FTII Protest: Message in the Medium
Increasing politicisation of content on the big and small screens is glaring, yet precious little noise is being made about it
Abeer Kapoor Delhi
In the past two months, the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, have been protesting against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s chairman. They feel Chauhan, famous for playing the part of Yudhishtir in Mahabharata (1990), does not have the credentials to head the prestigious school. He got the job because he joined the BJP some years ago, they allege. Actors and directors in the film industry have backed the students, but this messy face-off raises larger questions about the independence of the arts, television and cinema and their politicisation over the years.
It also reveals a major contradiction. While the students may chant slogans condemning Chauhan, whose achievements pale in comparison to past stalwarts like Shyam Benegal, those graduating from this institution have taken no position on the content of the programmes being shown on satellite TV – the politicisation of which stands testimony to attempts by the present government to aggressively saffronise the country’s film and broadcasting institutions.
Whether or not Chauhan is a saffron stooge, the bottom line is that the industry that will provide FTII graduates with jobs uniformly reflects the needs and cultural values of the majority community.
Indian television entertainment will seemingly never change, offend, or revolt. Its limits will be set by middle class morality, which it will internalise and proselytise. The business is defined by the need to give the people what they want, so filmmakers and producers are discouraged to depart from the ‘formula’. A look at our television programming makes it amply clear that the formula functions to uphold middle class morality above all.
As Arvind Rajagopal writes in his 2001 book, Politics After Television, Indian society is still divided between those who embraced and those who rejected the secular ideology of the post-independence State – or, more loosely, between the secularists and the Hindu nationalists. A heterogenous popular culture could not survive amid this stark differentiation. Instead, popular culture began to be pulled in the directions that would lead to maximisation of the votebank.
This rupture in society has a definite class bias. Many of those who cannot identify with Indian soaps look to the West for their entertainment. The rest, expectedly, watch Indian programmes on popular channels such as Star, Zee, Colours and Bindaas. This, in turn, further widens the cultural differences between the two groups, as the Westernised become more Western and the ‘Indian’ more traditional.
In recent years, in the Indian movie business, alternatives to the formula-driven Bollywood films have broken out of the art house, thanks to the rise of the multiplex and the concomitant rise of video sharing websites such as YouTube and Vimeo. Examples of such cinema can be found in the works of several directors – from Adoor Gopalakrishnan to Anurag Kashyap. However, the smaller screen rarely gives us serious alternatives to the formulaic writing. Instead, it is increasingly constructed in a way that is antithetical to the urban, or modern life.
However, some channels do make concerted efforts to break the mould but are either coerced through complaints, letters and protests to draw back, or they themselves, in an attempt to be ‘progressive’, fall prey to conservative sentiment. Feeding into or creating stereotypes of women that can be palatable or not, such as ‘rocker women’ who play the guitar, and for their creativity smoke – which again will scandalise many.
Take, for instance, the channel Bindaas, which claims to be oriented toward the progressive and restless youth. It has a television show called Halla Bol, which deals with problems facing women in society. Depicting conflicts arising from everything, from the influence of godmen to sexual harassment, the show attempts to illustrate how women can assert themselves. It does this not by overdramatising the plot lines but by creating a checklist for women that would attract attention. In one episode, a woman who is a flight attendant is harassed by a man. To take revenge on him, she joins a political party and pushes the envelope far beyond what both the law and society would find normal. In turn, what is being said is that women have to push themselves to extremes to find retribution.
While Bindaas claims its programming is more attuned to the pulse of the youth, Zee, Star and other channels that cater to the Hindi belt make no bones about their commitment to formulaic writing. Largely conservative, their programmes feed a sense of outrage amongst the ever-growing and ban-loving middle class. Shows have been known to depict men betting their wives away in a game of gambling, and the wives being sent to strangers’ rooms for a night.
A report released by the Indian Broadcast Foundation, under the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, which censures complaints against programming on national television, says complaints will be censured according to ‘the evolving social milieu and acceptable community standards’. A cursory look at the complaints reveals a highly conservative society; on many counts, the negotiation between the foundation and the channels can go either way but the idea of this initiative is that the television industry can ‘self-regulate’.
Many have asked for scenes from television shows to be cut because they feel they offend, or intend to ridicule Hindu gods; women being gangraped on-screen will have a negative impact on the youth. These complaints show a society that is in itself resisting change, and forcing television shows to bow to their demands.
The small screen has always pandered to what social scientists call ‘the agenda’ – issues of concern to the viewing audience. In the past decade or so, the issue that has driven the television industry is the perceived conflict between family values and India’s increasing openness to the West. Demographics, as well as the continuing conflict between secularism and Hindu nationalism, dictate that family values, on TV at least mean the values of Hindu families.
The most popular TV serial of the post-liberalisation period has been Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, which started in 2000 and coincided with the first stint of the BJP in power. The show was hugely popular, and portrayed the life of a Gujarati family in Mumbai. It was about the conflict within a family, and the hardships a newly-wed woman has to face in her husband’s house. In this soap opera you saw the reinforcement of patriarchal sentiments in the family structure, women who were expected to be bejewelled, cook and appear perfect at any time of the day. They were supposed to take all the abuse and mental torment that came their way in a marriage and, even if they were to retaliate, they were to do so within the ‘holy’ social bond of marriage.
This portrayal of a strong and resilient family resounds through the scripts of Indian television shows. Characters conform to stereotypical roles of what society sees as normal. Any deviance is mocked to the point of disgust. Effeminate men and homosexual relationships are played insensitively for laughs, while the devotees of godmen, stay-at-home wives and overbearing mothers-in-law are presented as natural, inevitable and correct. Even women who work are depicted as aberrations or fetishised so that they seem unreal.
In this respect, television has always been a tool for the saffron brigade, whether by happenstance or by design. The airing of the Mahabharata in the years preceding the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, for instance, helped garner support for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Similarly, the regressive themes of the majority of Hindi soaps and the tasteless caste-based humour of the popular comedy channels conspire to reinforce skewed gender roles and other Hindu traditions in sore need of revision.
Censorship, too, contributes to the smallmindedness of the small screen. Seemingly every other word is censored from programmes, ranging from ‘sex’, ‘condom’ and ‘beef’ to the names of liquor brands. This censorship seeks to impose a ‘safe’ and conservative morality upon art, so that it tells you how to think instead of provoking you to think for yourself. When TV serials do attempt to explore ‘social problems’, they inevitably succumb to absurd plot twists for the sake of ill-defined TRPs, which then remove the focus from the core of the social problem and it lapses sadly into disturbing parochialism.
For example, Balika Vadhu, a TV show which ostensibly deals with the problems of child marriage, hardly focuses on the trauma associated with being wed as a child. All the characters seem to live functional lives until the real villain appears – divorce. Thus, a conservative message, the ‘sacredness’ of marriage, supplants the progressive one promised by the show’s producers.
These shows almost always depict middle class Hindu families. They mutilate and misinterpret history to glorify a mythical golden age before the Muslim invasion of the Indian subcontinent. If serials such as Jodha Akbar find their way to the smaller screen, they encounter violent resistance from religious outfits that demand they be banned on some pretext or the other. Many times producers, too, pull their names from these serials.
Now, however, alternatives to broadcast and satellite TV and even the multiplex are rapidly growing. A new generation of directors and producers is relying less on television and cinema as a medium and exploring the limits of the Internet. This development represents a major break from the way programmes are to be viewed in the coming days. Here again we see a serious divide between the two worlds created by new information technology and its users and consumers. At the same time, although the traditional Indian soap is trying to hang on to the traditional ways of storytelling, the growing popularity of American television, where there is a greater focus on weaving a yarn around contemporary issues, is already presenting a major challenge. Judging by the immense popularity of these imported shows, and the alienation of the Westernised youth from Indian entertainment TV, Indian producers will have to adapt to survive.