Ruminating on the relationship between TV, cinema and culture

O, the glorious days of TV!

As I was writing the last blog on Kunal Karan Kapoor and Indian TV, I remembered the shows on TV as I was growing up. When TV was only one, then two channels of Doordarshan. There was even a time when all programming stopped after 10pm and I used to think that the late night shows on New Years eve were the greatest treat ever and prepared well for them with an afternoon siesta too!  Who knew at that time, that I am probably a genetic ‘night owl’,(yes they exist, Craig Venter says so), and don’t need even one coffee cup to stay awake till 2am, then maybe one to stay awake till 4am or simply a good book. ( it is harder after that, I think its time for the ‘larks’ to take over by then!).

I remember watching Hum Log, I even caught a few episodes of the re run when I could actually follow it, the first version was just some moving images I witnessed with my parents, I suppose, but I remembered the background score. Then I remember being sad when the last episode of Nukkad, or was it Naya Nukkad? being aired, as the friendly members of a neighbhourhood of a small town bade good bye to the viewers. I devoutly watched He- Man of course, followed by Ramayana and later Mahabharat. I remember we checked to see if our hotel had a TV room ( yes, I was probably 7, and all hotel rooms didn’t have TV) so that we didn’t miss Mahabharat while we were in Baroda. I think the mythological series tried to do their best, but may not have been really good. However in the recent years, the mythological series ( Veer Shivaji and Chandragupta maybe exceptions for the time being) tend to rely on whatever works with the audience, instead of getting ahead with the series, as though these stories have not  been written hundreds of years ago! We had calculated political strategy in Chanakya (1991), enacted with great prowess.While story telling never got better after Vikram aur Betal. Then came Flop Show, which probably has a record of reruns in Indian TV, and Jaspal Bhatti introduced to me the parody of famous songs I found totally hilarious. I vaguely remember another show, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to understand it, when Aman Verma was a newbie ( yes, he used to be a good actor until he just became a terrible host and a worse megalomaniac). It also had Mita Vashisht, who is still pretty great: Pachpan khambe lal diwarein ( google search, I honestly didn’t remember the name), which was a love story that actually had a story.

More people will remember Malgudi days (1986, rerun 2004) (which I have seen multiple times), Buniyad, even Chitrahaar. Discovery of India : ‘Bharat ek khoj'(1988), deserves an honorable mention, I still have not been able to get my hands on that DVD set. I love Raghuveer Yadav, who is the absolute best, be it in comedy in, be it a small town man tending to daydream any time as and in Mungerilal ke Haseen Sapne (1989-90) or the clever Mullah Nasiruddin who is fooled by no one and can trick anyone, he is marvelous in films, he sings soulfully, there are no words that can do justice to that man, in my mind, he should have been born in LA.  Then came a  few detectives, best by far was Byomkesh Bakshi, but others like Karamchand and  Dev Anand’s brother and Saurabh Shukla in Tehkikat were also memorable. Later there were lots of countdown shows ( that I was guilty of watching, like Superhit Muqabla). Kaun Banega Crorepati took over Bournvita quiz contest, because anyone with  a lot of luck and some knowledge of mythology could win a lot of money and more importantly meet Mr. Bachchan. KBC also sort of started the trend that made TV less beneath the level of movie stars! Since Ekta Kapoor’s regime began, I literally wished someone would bomb the planet and I could hitchhike to another galaxy.. Alas, that was not to be. And it is not her fault, per se. Without extending this list, it is clear that we had a golden era, then have somehow lost all the gold.

Looking at the film industry, the transition is not that clear. We have had good cinema, off and on, more dependent on the directors- so Satyajit Ray (active yrs 1955-1991), Guru Dutt (1950s), Raj Kapoor (1950s,60s70s even 80s), Shyam Benegal and others who I am sorry to have missed.  Then years of actor (read ‘super star’) led films which would have been never ending, were thankfully dotted with Sanjeev Kumar, Utpal Dutt, Amol Palekar and others, some humor and good movies, like Angur, Naya Din Nayi Raat, Golmaal, and even some star studded movies like Chupke Chupke, that did not fall into the abysmal ‘main tera khoon pee jaunga’category .

Now we have Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Vishal Bhardwaj  (thank dear GOD in heaven for that) so that even when the dialogues are in Hindi, I sometimes have to think about what they could mean, even when the cities are known and the people familiar, I wonder if I really know anyone at all, or was everyone something else entirely. God in his heaven smiled evilly when I saw Lagaan and even looked around in the theater to see I was the only one squirming in her seat. Ashutosh Gowariker thinks he can come up with his own personal genre of extremely long period movies with no or little bearing on real history and get away with something that has absolutely no appeal to anyone who has read any good book or seen a really good movie in their lives ( or maybe thats just me). Veteran actors do try and take on a variety of challenging roles these days, wherever possible, so film industry is going more forward than backward, I think.

However, one cannot disregard the success of Rowdy Rathore (I had barely gotten over the tremors after seeing a few minutes of Dabangg) , it has all the basic ingredients of a hit, known to work ever since David Dhawan tried his hand at comedy and ruined it for everyone, and what a surprise, it still works! Though at least they don’t purport to appeal to a worldwide audience. Every one has got to make a living.

Nonetheless, there were and are often respites in cinema, on the other hand, Indian television productions have been on a downward spiral for 20 yrs now. It probably is not worth the time and effort for producers to try something different that may not eventually satisfy the TRP requirements. It is more about survival, so if people like to believe that a group of sexy young people are actually trying to survive in the wild while wearing close to nothing, and more importantly doing even less that looks realistic, then that is easily copied.

It is probably the cost of production of movies that drove making of nonsensical, superstar led musicals, that would at least make up what was spend on them- but the music in many films in the 60s and 70s was the saving grace, unlike in the mid-late 80s or 90s, before A.R. Rehman came and it is getting tardier.. I think bollywood music and television have suffered more for the lack of creativity or innovation, or maybe just pure bravado as no one is trying to be different any more. (Except Dhanush of course) S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman, Salil Choudhury, O.P. Nayyar, Madan Mohan are surely sorely missed. Thanks to the talent shows though, we have plenty singers!

But I, like everyone else, have been busy living a grown up life with no time for art, nor time to feel a sense of loss.

Meanwhile in the US

I  also have been watching American shows, and if there was any proof that we certainly should NOT emulate the US blindly, we just have to look at their television. None of their shows, not even the most acclaimed ones in the last 40 yrs can be compared to Malgudi days, in my mind. They did have a good Hitchcock series way back in the 50s and of course their TV documentaries often capture the essence of the topic, but not their television shows. They have had good scripts for sitcoms, like Seinfeld, then variety shows like Saturday Night Live. But they also have had the tiresome Friends, which is very popular even now in some circles and I cannot say that I have not watched all the seasons, but I will claim mental instability as my defense. These days or years it has been How I met your mother and The Big bang theory, both of which started out quite well, but now are taking on the soap opera fever, that no one in the whole wide world seems to be capable of escaping ( Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha, producers, please please please don’t fall into that trap!). But I have to concede that their comedy shows are in general quite nice, especially the animations (like South Park) that the Indian audience is not quite ready to embrace yet. Their children themed shows, also used to be quite nice, like Sesame Street, but the new Disney Channels with Miley Cyrus and everyone -else- who- would- like- to- be- her, hardly produce anything to look up to. I had Potli Baba ki, Hum Panchi ek dal ke which were great too! I am not informed enough of the cartoon productions, unfortunately, to comment.

If there weren’t enough reasons to condemn the US, the introduction of reality shows would be enough, the ludicrous Survivor series is nothing compared to ‘The Bachelor‘ or ‘Bachelorette’ and of course the “Real housewives” and the millions of fans following the Kardashians. I am not even getting into the religious channels that deny evolution and the evangelists that deny science. India’s ‘ MTV Roadies’ and ‘Big Boss’ make me want to cry! I have no opinion on American or Indian idol, song and the dance competitions. They do give people hope, that they too can make it and obviously require talent to actually be worth backing with money. Additionally, the only true power to the people that I can see, is in voting for who they want to win in talent shows.. Because they actually watch them, and they definitely don’t follow the news or politics and law making, social issues. Should there be a better use of their time, certainly, but can there be? Us Orwellians think not, not unless all possible avenues of mind numbing alternatives have been tried and by then hopefully a more intelligent form of life would have evolved or targeted Earth.

Hollywood movies, unlike my belief when I was in India, also tend to be formula based. While bollywood had the rich girl-poor guy love stories or family feuds with the children of feudal families in love, finishing with action sequences, hollywood makes I don’t know how many movies with teenage geek boy or girl in love with the current high school heart throb, or the handsome rake falling for  a next door girl who then plans a wedding and going strong for decades now: some unknown (but smart, dashing, righteous cop like) guygirls can only help that guy with their bodies, saves the world without wanting any fame or glory for himself. There is also the never ending sycophancy to one or the other sport (baseball or American football)- though there have been good movies ( The Blind Side, Invictus) that developed the characters outside of the ‘sport’, with a greater theme than a losing team suddenly coming out as winners in the final match against all odds,because of a transformed alcoholic turned inspirational coach and one gifted team member.  Boxing movies are often good ( The Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter) though.  The more recent ones on or about friends with benefits seems to be trend that is also not nearing an end.

Hollywood actors, however are way ahead of most, if not all, Indian perhaps Asian? actors. There in fact can be little said to even compare them and I am not going to be the one saying it. Once established, they take cherry projects, change personalities, accents, diction,body types,  songs and dance, ( and the actresses change a lot more !)  to be the character and while I have never believed that anyone should be paid that much for entertainment, they do work very hard and are immensely talented and my favorites Kevin Spacey, Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and to a certain extent even Robert Downey Jr. (ok, he is really cute), can do no evil!

But a lot of these stars, don’t even spend most of their time in the continent. And the more ‘popular’ stars are always at rehab or divorce courts, and some really good ones even OD on drugs. I don’t know of an Indian movie star, with a status like Heath Ledger, ODing on drugs, though they do tend to have car accidents and run over a few homeless people here and there. However, drunken brawls are not unknown of in the US and many of the stars probably never drive unless drunk.

Kill me now..

Television, what??

As far as TV and cinema mirroring the culture of a  place, I find myself reluctantly agreeing. The more Indians emulate the US, the more our TV and movies become like theirs. No matter how much more potential India, just by merely existing for the thousands of years, has for stories, the human angle there remains almost untapped. NBC tried to tap it with the completely inane and atrocious Outsourced.  But NBC also airs 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, and has giving the world talents like Fey and Poelher who are both smart and funny and exceptional in comic timing. I forgive them.

I would like to see if  Indian TV makes a come back- it is about time. I would like for  us to stop this mindless worshiping of the west, denying our true roots and closing our eyes to the plethora of really beautiful stories we have. Its not just emulating the west, I think in an attempt to preserve our ‘culture’ we are being overtly zealous and over- compensating, and over- dramatizing the idea of the Indian ‘family’. With never ending saas bahu series with two decade jumps in EVERY show, glamorous chawls and insipid, stupid characters, conniving aunts and ignorant saints, lets get a little more real, like  NBTNMKK. We have a solid foundation, we should neither be afraid of nor worship the western influence. We need to hold on to our identity, not change or lose it, neither be afraid of changes in society which is a natural order of things. Indian writers have influenced the west, we all know Slumdog Millionaire, we can try to find more of our own to project on screen..Or put a new angle to a British or American story ( Mungerilal was inspired by a western book by James Thurber). While I personally may not read Chetan Bhagat’s books, they are still a lot better than ‘Sex and the city’ movies. Amir Khan’s Satyamave Jayate seems to have a lot of potential of bringing social issues to the public, that may just watch the show for him.  I wonder where that will lead. I for one, am ready for change.

NOTE: If you have reached here- I realize this is rather long, but it is being published in  in parts.. From next time, perhaps I will try that 🙂

6 Comments on “Ruminating on the relationship between TV, cinema and culture

  1. Good trip back to Nostalgia lane. I loved Malgudi days. And I miss Bournvita quiz contest. All the reality shows and the Saas-Bahu operas are killing me. I just end up watching reruns of Scrubs, Raymond or Bing Bang theory. The new one Parenthood and Raising hope are very good

    Yashraj films ventured into TV for a couple of years back trough some good and different shows like and Powder which were mature and not lound and crass. But unfortunately they succumbed to the Rowdy rathore and Dabangg majority and killed those shows.

    • Thanks a lot! I think bournvita quiz contest is back, when I was in India i saw some new commercials advertising it’s return. It may look a lot different though.
      I personally dont like Parenthood, it’s melodrama and quite unrealistic. But some of my friends watch it. The first few seasons of scrubs were very good!
      Quality is rare in everything. So why should TV and cinema be any different I suppose. But I wish they were. Art in any form should be superior to just the average. Thanks again!

  2. Malgudi days was unforgettable. I just loved watching it then and even now. Honestly tv viewing had just become next to boring when all the saas bahu serials entry happened. Thank god for giving a beautiful serial like NA BOLE TUM NA MAINE KUCH KAHA. Its so so real every character has its own place.No hi -fi costumes etc etc As someone said its not easy to make people watch a 3 hour movie but its not at all an easy task to make peole sit for a half an hour serial everyday !!!!!! KKK MAGIC OF COURSE !!!!!!

  3. long back i read dis one super liked it…truly 1 can neva frgt dat era of television…so many good memories wid lots of emotions…wonderful days…again thumbs up for Ur magnificent writeup …:))

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