Between clones of programmes conceived in Western boardrooms and Indian ones that perpetuate various stereotypes, the viewer is yet to experience true empowerment on the small screen.

The streets of Kabul were deserted at 8 p.m. last summer because the Indian soap “Saas bhi Khabi Bahu thi” was being beamed on television sets. A newspaper reporting this phenomenon may have surprised many readers. But it did not surprise me. I had travelled extensively in Pakistan while directing a documentary — “Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj”— on the impact of satellite television in South Asia in 2000 and from Macchcher Colony, Karachi’s biggest slum, to the buzzing marketplace of Peshawar, to the leafy neighbourhoods of Lahore and Islamabad, I had recorded a loyal viewership for Indian soaps and game shows across the border. Pakistan during those years had no satellite television and it was the Indian channels that were exercising monopolistic control over viewers hungry for satellite television images in South Asia. The same hunger was recorded in Bangladesh (for Bengali satellite channels), Sri Lanka (Tamil satellite channels) and Nepal.

Interestingly though, before satellite television came with its glitzy glamorous soaps and game shows, it was Pakistani soaps that were much sought after in markets in Delhi and other North Indian cities as they had a rapt viewership amongst a huge segment of viewers in India. Celebrated as the high quality of parallel cinema in India, these Pakistani soaps sold in the form of VCDs which VCR-owning households watched.

Family entertainment

Indian streets also emptied out on mornings that “Ramayana” aired on the only State-owned channel, Doordarshan, also watched in rapt attention by millions of viewers. “Sustaining family viewing on programmes like ‘Ramayan’, ‘Hum Log’ on One TV and One Channel resulted in a captive viewer in those early years for Doordarshan — a phenomenon that got totally fragmented when cable television came with it’s multiple channels and Indian homes began to get multiple TV sets,” says Akhila Sivadas, from the Delhi-based Centre For Advocacy and Research (CFAR) which has done several studies on Indian television.

The last 50 years of Indian television, which saw the birth of India’s State-controlled channel Doordarshan in the late 1950s and which held monopoly for nearly three decades to the opening up of the skies with satellite channels which today go up to 400 channels, has been a roller coaster ride for both the ever-increasing eyeballs in India and it’s neighbours. The interesting cross-border pollination in South Asia can best be described as Good, Bad and Ugly.

From serials like “Hum Log”, “Tamas”, “Nukkad”, “Malgudi Days” and even “Rajani” on the State-owned Doordarshan to it’s satellite avatars in soaps like “Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi” and the entire K series by Ekta Kapoor that became synonymous with Indian masala, these soaps commanded high TRPs . “Most of these soaps were highly sensational, highly voyeuristic and highly ambitious — issues of identity, entitlement were explored while depicting the Indian family in turmoil. It also took the clock back by showing the Indian woman as conventional,” says Sivadas adding that “these clichéd genres however created a stock of loyal viewers while others came and went away disappointed.” Adored by certain segments of viewers and lambasted by others, these soaps came to stay and dominated for over a decade. It is only of late that there is a shifting of gears to more socially relevant soaps like “Balika Bodhu”, “Radha ki Ladkiyan Kar dikhayenge”, “Lado”, “Ladies Special”, “Antara” and others. The Indian woman however remained central in the soaps as they remained the principal viewers of this segment of programming with news and sports being categorised as the programmes that men watched.

“From soaps to reality shows it was like a seamless transition for Indian television producers,” says Akhila Sivadas. Reality shows first surfaced and tested the waters in the form of game-based shows like “Kaun Banega Crorepati”. Anchored by Amitabh Bachchan, KBC created television history in terms of reach and TRPs within the very first week of being on air. A remake of the British show “Who wants to be a millionaire?” it did effectively what “Ramayan” had done earlier to viewers — emptied the streets and brought the entire family back in front of the television sets from the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai to the leafy bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi. Only the object of worship had changed — from God to Money. Its success inspired the graph for reality shows which then took several forms from game-based shows to talent hunts like “Sa Re Ga Ma”, “Nach Baliye”, “Aja Naach le” and “Indian Idol”.

Mass participation

These mass-mediated shows that involved hundreds of people from the aspiring small towns of India did in a sense lead to a democratisation of television and gave a false sense that the people actually controlled the medium. However, time and again, scams on how the SMS polls were conducted showed how it was not as level a playing field as it was made out to be and things were not above board.

Of late the graph of reality shows has been climbing with programme makers and channels lining up for such programming to shore up sinking TRPs and keep their channels afloat. The motto is clearly to create, shock and awe. The more bizarre and more voyeuristic, the better the chance of it getting on the channel. Reality shows like “Bigg Boss”, “Rakhi Ka Swayamvar”, “Khatron Ke Khiladi” and “Sach Ka Saamna” have had their share of voyeuristic viewership and also lambasting critique. While “Khatron Ke Khiladi” got adverse publicity when one of the participants nearly got killed with water in his lungs, giving rise to critique about “cruel entertainment”, “Sach Ka Saamna” had Indian parliamentarians across political parties demanding that it be taken off air.

Information Minister Ambica Soni, speaking at a seminar on 50 years of Indian television organised by Public Service Broadcast Trust (PSBT) in September this year, said that she had sleepless nights as her colleagues from Parliament put her on the mat demanding that the programme be dragged off air. The programme makers had in turn defended themselves saying they were only depicting Indian reality. The minister warned programme makers to keep in mind the sensitivity of people while putting out such reality shows or the government would be forced to act.

The jury, however, is still out on reality-based shows on Indian television. In fact it is out on Indian television in its present avatar itself. Fifty years after television came to India, Indian audiences are caught between programming that is still being dictated by western boardrooms based on cloned shows that have worked abroad and Indian serial producers who continue to script along the patriarchal view of the Indian family. The audience is restless — they have tasted empowerment and demand it on their television screens as well.

Nupur Basu was a former Senior Editor with NDTV and is presently an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker.