Joined: 06 August 2008
While class has long been a determinant of what one sees on Indian television, it is only just making a self-conscious appearance in the Hindi general entertainment genre. For some months now, the shrewd Rajasthani matriarch Masa in "Balika Vad hu" has been belittling the families her daughters-in-law come from. When Anandi returns from a visit to her parents she is told, "oh dear, you've lost your brightness. Don't get the same level of nutrition in your parent's home, do you?" The older son's teenage bride has been "bought", after paying off her father's debts, and she is unfailingly reminded of that. Every now and then Masa will tell a visitor expansively, "all my daughters-in-law are from poor homes". And will then turn frosty when somebody from that humbler universe presumes to visit her improbably grand haveli.A different formula
Now, emboldened by the success of "Balika Vadhu", Colours has introduced another saga which is somewhat removed from the Ekta Kapoor formula of yore. There is a rich, over-painted woman here too, and a dream mansion untouched by realism. But the story revolves around Little Miss Two Front Teeth, the daughter of a housemaid who cannot understand why some children have large birthday cakes and all the toys in the world, while she has the pavement as her playground.
To make sure you do not miss the message, all subtleties have been tossed out of the window. Early on, the mother asks daughter Ichcha (desire) fearfully, "tu itne bare sapne kyon dekhti hai?" (Why do you dream so big? I begin to feel very small before you, I can never fulfil your dreams. Why can't you be happy with what you have?) She plays a terrified maid stereotype, while the mistress of the mansion sports considerable gold plating in her daily attire, and not a shred of political correctness in her speech. Another stereotype, which belongs to another age.
Ichcha's playmate is the mollycoddled daughter of the Thakurain, named Tapasya (penance) and their friendship forms the basis of a class confrontation which will play out in the next few episodes. Unlike "Balika Vadhu", there is no nuanced acting here. The saving grace is the child actor Sparsh who plays Ichcha, alternating between shrillness, cheerful cockiness, and bewilderment at a world which is beyond her understanding. Her eyes do the acting and occasionally project a terrifying deadness.
There is heavy symbolism in the names of the two young protagonists and in that of the serial: "Uttaran", which means cast off, as in clothes.
Given the success of the film "Slumdog Millionaire" and Aravind Adiga's Booker prize winning The White Tiger, possibly somebody in the industry thought that television's middle class constituency was ready to have its conscience stirred. One is about, well, a slum dog who wins a game show prize, the other is a servant's eye view of India's ruling class.
The irony is that the rest of the fare on television, particularly on the news channels, affirms every day that class defines the India you see on television. It was so glaring a determinant of the news in Mumbai's November attacks that a considerable part of the subsequent analysis focused on it. And the reminders are still coming. A still photograph of the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminal taken in the immediate aftermath of the attack is so evocative with its little puddles of luggage and blood, that you wonder how any news organisation with a sense of moment could have passed up making this picture the definitive visual statement of 26/11, rather than a smoke billowing Taj hotel.
Imbalance in coverage
At the time of writing, NDTV is playing over and over again a tribute to the martyrs of 26/11 and, not surprisingly, only the senior police officers figure. The same day The Hindu has a four column story on page 12 on Assistant Sub Inspector Tukaram Ombale who took a spray of bullets when he rushed to intercept the lone captured terror accused. His wife tells the reporter that she wishes he had got more recognition. You can see why: his picture and name don't figure in the roll call of police martyrs that TV channels play over and over again. Hemant Karkare's wife Kavita, who figures the same day on the Hindustan Times front page, is unlikely to have that complaint.
As the year ends and the reviews begin, television sinking low in 2008 with the Aarushi murder case will doubtless be recalled. But much more for the affront the coverage became to the parents of the dead girl, and the muddying of their reputation. Far less will be written, let me wager, on how months of coverage of a double murder could focus so single-mindedly on TV and in print, on just one of the victims, as if the other did not exist.
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