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The recent Indian television serial, Pehredaar Piya Ki, has caught the attention of the entire nation, for all the wrong reasons. It normalizes the stalking and wooing of an adult woman, by a child. It goes so far as to promote marriage, honeymoon, and domestic life, between these two. While we rue the utter degradation of Indian television content, I think this is a great opportunity for a turnaround. Let us rewind and refresh our memories on how we reached here, and work out how to retrace the steps:
Television of Yesteryear
Television came to India is 1959, three decades after it first made its appearance in the West. But, it wasn’t until the early 1980s, that television started becoming a household commodity in the country. A handful owned the device, and community watching was India’s favorite pastime. The State owned Doordarshan was the only broadcaster, and 24/7 was distant fantasy. The content created at that time, was considered object d’art, for the sheer novelty of the medium. Much thought went into the making of the content. The best talents from the stage hopped over to the Television media. The result was an array of incredible shows.
There was moving storytelling in shows like Buniyaad, Hum Log, Fauji, Circus. The slice of life comedy of Malgudi Days, Office Office, Hum Panch, Flop Show, Zabaan Sambhalke was endearing, without being over the top. Even fantasy and mythology had top notch representations in the epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, Vikram aur Betaal, Chandrakanta, and Shaktimaan.
The 90s brought with them the first glimpses of reality television. But, somehow despite the obvious lack of glitz, that’s so accessible now, they had more ingenuity, and credibility. Saregamapa, Boogie Woogie, or Meri Awaaz Suno are the noteworthy ones.
The Proliferation of Network
Many ascribe the deplorable condition of Indian TV as a function of low budget, as compared to astronomical budgets in the western world. But, I disagree with this reasoning. Clearly, we have done more with less before, and even today, countries like Pakistan or Turkey are creating better television content than us, with lesser resources.
What happened was economics! The media got democratized, and television started penetrating lower middle class, and poor households, in rural India. Today, Indian TV reaches nearly 500 million people in the country everyday, the rural viewership being marginally higher than the urban. It was around the same time that the Government privatized broadcasting and network. So, the principles of free market seeped in. With it, came the need for ‘fast content’, akin to ‘fast food’. Content slowly came to follow the natural demand-supply trend, and quality became a much lower priority to speed of churn.
The market picked on India’s insatiable attraction towards domestic discord, and then towards the weird and the supernatural. It dappled with the provocative idea of child marriage with Balika Vadhu (arguably in the garb of creation of awareness against the crime), and smelt success. And from the glitter of that victory, arose the monstrosity that is Pehredaar Piya ki. The show has shed the garb of social commentary, and openly romanticizes pedophilia. Clearly, we have reached a nadir in creativity here.
Ray of Hope
We have not completely lost, though. Selfishly, I see that the urban population has a choice today, thanks to digitalization, and the penetration of internet. Different media are opening up, and interesting content is being launched (TVF’s Roommates, Amazon Prime’s Inside Edge), and relaunched (Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai Season 2). International content is a lot more accessible today, thanks to Netflix, Amazon et al., in addition to the global content channels.
But, even in the mainstream, the Pehredaar disaster could serve as a wake up call to change the narrative. Till now, they have been feeding pitiful content to the less sophisticated in the country, successfully keeping them trapped in the world of superstitions and regress. But, maybe, the protests would lead to a rejig of ideas in the media think tanks – leading to creation of more wholesome, albeit simple, dramas, to replace the horrendous shows on air today.
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