Rethinking the idiot box

Rethinking the idiot box

By SWATI SINGH | | 16 July, 2016
India’s entertainment industry is so completely dominated by TV that even Bollywood now plays second fiddle to primetime shows in terms of viewership figures. Going by pure numbers, the sector has seen rapid expansion over the last decade. But to what extent has Indian TV actually evolved? Swati Singh finds out.

Everyone today realises the immense commercial potential of Indian television. If there’s one sector of the entertainment industry that has over the previous few decades proved invariably lucrative — often in the face of a general slowdown — it is popular TV. So it stands to reason that top entrepreneurs-turned-producers now want a slice of this pie, as do some of the biggest Bollywood stars who seem to be more keen on getting primetime slots — as hosts, producers or actors in widely-watched TV shows — than appearing on the big screen.

Basically, it’s a numbers game. Television shows, with their ever-increasing TRPs, generate higher viewership figures than your average blockbuster can ever dream of. If the unit of success in the business of entertainment is an eyeball, TV seems to be getting them all. According to census reports, between the years 2001-2011, there was a 75% growth in TV viewership figures across rural India. That’s an astonishing figure — and it explains why the number of regional channels being aired in the country has gone so far up.

The case with urban India is no different. In the past few years, new mainstream channels — mostly focused on entertainment, sports or film — have been introduced, adding to the variety of options the viewers were already burdened under.

Of late, the supply and demand equation of Indian TV was tipped more emphatically towards the latter: and more viewers led to a greater demand for newer shows on TV. A greater demand in turn translated to more room for quality, experiemtnation and newer modes of

One comes across three particular themes that are commonly explored in some of our more successful of contemporary TV shows: mythology, reality and comedy. This, of course, is aside from that evergreen staple of popular television, namely the soap opera that simlpy refuses to go away.

In effect, the change that Indian TV is witnessing today is not unlike what its American counterpart went through some years ago. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, or Breaking Bad — all considered the qualitative zenith of American entertainment — were products of a social and economic restructuring of America’s television industry. The same kind of restructuring can now be observed here, most apparently on the formal or thematic level.

One comes across three particular themes that are commonly explored in some of our more successful  contemporary TV shows: mythology, reality and comedy. This, of course, is aside from that evergreen staple of popular television, namely the soap opera that simlpy refuses to go away.

Actress Shantanu Maheshwari happens to have done soaps as well as other formats of TV. “I like both daily soaps and reality shows,” she tells Guardian 20. “Can’t really decide which one I am more inclined to. A lot of hard work definitely has to be put into both these mediums. But yes a daily soap is what requires tremendous effort, consistency and time as it can sometimes go on for years at a stretch. Reality shows, though, pay better. Which one of these is more popular is something hard to figure out, as it totally depends on the content and the level of connect a show achieves with its audience.”

Still from Bigg BossReality shows pay well because they sell more. The Indian adaptation of Big Brother, called Bigg Boss, with actor Salman Khan as its host, became hugely successful since its first edition was aired in November 2006. It offered a primetime alternative to those vapid saas-bahu sagas that had come to define TV in India. What we’re now witnessing, though, is a departure of sorts from old-style TV towards a new kind of flourishing, often inspired by the West. The first season of actor Anil Kapoor’s adaptation of the American thriller series 24, aired in 2013, is only one instance of Indian television’s coming of age.

But there are those who believe that the creative boom observed here is uniquely Indian, and not as influenced by the West as it would seem.

Sharad Tripathi, a scriptwriter who has worked on several popular Indian shows, has this to say, “No, we are not copying west... It’s just a phase. There was a time when mythological shows like Ramayana and Mahabharata were made. Then came comic shows, like Dekh Bhai Dekh and Hum Paanch. We had Chandrakanta and Alif Laila after that. The saas-bahu saga soon began. Now we have introduced mythic and fantasy themes with Nagin and Dayan, and Nagin had already been shown on TV previously. In this highly competitive time of TRP battles, we sometimes need to revisit old content. It’s the same with our fashion trends, which came back again and again with newer alterations. That doesn’t mean we are moving back. We are moving forward with old things in a more presentable and innovative manner. We should not forget that along with all this we still have some really good stuff like 24, a sibling drama show Swaragini, a new love story Shakti and a socio-mythological show Santoshi Maa among many

Still from 24.In other words, the variety that Indian TV now offers is mindboggling. To make shows that are watched in India, you have to bear in mind the likes, dislikes and inclinations of the Indian audiences. And since those factors can’t ever be the same in India and America, Indian TV can’t ever follow the same trajectory and has to find its own course.

Actress Debina Bonnerjee, who played the role of Sita in a recent TV adaptation of Ramayana, shed some more light on the differences between soap operas and mythological shows, keeping in mind the Indian context. “For a daily soap,” she says, “you need to maintain the same kind of zing, energy level and continuity, throughout the series. But while playing a mythological character, more effort has to be put into understanding what the character would have done in a particular situation. That is more challenging.”

So what emerges from all this is that while the sector has undergone rapid change on one level, on another a sort of nostalgic regression to ideas and themes of the past have been characteristic to Indian TV. Actress Asha Negi, who has worked in Pavitra Rishta besides other high-TRP shows, has a theory on this. She says, “I feel that Indian Television has been trying to change its views and concepts but the audiences here happen to like the same old monotonous concepts and formulae, which have ruled the small screen for a while now. Nothing has changed on that front. So each time someone tries to change things, the viewers don’t respond to it very well. Honestly, I feel that people need to change their mindsets and ways of thinking. Finally, everything depends on the audiences.”

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.