Narendra Modi's Man vs Wild episode plays it safe with meme-worthy moments and hackneyed messaging
Narendra Modi's Man vs Wild episode premiered in 180 countries, ushering aur achche din for Discovery at least, which played it back to back on their channel.
We don’t have the official numbers yet, but last night’s television premiere of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s walk in the wilderness with extreme adventure man Bear Grylls may just have trumped the TRPs of moon landing. Many a news hour took a beating at 9 pm as for those sixty minutes it was the only thing the nation wanted to know. #ManvsWild was trending number 1 in India and number 2 in the world; the meme factory had a field day ensuring a steady supply of chuckles – Vann Ki Baat being a crowd favourite.
Bear Grylls, who has perhaps become a household name in India since last night, is known for his survivalist show Man vs Wild, where he puts his guests in extreme discomfort zone.
Three years ago the world saw then US President Barack Obama sink his teeth into life in wild Alaskan glacial terrain, as he chewed on a half-eaten piece of salmon that was left behind by a bear – the four legged one, not the host. Prime Minister Modi, understandably, had to endure no such adventures on a plate – he’s vegetarian after all, and as he tells Bear on the show at one point – 'mere sanskar mujhe kisiko maarne ki ijaazat nahi deti.' So the host has to think of a watered down version for him – just tea infused with curry leaves. It was probably the sanest thing we have seen go down Bear’s throat on the show – light years away from his usual diet of grasshoppers and elephant dung. I wonder if he got an upset stomach later. Well, the price you pay to get the most powerful man in the country on your show – “My job is to keep you alive, Sir”.
They walked through the tiger terrains of Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. It’s nearly a six kilometer hike in the stunning wilderness of Corbett, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Bear constantly reminded viewers of the extreme dangers of the road they took – “people don’t get off their cars here.” Around 250 Bengal tigers are known to roam freely here, we were told. Thankfully, none of them made a special appearance during filming. The show followed a walk-the-talk format of sorts, where Bear engages his guest in conversation, in an attempt to scratch beneath the surface. Fifteen minutes into the show, Modi spoke about his humble childhood, running a tea stall, not having soap to bathe and wash clothes, his sense of duty trumping his sense of self and taking his first “vacation” in 18 years – if he chooses to call this programme a vacation that is, he clarifies. It may have been new information for his host, but none of it is an enigma for his countrymen.
Somewhere in the middle of this monologue, Bear picks up a piece of dried elephant dung from the ground and thrusts it in front of the PM’s nose. But there’s no breaking his train of thought – he laughs it off, and continues with his spiel. Bear will have to try harder.
A political leader will never appear on prime time television without agenda. It would be naïve to expect him to do so. Like Obama, Modi too came on to herald the cause of preserving the environment, close on the heels of winning the Champion of Earth award last year, the highest environmental honour of the United Nations. Unlike Obama, however, Modi never really got talking about the phenomenon of climate change, as much as he did about growing up in the lap of nature, how his father would spend his meagre resources on postcards to write to loved ones about the rare rainfalls they’d get and how his grandmother taught him never to cut trees for firewood. Nothing was said about cutting trees for coastal roads and dams and bullet trains, but we shall leave that for angry news anchors and long-form columnists to debate on.
The millions of viewers that tuned in last night may have got quite a kick watching the Prime Minister balance himself on a raft made of twigs, which Bear pushed across a shallow and freezing river bed. He did try to joke about his freezing privates as he waded through, but all he got in response was, “Mere liye yeh koi nayi baat nahi hai”. Modi was harking back to his days of youth when he wandered in the Himalayas on a spiritual quest. There was the coracle, and, a spear fashioned out of a branch and ropes, but he refused to use the spear for self-protection, citing sanskar reasons.
Unlike Bear’s tryst with Obama, here the duties were clearly divided. While we saw the former US President fetch water from glacial rivulets to make tea, here, the tea was already prepared and offered to Modi, who sat in a vajrasana posture on the rocks, taking small sips from a thermos. The last bit must not have been easy, but clearly, the yoga is working. Not everyone can match steps with Bear Grylls in the wild, but our man took confident strides in tall grass, and yes, it was indeed impressive to see him keep his balance on the twig boat.
Nonetheless, the show remained more about the man and less about the wild. We were promised we’d get to see the Prime Minister’s instincts while negotiating the wild, but what we got was the same person we see on the podium, in the wild.
Bear remained persistent in his efforts to nudge the Prime Minister to talk more about himself as a person, his ambitions, his fears and so on, but Modi is clearly a hard nut to crack, impossible even. With Obama, Bear dared to circumvent protocols, pushing his luck with Secret Service even, but with Modi, he played safe. This was no Bear-grills-Modi. It wasn’t even vann ki baat, as much as mann ki baat in the vann. Oh and it was all in shuddh Hindi, with some Sanskrit in the end, to which Bear responded the best he could. Now he probably knows the meaning of “vanaspati shastra” and “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”, along with a lot of Indians for whom it was a #TIL moment last night.
The show premiered in 180 countries, ushering aur achche din for Discovery at least, which played it back to back. Twitter didn’t lose a moment to point out how it was aired on Eid, and just three days before Independence Day, and less than a week after the scrapping of Article 370. Earlier, it was alleged by the Opposition that the episode was filmed on the day of the Pulawama attack. Overthinking Twitteratis, I tell you. But whether it’s the workings of a coincidence or a mastermind, in the end the most-awaited special turned out to be little else than an hour of hackneyed messaging, the kinds that politicians engage in.
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