As the much-awaited Sundance Film Festival, the indie-fest behind gems like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Short Term 12 and most recently, the exhilarating Whiplash, kicked off last month, Robert Redford, the ‘Godfather of Indie film’ stated that television as a medium, is far ahead and more advanced than film-making. ‘Change is inevitable,’ he said. ‘And those passionate about their art are more adaptable to such change. But I feel television has been more open to change than any other medium of expression.’
It is hard to find fault with Redford’s observations. Television, when compared to a medium like Cinema has been more open to experimenting with concepts and production than film. The multiple-camera setup for instance; a technique that used multiple cameras to cover an entire scene was used by television, well before the talkies in Hollywood. Even in terms of representation, Ethel Waters, an African-American had her own TV show in 1939, years before a person of colour had their starring role in film. Not to forget, a large host of actors today are graduates of television including Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, Mila Kunis and George Clooney, among others. Today, foreign television broadcasting is full of rather groundbreaking shows like Game of Thrones, The Americans, Breaking Bad and House of Cards, among others.
The same however, can’t be said about Indian television though. Indian television today is on an insatiable diet of Saas-Bahu monologues and awfully bad reality shows. Which is sad actually because growing up, I distinctly remember the ‘Golden Age of Indian Television’ gracing our TV sets every day. Shows like Mahabharata, Ramayana, Hum Paanch and repeats of classics like Buniyaad, Hum Log and Nukkad were a daily appetite many of us consumed so heartily, that I recall deserted streets on every Sunday morning. And yet, in the wake of all that quality, all that we have to show for today is a wasteful medium, that trumps content over ratings and comfort over experimentation.
Quality of television usually depends on two factors, Content and Production Quality. The latter obviously, depends on a show’s funding and resources. The fact that Indian television rakes in more moolah from their advertising than its shows is evidence of how thin their budgets go.
With regard to content however, shows are created to cater to the audience’s already established tastes and preferences. There is nothing wrong per se with this except the fact that Indian television and its audience has thus, invariably developed a sense of reticence to change, conceptually and otherwise.
There is however a much disregarded reason why the programming is such. The truth is much of the audience such shows caters to reside in the second and third-tier towns and villages of India. For most of them, a tired housewife or a world-weary blue-collar worker, television is a relief, a mode of escapism from the worries of life. A majority of the audience still looks to television for masala entertainment and not, education or ingenuity. That said, the least that is possible in the current template of shows is a dash of originality in treatment. That much, at the very least is something shows must be ready to accommodate.
There is also a prevalent problem with the scripting process on Indian shows. Indian shows are developed for the short-term with no idea about what particular direction the show should or will take. It is only if TRP’s sustain the show that even the idea of going the distance comes to mind. As a result, we have shows which although sharing the same DNA as the shows before it, end up recycling the same thing instead of considering a refreshing treatment of a weary subject. Even though viewership may be on a plateaued rise today, the engagement that characterized the days of Ramanand Sagar is sorely missing.
True enough, once in a while there are shows which try to push the envelope in India. Shows that to their best potential, do make television much more bearable such as Kaun Banega Crorepati, Dekh Bhai Dekh and Taarak Mehta. Even Crime Patrol, with perhaps the best editing on Indian TV today, is generally well received (when it isn’t bungling the sensational cases). And yet somehow, down the line, most such shows tread the line of a family-friendly, happy-ending seeking template, where escapism often supersedes reality. The others which do stick to that line of inventiveness and originality however, succumb to poor ratings and bad viewership (Sarabhai v. Sarabhai). That is the sad reality of the television scene at home.
Clarification: This isn’t a rant against Indian television. In fact, despite everything I find myself watching Indian television, even if it is out of sheer boredom and curiosity. Yet, what must be understood is that we live in a country where a Kyunki… gets almost a decade of broadcasting while Sarabhai v. Sarabhai got only 2 years.
Clarification No.2: This is also not an article deifying foreign television broadcasting. Even they have their shows like Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Vampire Diaries etc. But, they have also had their The West Wing and True Detective. And what made those shows great was the sheer originality of their writing, a talent often ignored in the Indian industry.
Indian television circuit needs a resurrection. A resurrection of ideas, themes and treatment. Yes, once in a while there have been shows that have challenged the envelope of content on TV, but they are too few and far between. We do not have to ape Western shows to put forward good quality programming.
After all, one cannot imagine an Indian Game of Thrones being viewed politely in India. Indian shows must either experiment with originality or foster their ideas differently. The sitcom culture in the U.S is a case in point, with Cheers, M*A*S*H, Seinfeld, FRIENDS, The Big Bang Theory and New Girl all built on the premise of the preceding show and yet, respectable and funny in their own right. That is what Indian television must strive for, so that one day, we can talk about our television shows today, as positively as those of the past.
By- Jibin Mathew George