their counterparts of a decade ago. Even if they continue to have their political biases (but then again, which channel doesn’t?) they are equipped with the latest technologies, articulate newsreaders and smart reporters, all of which make for reliable programming.

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Or so I believed.

A few hours later, when I was back in the safety of my house and family, a lone Tamil news channel came out with the stunning news that the CM had passed. It didn’t take long for a few other channels to follow, channels which I had always pegged to be trustworthy, unbiased and dependable. Naturally, I, like the other thousands of people who agitated in front of the hospital and put out eulogies on social media, believed it to be true.

Only, half hour later, we were told by the hospital that she was very much alive. The news channels immediately pretended like nothing even happened, the crowds calmed, social media outraged, and an entire city hung on to hope for an unlikely miracle. She passed away six hours later, but the question still remained – How do you declare the end of a life, a very important life, with the confidence, but without the official word the way these channels did?

Aaron Sorkin, the famed writer behind The West Wing, is also the creator of The Newsroom, a short-lived, but immensely watchable show about the happenings in well, a newsroom. There is a particular episode where the events that play out on screen are uncannily similar to the happenings of last Monday. A congresswoman is shot in the head, and one news channel declares her dead. It isn’t long before the others follow suit based on this one channel’s declaration, and without any real official confirmation. The protagonist, Will McAvoy, (who is essentially a Caucasian Arnab Goswami played by Jeff Daniels) and his team come under intense pressure from their management to follow suit, ‘stay current’, and report that she’s dead. They refuse to. “It’s a person” says one of the producers, Don (Thomas Sadoski). “A hospital declares her dead, not the news”. As it turns out, the Congresswoman survives surgery and lives to tell the tale.

Over the years, I’ve believed less and less in every news channel’s claim that they aim to report only the truth. It’s usually part-truth, part-perspective, and part-masala, which, as I’ve conditioned myself to believe, is alright if it’s inconsequential. On Monday, it was not. Those news channels’ words carried the weight of what could’ve potentially been statewide violence. Their handling of the incident raises a hundred questions, but more importantly, provides the confirmation that it isn’t, and has never been, the truth that news channels of today pursue. It’s TRPs.

Hits and Myths-es

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

About a year ago, I had ranted in this very space about the lack of creativity when it came to mythology and epic based serials on mainstream regional television. It was around that time that Star’s production of Mahabharata, with its opulent sets and six pack flaunting Pandavas had had audiences glued to the television sets again, after all, the lure of a good story, no matter how many it has been retold, is undeniable. The show finally came to an end last year (after a Kurukshetra battle sequence that probably lasted longer than the original battle as described in the epic), but I suppose the over-the-roof ratings and popularity of the show made it clear to the producers that the mythology genre is one that would never get old in our country, thus giving birth to Seedhayin Raman (Siya Ke Raam in Hindi, Janaki Ramudu in Telugu and Seethayanam in Malayalam).

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Seedhayin Raman seeks to narrate the story of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. I know of many books that have given a new lease of life to epics by narrating the story from the view point of a character who is usually sidelined in conventional retellings. Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s excellent novel, The Palace of Illusions, for example, is the story of The Mahabharata as narrated by Draupadi. Randamoozham (Bhima is the title of its English translation) by MT Vasudevan Nair is another classic novel that brings to life The Mahabharata through the eyes of Bhima. Naturally, the idea that a television show, and a prime time television show at that, would be attempting to a showcase a different idea of a beloved epic was something that I found intriguing, and that was enough for me to sit with the show and see what the fuss was about.

Visually, the show is stunning. The sets are lavish, the makeup and costumes are beautiful, and the actors are very good-looking. The writers, though, have taken creative liberties with the story. Ram and Sita, according to Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana, are said to have met for the first time at her Swayamvaram (the ancient Indian practice where the princess chooses her husband among an assembly of potential suitors), but in the serial, they have a run-in much before. There are other changes in the story as well, but they’re minor, and it’s obvious that they’ve been made for the sole purpose of creating more dramatic television.

The Ramayana is very different from the Mahabharata – the former doesn’t possess the multitudes of characters or complexities that the latter does, but it does have its own intricacies. Seedhayin Raman’s treatment of those intricacies, however, are not well done. The story of the Vaanara brothers, Sugriva and Vaali, for instance, is one of the few grey areas in an epic that is mostly black and white. Although Rama sides with Sugriva, both the monkey kings had virtues as well as flaws, but Seedhayin Raman insists on showing Sugriva to be an incorruptible, virtuous king, and Vaali as a power-hungry villain who deserves to die. Seedhayin Raman might be creative in its setting and clever in its style, but without the nuance – without the grey, there’s no colour in its story.

My wait for an original, bold, televised take on Indian mythology continues.

{Seedhayin Raman is currently telecast on Star Vijay, and is also available on HotStar}

Playing The Numbers Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

As I write this, the previous government has been voted back in to power in Tamil Nadu with a result that was last seen in 1984, during the time of M.G.Ramachandran, who, to date, is held as the greatest Chief Minister the state has ever seen. Once the victory and lead was sealed, the national news channels, who had spent the morning poring over multiple analyses, voter mindsets and trends as numbers danced on the screen, switched to telecasting scenes of victory and the jubilance which had pervaded the air around the winning candidate’s office. Reporters bravely stood in the midst of party workers who were working up a frenzy dancing, and shoving sweets in each others mouths. The scenes being played in the regional television channels though, are a little different.

For the last fifteen odd years, the morning of the day the state election results are declared in Tamil Nadu sees a flurry of activity across all its regional television channels. It didn’t matter that their regular programming was general entertainment or films, for on the day of the results, each channel considered itself to be the foremost authority on the numbers that would determine the future of Tamil Nadu’s government. They have experts, hosts, scrolling numbers and expensive productions. They are also the products of political parties, which is why when counting begins, the hosts and political experts on the show talk with great gusto. However, by the time counting stabilises and a winner emerges, in what feels like a twisted reality show, hardly two channels continue their telecast of the election results.

In the year 2006, when the DMK and its allies won in Tamil Nadu, Sun TV (DMK sided) pressed on about the ‘fair verdict’ and the ‘victory of the masses’ while Jaya TV (affiliated to the AIADMK) if my memory serves me right, had shifted to black and white MGR films. Similarly, in the year 2011, the AIADMK was voted into power with a sweeping majority, winning 203 out of 234 seats. As the results were brought into light, Jaya TV declared victory a good one hour before official results were announced, and instead of discussing vote numbers, began a fresh conversation about the greatness of the new Chief Minister, and the good that she was going to do to the state. Sun TV and Kalaignar TV on the other hand, switched from election result analysis to award show reruns. This convenient switch in programming during results day is now a common joke, to the point where people now predict it the moment a slightest trend or lead shows up.

This year though, apart from the fact that the people didn’t bring in the ‘other’ Dravidian party the way they had been all these years, the channels belonging to the losing parties didn’t back down and change programming. Some channels showed delayed numbers which were favourable to the party it was aligned with, some others took the numbers out but persevered with their opinions. Some even started putting out the correct numbers and admitted failure (albeit after crying foul play), which was radical considering the denial we were used to. That television channels continued with election broadcast, I suppose is a good sign, a sign of fledgling maturity that is beginning to show in people, perhaps. I must admit though, it also felt a little odd – after all, what is results day on Tamil television without a disconnected programme showing you how to make the perfect paruppu vadai? I was thinking about this out loud when the internet pointed me to a channel which is the namesake of a certain actor turned politician, whose party had a terrible run this year. This channel, after insisting that no party had won any seats, shifted to a show which detailed the most authentic way to cook brinjals. All was well with the world again.

Sense and Censurability

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I hardly watch television shows on television these days – blame it on the internet, but it just doesn’t make sense to follow a show on television when you’re as impatient as I am. It so happened that sometime during the last week, I was watching a rerun of The New Girl on TV, when I noticed that the subtitles for the show had censored the word “period”. My sister was quick to inform me that when she had been watching a film recently, the channel had censored the word “menopause”. Since when have normal bodily functions been offensive?

Channels have been censoring their content for a while now – cuss and swear words get starred en masse, or replaced without any regard to context (for example, one channel substitutes for the word “shit”, is jerk, resulting in subtitles to the tune of “that piece of jerk”).

The subtitle censoring is barely the tip of the iceberg, though – I have also noticed cleavage (both on people as well as statues) being blurred, which is hilarious because the big blurry patches on screen only draws more attention to the area. Entire scenes of episodes have been taken down for want of apparent decency, which makes me wonder if anyone would be able to even follow shows like Game of Thrones if they were to watch it on Indian television.

The censoring across channels is inconsistent as well, which is probably because each channel has its own team which takes care of cuts, and decides what is offensive, what isn’t, and what could be potentially substituted for all that is offensive. If you are going to censor killing in a show about a serial killer, what is left for the viewer at the other end? More importantly, what is left of the show?

While rampant cuts are being made on international television shows in order to ensure that the channel doesn’t get banned off air (a valid concern, definitely), regional television continues to churn out content which is high in cliche, chauvinism, values which date back to the stone age, and hypocrisy. Pick out any regional drama today, there is sure to be at least one or more evil mothers-in-law, or abusive husbands, or rich women who are diabolic because they have no hobbies.

While I don’t expect regional television content to become hip and urban overnight, it really is disconcerting to see that regulators think it’s perfectly alright to broadcast a scene where a woman gets slapped by her husband (to “set her right”) or decides to stay with her horrendously abusive in-laws because that is a married woman’s place, and the family’s honour is more vital than her own sanity or self respect.

For the longest time, I had been of the opinion that censoring was reserved for all things “western”, but that changed a couple of weeks ago, when I was watching the last hour or so of the Kamal Hassan hit film, Nayakan on TV – there had been scenes cut from the film, more specifically, scenes that involved caste. This incident confirmed that we were indeed, a nation of professional offence takers. After all, Nayakan, has been telecast, repeatedly, in its full glory for the last twenty years or so. Where is this sudden conscience coming from?

Stephen Fry once famously claimed that people who took offence, or said “I am offended by that” were just whining, and that the phrase had no purpose. He also noted that there was only one appropriate response to people who used that phrase. Unfortunately, it has been censored.

On Air With AIB

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

In the year 2013, Cyrus Broacha, one time MTV video jockey and presently, host of the satire news show, The Week That Wasn’t, took on the topic of our current Chief Minister. The episode revolved around her barring Sri Lankan cricketers from playing in the IPL matches in Chennai, and given that it was a news satire show, many jokes were made and it was an entertaining episode overall. Unfortunately for the show’s writers, and for Cyrus, the CM wasn’t amused, and soon enough, they found themselves facing a lawsuit for Criminal Defamation Charges from the Tamil Nadu State Government.
The show’s writers and Cyrus apologised profusely, of course and the case disappeared, but this isn’t the first time that legal action is being taken against remarks that have been made on television. We are a nation that thrives on outrage, to the point where I can actually picture outraging being introduced as an elective in colleges, or as a professional course. While we enjoy laughing at other’s, we seem incapable of laughing at ourselves.
In the other end of the world, John Oliver hosts a show called The Last Week Tonight on HBO, which is now popular all around the world for the carefully researched, (mostly) political insights that he delivers with razor sharp humour. Oliver leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of the perfect political joke – anything and everything that can be made fun of, is, and no politician or any important figure for that matter, is too big to mess with. Every time I watch that show I wonder, when will India get the John Oliver that it deserves? After all, the politics in our country has enough and more material for satire (if not actually resembling satire), but every time I do, I remember television hosts and writers being sued for their opinions, and consequently I get my answer.
If you’ve also been having the same question as I’ve been the last couple of years, then I am here to tell you that all hope is not lost! All India Bakchod, the stand up comedy outfit which was started by four of India’s leading comedians – Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya (who was incidentally, one of the writers on that The Week That Wasn’t episode), have come out with On Air With AIB, a comedy meets news show which airs in two languages, Hindi and English, and over two mediums – online, and on air. The first episode titled “Why Be Good” released this Thursday.
Running for about twenty five minutes, “Why Be Good”, doused in the clever humour that AIB famous for, discusses the difficulties of being a whistleblower in India, and reveals the shocking safety measures and complete lack of witness protection in our country. A second watch (yes, I watched it twice) reveals the careful research that has gone in to presenting the programme. As corny as this sounds, the episode made me think almost as hard as it made me laugh. There were also a few extra segments, like “International News”, which talked about Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment on how it was a Palestine leader, Al-Husseini who was responsible for the sparking the idea of the Holocaust to Hitler, after which the German Chancellor Angela Merkel released a statement saying that Germany accepted this crime against humanity as their very own. “Germany, just reminded a Jew to be sensitive about the holocaust!” quips Rohan Joshi as the audience bursts into laughter.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and I cannot wait for the next nine episodes of this season to come out. Is On Air With AIB, India’s answer to The Last Week Tonight? I can’t say, but it sure as hell is a good start.

{On Air With AIB is presently telecast on Star World. Alternatively, you can watch it online on HotStar}

Epic Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I’m not one to call anything a phenomenon very lightly, least of all, something on airs on screen, but the Mahabharata, is a legitimate television phenomenon. I have been watching the story unfold on television for as long as I can remember watching television. The version which I can remember most clearly, and the one that has left maximum impact on me is BR Chopra’s version of the epic. Yes, the sets were gaudy, the effects, comical, and the acting got a little too dramatic at times, but the writing and the way the episodes were paced ensured that the series was ahead of its time. There was no compromise with regard to story in the Mahabharata of the nineties, for no relationship or character from the original epic was left behind. One would think that taking on all the subplots would make the series translate unfavourably for television, but the writers managed to juggle them all on screen with consummate ease. BR Chopra’s Mahabharata, revolutionised Indian television of the nineties. I have heard many stories of empty streets during the telecast, and about folks with television sets “hosting” people and children from their neighbourhood to watch the show together.

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The second version I remember, was animated – it was called “Pandavas”, and it aired on a channel called Splash, one of the few exclusive to children channels back in the nineties, and by god it was awful. It was 3D animation, and the technology was new at that time, but the execution was just terrible (even by the standards that were prevalent at that time). I must confess though – I didn’t miss a single episode. Two new versions of the Mahabharata has been airing over the last couple of years – one produced by Sun Networks, and the other by Star. I prefer Star’s version – it has with better special effects and modern casting (the hairy paunched Pandavas have been traded in for ones that have flat, muscular abs). Both productions, however, have got people hooked on to their television sets again, and that just proves that the draw of a good story, no matter how many times it has been retold, is undeniable.

Given the wealth of stories we are blessed with in our country, though, I’m disappointed that Indian television isn’t experimenting enough with the “epic” genre of television. When you think about it, the Mahabharata has enough cloak-and-dagger activities, evil lords, kingdoms, creatures and dysfunctional relationships to make Game of Thrones look like an amateur western spin off, and remember that this is a story that has been handed down from a thousand years ago! I would love to see a bold, raw version of it, a version which doesn’t pander to family audiences (and a version, I’m sure, which will never see the light of day).

Apart from experimenting, there is also a great lack of variety in this genre. I’ve seen bits and pieces of series that have covered Hanuman, Shiva, the Ramayana, and I can also vaguely remember one that focused on Krishna. This is again, disappointing, because we are country of stories! There is plenty of material, hundreds and thousands of myths and legends, warriors and princesses, that are waiting to be showcased. Why, for example, isn’t anyone doing a Karna series? Or an “Adventures of Lava and Kusha”? Why isn’t anyone exploring a Vaanara based story line from the Ramayana? And why, oh why isn’t anyone coming up with an original mythological hero or heroine? Because that, would be epic.