Homeland to 24: Five ways to fix Indian Television

By Abhilasha Khaitan

You can’t not have seen Homeland yet. But if you’re one of those who actually waited for it to air here, it started showing on Wednesday this week. You can finally catch up with the hottest show on American television. And then ponder this: why couldn’t we have come up with something like this back home? Consider the ingredients. Terrorism plots, romantic intrigue, twisted loyalties and religious fundamentalism – sounds familiar? Conceptually, a show like this is tailor-made for Indian audiences but who is going to tell that to the witless puppeteers controlling programming in this country.

The small screen is big-time in the US and no actor/creator is above it. A show is elevated from ordinary to fabulous by virtue of the writing and acting talent that is invested in it. So it was in India once. A couple of decades ago, they gave us Buniyaad, Hum Log, Fauji and Kachchi Dhoop. Those shows had everything – romance, drama, tears and conflict – your average Indian TV watcher seeks. That was a time when Indian television was less about quantity, more about quality. The target group has remained the same but programming gurus have decided to parody emotions rather than portray them. So it is that many of us seeking homegrown entertainment on the small screen must perforce switch to occasional offerings from Bollywood or Arnab Goswami.

A still from the tv series Homeland. Courtesy: Facebook

Here’s my rant. As a mass medium, Indian TV has found fit to marginalise viewers like me. We are left to get our entertainment from the English channels that usually telecast content much after their showing in the US. But the joke’s on them. The internet-savvy have learnt to create their own programming schedules. As avid TV watchers struggling to find a story, a narrative, at home, we’ve learnt to buy, borrow and, literally, steal from the West. Our laptops and tablets have become our screen of first choice. This will not worry show creators at home since the percentage of viewers currently doing this is minuscule, but there’s a message in the rampant downloading of Torrents if they want to hear it.

I’ve always, but always, been a captive audience of the small screen. From the He-Man… and I Love Lucy days to the Game of Thrones and How I Met Your Mother generation, I haven’t skipped a beat. I (and my hapless parents) remember spending the last hour before each of my tenth standard board exam papers revising the bewildering yet exciting shenanigans of the denizens of Santa Barbara. And then there’s that inexplicable love for a tear fest and happy endings. I was a Bollywood fan and this, to my mind, was a mini-Yash Chopra film festival coming to a small screen right next to me. I was a shoo-in for Balaji-led antics.

I can therefore confess to having been a regular participant in the Ekta Kapoor era, if you will. But over a decade ago, the novelty factor of the saas-bahu saga was strong enough to overshadow the many kinks and frailties in the production and narrative of the shows. That was then. Even an easy target such as me has been let go off so easily, so often. Though my natural proclivity is to keep falling into the tear trap – with Gopibahu, Pratigya, Suhaana and Priya – it is only to walk out very quickly, with no visible injury.

Undeniably, it is a challenge for producers to garner votes among educated, well-travelled urban professionals who have many options competing for a slice of their leisure time. But it isn’t impossible. While we are inclined towards Western entertainment, no one shuns Indian products out of pettiness. The disdain is one bred by lack of imagination and mind-numbing repetitiveness.

We refuse to spend our time cringing at the screen, wondering why that woman hasn’t moved from one spot for the last two weeks or why the other woman has been moving her lips but hasn’t spoken for fifteen minutes or why that sniveling creature hasn’t ruined her mascara despite 11 episodes of tears. So, we switch channels, watch a re-run of Two and a Half Men or turn to Lok Sabha TV for some reality-TV type action, and nod off to sleep.

In an age of short attention span and choices, I wonder why Indian television is moving at such a glacial pace. The channels promise change but that only seems to manifest in the backdrop, literally. They’ve moved the location to smaller cities or villages but the protagonists continue to weep and blush as they had a decade ago. They choose significant issues but infuse them with no life and delve into them with little depth such that all good intent is lost in weak story-telling.

Fixing this isn’t rocket science. Here are some thoughts:

1 Get ‘inspired’: We’ll know if Anil Kapoor got it right later this year, but how wrong can he go with a desi version of 24? It’s got everything your average Indian entertainment-seeker is looking for – romance, action, melodrama, intrigue. Borrowing is not an alien concept in the world of entertainment where imitation has long been the in sincerest form of flattery. Bollywood has been getting ‘inspired’ for decades. Maybe it is time for TV to take a cue.

2. Actors only invited: Again, Anil Kapoor is a bit of trendsetter in this. Of course, we already have the big names moving to TV as hosts and judges but much like their counterparts in Hollywood, perhaps it is time for them to showcase their acting chops on the small screen. The biggest names in the West are on record stating their growing affiliation with the small screen and the diverse challenges it offers. In fact, it is the perfect platform for the veterans who, frankly, look ridiculous doing what they were doing two decades ago. Imagine a Shah Rukh Khan playing the role of Nicholas Brody on the desi version of Homeland, for instance. Who won’t buy into that?

3. Separate soaps from shows: There is no concept of primetime or daytime in Indian entertainment channels. The 9pm show is also rerun at 11am and 2pm. The West made a calculated separation of the traditional soap operas like The Bold and The Beautiful and Days of Our Lives to a daytime slot catering to a specific target audience comprising middle-aged women, housewives and so on. The prime real estate is now devoted to high-quality, high-investment shows that are giving the movies are run for their money.


4. Seasonal shifts:
Maybe the separation can also stretch to attempting ‘seasons’. The formula so far has been to link the longevity of a show to its popularity and stretch and bend storylines according to TRPs. In fact, there is hardly any notion of character arcs or plots since episodes are planned, written and turned around based on last week’s ratings. However, Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kahaa on Colors is already attempting to buck the trend and go with a seasonal concept. It allows for greater character development and detailed plots. If it works, it’ll set a precedent that may well give programming the creative boost it needs.

5. Treasure hunt within: A country with a rich tapestry of cultures, social mores and philosophy should provide more inspiration to the moneybags controlling our TV viewing. I’m not suggesting merely using Western themes and aping their social contexts.  If relationship-based narratives are what work for producers, let’s stick to that but with a clear narrative, a story-telling that grips us and that leaves us richer for having been a part of it. The BBC uses period literature and history to such great effect, producing television shows that connect across demographics. They use authors like Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, complex figures like Beau Brummell and Lord Byron, romances like that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Read between the lines and you find that the trick isn’t just to create new stories but to discover the wonderful tales already written.

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