Indian TV is segueing breezily into riveting dramas, a category that got short shrift on the idiot box for more than three decades. The last time a TV renaissance happened was in the middle of eighties, when the national channel Doordarshan was invigorated by its colour palette and when the spigot of money was turned on after the Asian Games, a sporting spectacle that Indira Gandhi was keen to host to enhance India’s prestige in the world and to enable her son Rajiv to sharpen his political profile and polish up his image as an exacting doer.
A bevy of colourful and slice-of-life soaps made their way into a black-and-white Indian consciousness. Some history underlay these dramas and they, as more and more swiftly debuted on the small screen, laid the Buniyaad of a TV revolution that swept away the socialist cobwebs in the offices of the national broadcaster and also shook the ideological moorings of Indians and replaced their bondage to constricting socialist realism with a whiff of freedom from musty ideologies that were past their sell-by date. In Bollywood, the slice-of-life had appeared in the 70s with directors like Basu Chatterjee, who died this week, bringing everyman characters like Amol Palekar who competed serenely with larger-than-life angry young men blazing their way to success.
So when clones of Amol Palekar started their shaky life on TV screens, they first flickered for some time before establishing their normal and staid presences. Socialist Realism, which India had copiously borrowed from the Soviets along with their moribund economic template, celebrated the smallness of the yokel life and projected it onto the big screen in a way it looked tawdry and fake. The Rajiv years, after the ghastly killing of Indira, were trying to yank India out of its socialist slumber. The miniscule middle class, whose teeth still glistened from using socialist toothbrushes, had developed a small appetite for aspiration. The middle-class aspiration was not to acquire a 70mm personality and to go fire and brimstone at the system, but to slowly climb the greasy pole of life. The aim was to somehow get by, to achieve small successes in professional life, to own a house and give a roof to your dreams. Moderation, not magnificence, was the temper of the times.
And so were the dramas on TV. Buniyaad went three decades back into history and showed how partition tore up many families. Its canvas was huge, but the lives of its characters were ordinary and dealt with routine pain, the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi was more about daily joie de vivre than jejune lectures on life the angry young men gave to a system gone awry. Nukkad brought the street to us, with all its salience and smartness and salaciousness.
Then TV became infested with religiosity and the bigness and preachiness returned with a fervor for a few tumultuous years in India. This was a rerun of the socialist realist themes though in a different garb. The same moralising, the same hectoring, the same solipsism -- all of it returned cloaked in saccharine religiosity.
Then TV changed as the leader of the free world put together an alliance and rained bombs to push back an insolent middle-east dictator who, fancying himself a modern-day Saladin, was bitten by the conquering bug. TV quickly gravitated to news and every grenade and every bomb became the objects of camera attention. It all looked surreal and gory and TV was full of immaculate explosions that rippled out from the small screen into homes. This birthed gritty realism. This was a Hemingway moment for TV. The language changed, the syntax altered, the grammar became looser, the editing jerkier and more Godardian.
The Sopranos came into being in America and changed TV forever. It brought the Coppola chutzpah to the small screen. Then David Simon, a crime reporter for Baltimore Sun, brought The Wire to the small screen. And life, with all its seediness and scandals and scams, exploded on the small screen. A drama like Breaking Bad, which is now a conversational badge of honour among the upper and middle classes everywhere, would not have been possible without The Sopranos and The Wire.
In India, Bollywood, in the nineties, went crazy with silliness and sophomoric sizzle. The Indian TV went a step ahead and dissolved into sentimental, brightly lit mush. The men talked impudent gibberish and the women veiled and wailed. The dialogues came loaded with misogynism and women viewers felt emasculated watching belligerent displays of a savage patriarchy that didn’t comport well with the neoliberal ethos the country was fast embracing. Neoliberalism was an economic philosophy of uncontrolled freedom, of no full stops, of neon-lit cities, of rocketing aspirations, of grandiloquent salons, of single-malt bars, of door-opening bluster. Instead of hightailing to haute couture, Indian TV, strangely, wrapped itself in chiffon sarees. Instead of talking Davos, it conversed about trifling dalliances. Instead of aspiring, it started perspiring under heavy makeup. Instead of heading outdoors with confidence, it sat indoors meekly with its timid conservativeness.
It is now, with the advent of streamers, the TV is beginning to find its language. It is slowly leaving its shallow language of shimmery sarees and sugary sentiments and adopting, with a strange hesitancy, gritty realism. The unmistakable smell of hesitancy can still be seen in the formulaic structures. It may have grasped the new grammar of realism, but, in its weird obsession for unrequired obscenities and a predilection for gratuitous sex, it has a big store of bloopers. The language looks attractive, but, off and on, the viewer comes across formula-driven errors that make her wince. Like a sudden nasty bone in well-made keema, these bloomers spoil the experience of binge consumption. Television is now so desperately hungry, said Gore Vidal, for material that they’re scraping the top of the barrel. Well, in India, they are still at the bottom of the barrel, but it is good that they at least have the hunger now.