By Naomi Dutta
In a recent Hindi release, which got a fair share of critical acclaim, a young teenage couple are doing what assorted teenage couples do in assorted nooks and corners of the city: heavy duty necking. At one point the girl, a regular Jane pushes the boy away plaintively declaring that her cracked lips are making the entire experience rather painful. Meanwhile around them, couples who fortunately have escaped the malaise of cracked lips, continue uninterrupted.
It is a significant moment in Hindi cinema— not the kissing, but that kissing is so matter of fact. And the popcorn munching audience in the multiplex accepts that fact that in real and reel life — people have hormones which are frequently and naturally acted upon.
So far so good then except that there is an inexplicable twist in the plot. The same audience returns to the confines of their homes, and suddenly changes into something altogether unrecognisable. On the television sets that preside over their living rooms, a very different reality is playing out.
There are no teenagers with cracked lips here. Just a lot of heavily be-jewelled women who go to sleep in ornate saris and wake up in the morning with their elaborate hairstyles fully intact. They live in huge sprawling havelis and hold on to their mangalsutras and occasionally philandering husbands for dear life.
We really can’t conjecture on the state of their lips because they have on layers of cheap lipstick. Needless to say, the copious amounts of lipstick doesn't come in the way of them extolling the virtues of sanskar and kartavya (tradition and duty).
Story-telling on the small screen frequently resembles a really bad Bollywood film from the 80s— and is lapped up eagerly by the people watching it. Now try making a film with a storyline which is anywhere close to any of these soaps, and you are guaranteed a resounding box office flop. There is at least a twenty-year gap in popular taste between cinema and television and that is the paradox of mass culture in India.
This schism in popular taste is best represented by the colourful and controversial Ekta Kapoor. The creator of the K-soap and the person singularly responsible for the downfall of sense and sensibility on the small screen. The lady now has taken to producing films, and the output is pretty darned impressive. Both Love, Sex aur Dhoka and Shor in the City push the envelope on conventional storytelling and hold up a mirror to a changing urban morality.
When is the last time any of her soaps did the same? I am trying to think of one— all that comes to mind are images flashing in quick succession.
Woman with chalky foundation crying copiously. Man marrying someone out of duty. Woman with chalky foundation crying copiously.
Mother-in-law plotting and scheming in cahoots with evil sister-in-law who is always light eyed. Pushing the envelope on conventional storytelling? Never mind. Let's focus instead on how the copiously crying lady’s eyeliner never runs inspite of all the tears.
Kapoor has been the most successful in tapping into and understanding the schizoid nature of popular culture. So Tulsi from Kabhi Saas Bhi Bahu thi is never going to push Mihir away citing cracked lips— they are instead going to jointly pray to the tulsi plant in the courtyard outside. But a young lady in a recent release of hers happily got herself handcuffed (Ragini MMS) to a bed post for a session of procreation and recreation!
So are we a schizoid nation? While that is a tempting generalisation to make— if only for it's sensational value — the reasons for this schizophrenia may be slightly less dramatic.
In India, television viewing is still a family experience, and there are still many single television households. In cinema, on the other hand, the multiplex is the great divider. Different films find different audiences. And no one film needs to cater to an amorphous mass loosely dubbed 'the pan-Indian audience.' Therefore, Love Sex aur Dhoka can co-exist with the Readys of the world.
That happy situation, however, doesn’t exist on the small screen. A reason why one medium evolves, and the other regresses. No prizes for guessing which one is what!
As a television producer, I am often told that that the audience in the metro cities is pretty redundant when it comes to ratings. A former television boss of mine once claimed there is no need for sociological analysis when it comes to understanding what works on the small screen: It is the guy in Chandigarh we need to get. Maybe that’s the real answer: the guy in Chandigarh is schizoid.
Naomi Datta lives in Mumbai and her debut novel, The 6 pm Slot, will be published this June by Random House India. You can follow her updates on Twitter at nowme_datta. This excerpt first appeared in Random Reads, Random House India’s in-house literary blog.