There’s not much going these days in the world of Indian television. Everywhere you turn, there’s a naagin flying through a lightning-crossed sky to land at the porch of a shiv mandir – and a whole bunch of entitled internet-happy GenY-ites dishing it up in delight: “Regressiveness, thou shalt burn on the coals of House of Cards!” Which is all very nice and dramatic, but here’s another thought – just how much of the Indian TV viewing audience is really made up of the House of Cards-watching lot like you and me?
It’s a vicious circle. You can point the gun at the guy wearing the director’s cap and demand he make a show for the 21st century – and he’ll probably point it right back at the larger demographic that’s actually consuming his shows (hint: not you and me).
A Bizarre Bipolarity
Actor Rohit Roy, of the evergreen Swabhimaan, agrees a bipolarity exists.
“If being on television for 20 years has taught me anything, it’s that Indian TV is ultimately catering to small cities. Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore… they’re not your audiences, much as you’d like them to be. Which is why ‘outdated’ content is sold to the ‘TV-viewing people’.”
Of Jassi and the World of Saas-Bahu
Rohit Khanna, former director of shows like Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin (a show that was heralded as being radically different from saas-bahus of the time) too tries to explain the machinations behind such moves.
“Jassi did well, it is true – but it never got the ratings of say, a Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi or a Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. At best, it got half as much. After 150-odd episodes, in fact, one felt the pressure to saas-bahu-fy it a bit and it started to look too familiar.”
Khanna, however, refuses to believe that it’s merely the content that is killing TV right now. “It’s not saas-bahu that’s the problem – it’s really bad saas-bahu! You want to do a family drama, go right ahead. Look how well The Affair is doing – and that has all the American elements of a family soap.”
That ‘bad saas bahu’ currently encompasses everything from a strange blue-green fly to a hair-swishing chudail called Manjulika (how original). However, Khanna, while reprimanding the abysmal quality of current Indian TV, is pertinent enough to point out the fallacies in shows abroad too.
“America is obsessed with crime-based shows – and it’s not like they’re all Homeland and CSI!”
Many ‘Hatke’ Shows That Tanked
It’s disheartening to think of the countless shows that haven’t worked. The beautiful, social-stigma-challenging, devil-may-care shows that even in recent years have been given the boot. Ekta Kapoor’s show Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Ye starred Sonali Bendre as Shobha, who finds love in her boss after her husband ill-treats her. The show was abruptly taken off the air. Kapoor had explained at the time:
Yes, I can openly say that they (the audience) are not ready for progressive shows. I have tried it with ‘Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh’ and I can’t even tell you the research that went into it; I really wanted to cry. They just don’t want to see a married woman move on even if her husband has made her life miserable.Ekta Kapoor, in an interview to Mid Day.
Yet another attempted path-breaker – Aadhe Adhoore – was halted in its tracks. The show began by telling the tale of a woman called Jassi whose husband had been gone 5 years on a job in the Middle East. Eventually, she falls in love with her brother-in-law – a love that is returned.
Halfway through its timeline, though, Aadhe Adhoore turned bizarrely on its head because audiences had started baying for Jassi’s blood. (It was interesting to note that the male lead received no such venom, his moral and sexual transgressions totally forgiven.) What began as a very real tale of human vicissitudes culminated in the death of Jassi – in a move bent entirely to the audience’s will.
The answer couldn’t possibly be to hang up one’s shoes and resign oneself to the idea that people will be people and they like what they do.
Actor Manasi Joshi Roy refuses to despair. “It’s not like audiences won’t be accepting of anything new. When we talk of good quality television, we often think back to 15-20 years back. Well, if those shows were working then why wouldn’t they work now? Often, makers and channel heads don’t stop riding the wave because they’re scared of failing.”
Does the Hope Lie in ‘Seasons’?
It is a genuine fear, many industry voices believe – but perhaps one way out is to try ‘seasons’.
If you have a seasonal approach, the crew can take a break to recuperate. They can come back with stronger ideas, market the next season better. With stronger ideas, you can tempt stronger actors (maybe film stars) – like with Anil Kapoor’s 24.Rohit Khanna
Rohit Roy concurs. “People like us watch 13 episodes of House of Cards and then we’re addicted. Who’s to say they won’t work here? There needs to be a system in place for these finite shows.”
Perhaps there’s hope yet in that idea. But if that’s all you’re hanging on, you’re conveniently blinkered. Turn that lens around and train it on you: will you let Shobha and Jassi be?
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)