“I need a job.” I confessed to the husband the day after we got back to Mumbai from our trip to Chennai. “This idleness is making me dumber every day.” The realization hit me when I found myself getting fascinated by a new Indian soap just because of the eye candy value of the lead actor.
“Well I hope you now appreciate a character like Bertie Wooster,” replied the husband with a straight face. “He does nothing all day and needs help doing it!” I smiled.
The soap in question piqued my interest in Chennai because my sister-in-law was watching it. I was slowly drawn in to it by the strong portrayal of the male lead. And then I was hooked when I found out that the show was adapted from the 1980’s Pakistani drama Dhoop Kinare. It took me back. In the late 80’s a flood of PTV dramas and comedies came across the border and I remember my mother and an aunt renting the tapes and watching them in the afternoons. When I mentioned this to my mom, she told me that it used to be a great show. I was excited that there was finally some programming on Indian television worth watching, especially since the screenplay was being adapted by the writer of one of my favorite Bollywood movies, Rang De Basanti. I watched the entire series of Dhoop Kinare (DK) online. It is a warm story, with precisely etched characters, beautiful dialogues and tight scenes. And the poetry! Interludes of exquiste Urdu poetry, to convey both humor and romance are the highlight of the screenplay. I didn’t even understand half the Urdu but the delivery was so sweet that I am tempted to learn Urdu just to understand the poetry. There are only four or five sets in which the play progresses. Distractions of filminess are kept to a minimum. Yet it is the kind of story you live with and feel sad when it ends, but also feel oddly comforted that it ended when it should have.
The entire play DK is about 550 minutes long, split into 10 episodes of roughly 55 minutes each. The modern Indian version has probably been on for that much time already and only progressed a fifth of the way into the story. Why? Because every single scene is opened up, every thought in every character’s head is explained as if the audience is a bunch of idiots. There are frequent excursions from the original to add drama and filminess. If, as the writer admitted, they are aiming for 200-250 episodes of the show, they have to add frills and bells and whistles and slow down the original story. The screenplay also has to be adapted to deal with the weekly rise and fall of the TRPs. Thus far the best parts of the Indian show are those sequences that have been lifted as is from the original!
This got me thinking about why it is that programming on Indian television has gone downhill. From Buniyaad, Hum Log, Circus and Fauji of the late 80s and early 90s to the Sailaab, Saans and Kora Kagaz of the late 90s to the shows that are on television today, who is to blame for this decline? I watched a few episodes of a couple of the popular soaps, just to see if I could relate in any way to the lead female characters. I wanted to understand just what kind of personalities these women have. I found one-dimensional characters with the choice of good or bad, weak or strong, accommodating or arrogant . Emotions – anger, sadness, fear – run wild, compromising the honesty of the story and the character. The situations are unnatural and incredible. Who live in such elaborate sets? What people actually dress in such gaudy clothing while rolling rotis? Do women wear so much jewelery on a daily basis? Is it the viewer who is demanding this kind of programming? Or is it the television producers like Ekta Kapoor and the advertisers who are forcing us to like it by their hype and glitz?
“Most of the people in our country are emotional. We don’t believe in saying things directly.” This was the hubby’s opinion when I discussed the matter with him. He has a point there. We will do anything to avoid unpleasantness and confrontation. Emotion itself though is not the issue. It is the fact that the idea of life portrayed is so conventional, predictable and unreasonable that it is reduced to a caricature. I mean, if your future was on the line, wouldn’t you – a young, educated girl- do everything you could to ensure your dad didn’t forcibly marry you off? Or would you be a good girl and stand by and watch?
The answer of course is somewhere in between and one which is very hard for me- a middle-class, educated, cosmopolitan, young mother and homemaker – to know. Because it is difficult for me, being in the minority to fathom what kind of lives the majority of people in this country live. Perhaps it is very difficult for young women in this country – even educated ones – to stand up to their fathers without hurting them. Because we have enough evidence that fathers can be quite stubborn – I have a couple of friends whose fathers made them wait several years before agreeing to their choice of husbands!
The whole of last year the only show I watched was season 7 of Grey’s Anatomy which I downloaded off the Internet. I love hospital dramas. Sure Grey’s also has extreme situations. Their characters are put through incredible trauma too and come out of it alive – and sometimes dead. I am not questioning the likelihood of events, that is what drama is often about. It is the treatment of the scenes and the behavior of the characters in those circumstances that is, to me, real in most Western dramas and completely unrelatable on Indian Television.
(Continued in Part 2)