Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We Fools Who Love The Idiot Box

It is 8pm. Rakesh is back from work. The kids are back from playing. Sunita has just finished preparing dinner. But it’s too early to eat. The Sawant family will not eat for another half hour. That’s because Balika Vadhu (Child Bride) airs on TV between 8 and 8:30pm. And no one wants to miss that.

It’s a show that revolves around child marriages in India. It’s set in a traditional joint family, where a little girl Anandi gets married to the young grandson of the house- Jagdish, himself a young boy.

We were all intrigued with the concept. We knew it still happened in rural India, but this was going to be beamed into the TV sets of urban India. Child marriage, seriously?!

What is it then that clicked with us boot strapped, mall frenzied, cosmo drinking city dwellers such that the show recorded the maximum 10 points on the television rating scale on many occasions since its first season last year? And with every episode being a tearjerker, is this really a reflection of our taste in entertainment?

It seems that seeing another person (real or fictional) in a worse predicament than yourself (aka, married off young) has a soothing effect on people who aren’t too happy with their lives themselves. Recession and loss of jobs haven’t helped either.

‘Atleast she’s worse off than me!’ – Quite the balm.

And then the crying. There is so much crying on the show that it almost seems rude not to cry along. And rather rapidly, you will lose track of why you were crying. Was it because little Anandi was locked up in a room or her friend couldn’t marry her lover …or because you had a shitty day- you fought with your boss, you missed your loan payment, you’re just lonely?

True, the show highlights the plight of girl brides. If it wasn’t for flamboyant sets and heart wrenching soundtracks, this subject wouldn’t have garnered the attention it does today. Other shows have taken their cues from this golden hen and have adopted girl-centric themes as well- like Na Aana Is Des Lado which focuses on female foeticide and Aapki Antara- a story of an autistic girl.

Unfortunately, breaking up serious issues like these into episodes has also trivialized them…how best to stretch the death of a relative over two episodes, or extend a wedding into four. Shows that I like to believe started with a public message in mind have now become morbid entertainment and it looks like we are happy to be entertained five days a week.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?


Mrs. Sharma seems to yawn and smile at the same time as her red lips form each syllable over gleaming white teeth.

‘Bhaa-ee-ya,’ the Hindi teacher repeats.

‘Bhaiya means brother. Behen means sister.’ 40 students of Class II A repeat the words after her. The school bell rings.

At home, Arjun makes a fuss over dinner. He doesn’t like spinach. His 15-year old brother Karan is fussing over his girlfriend through text messages. Lt. Col Joshi isn’t paying attention to his sons. He’s busy watching the news.

‘Reports are just coming in of fresh violence in the city following the arrest of Raj Thackeray, founder of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena…’ the pretty anchor on TV seems upset with the news herself.

‘His second bloody arrest in eight months! And what happens? His honchos go on a rampage, looting and vandalizing everything in sight. Can’t they see what makes Mumbai Mumbai is that it’s a cosmopolitan city?!’ Lt. Col. Joshi looks incredulously at his wife.

‘North Indians are adding to the city and the state’s economy, goddammit! And he wants us out! This is sickening to watch!’ Lt. Col. Joshi bellows in anger. Karan stops messaging.

‘Ramesh, calm down. You’re scaring the children, baba,’ Mrs. Joshi puts a spoon full of spinach into Arjun’s mouth.

‘Look on the bright side,’ she says. ‘The Congress won because of the cat fight between him and his uncle! Let’s hope they stay at each other’s throats.'

10:00pm. Mrs. Joshi forgets to set her bedside alarm.

The boys wake up late. Morning ablutions are performed in a hurry, school bags are packed and the front door bangs shut as the boys run to catch the bus.

‘Karan bhaiya wait!’ Arjun struggles to catch up with his brother as he sprints after the moving bus.

It’s too late. The bus leaves a cloud of dust in its wake.

‘Arjun, hurry up. We’ll catch a rickshaw. I have 10 rupees.’ Karan stands at the edge of the road, waving his arms, hoping to flag down a rickshaw…fast!

‘O Bhaa-ee-ya!’ He screams out at a passing rickshaw, but to no avail. Minutes tick by. The traffic on the road increases, rickshaws on the road increase- only none of them stop.

‘O-Bhaa-ee-ya!’ Karan tries again. Bingo! It stops.

‘Bhaiya, Mount Carmel School.’

‘Who are you calling bhaiya, you North Indian bastard?!’ the rickshaw driver spits out in Marathi. ‘You’re in aamchi Mumbai. Speak Marathi!’

‘I…I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just calling you.’ Karan instinctively backs away from the vehicle, pulls Arjun with him. They walk hurriedly in the opposite direction.

‘Aye! Where are you running off to, stupid coward! You people stay here, steal our jobs and don’t even care to learn our language! Filthy polluters!’

Arjun is crying. Karan is badly shaken.

Half an hour later, they reach school. It’s 9:00am. School assembly has started and the two boys are late. They are made to stand outside the hall as punishment.

Inside, 650 students are reciting the National Pledge.

‘India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters….’

Note: This article, along with others I'm writing on cultural/political issues in India can be accessed here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tata ByeBye CNBC-TV18

So I gave up my job at CNBC-TV18. Finally mustered the courage after two years to do the womanly thing- give up a secure, well paying job in pursuit of happiness. Atleast pursuit of happiness sounds more filmy than ‘to figure out my life’. If I end up anywhere close to being the financial genius Will Smith was in the movie, you can imagine the irony in my leaving the leading business news channel in the country.

I wasn’t doing anything related to news at the channel actually. Except for three minute news updates on the weekend which I secretly hoped would make me appear to be more well informed than I actually was. It worked…till people started asking me details of such and such deal and I looked at them like I’d left my brain at home that day. Oopsy-daisy. Will set a reminder to pick it up from my bedside table tomorrow.

Looking back, my biggest takeaway from working at CNBC-TV18 was the fact that I learned to be creatively stimulated. Oh yes, and I learned to work in a team. Because I didn’t think I was cut out for that. Funny, how life throws you a curveball and you surprise yourself by diving like a pro to catch it. Ok, I wasn’t really a pro at it, but I gave a pretty damn good impression of it.

Now, if there was something I was a pro at, it was juggling. I never realized how closely my skills came to those of a professional juggler till I started producing a weekly show. Simply replace those ten balls in the juggler’s hand with the faces of the cameramen, directors, library personnel, editors, makeup artists and PR agents, and you have a circus in your hands right there. CNBC-ishtyle! Actually, ask any producer of any show and the story’s the same. Skills like juggling humans make us TV brethren dangerously similar.

But yes, I learnt how to juggle and I learnt how to dig. Dig myself out of crazy situations. Houdini could do the vanishing act pretty well, but then again he probably never had Mumbai cops to stop him. I have and let me tell you, when one of those overzealous entities decides to wreak havoc because you’re shooting without permission at the Bandra Kurla Complex, then the disappearing act becomes a little hard to pull off. So you pick up the spade and start digging. Dig deep into a person’s psyche and see what makes them tick. Or talk. Marathi, no matter how jarringly spoken, is always a boon. Then comes the press card and the spiel on how this ‘news’ story you’re covering is timely and has to be shot urgently so that our teeming population can know how rising gas prices are affecting the sport of remote control cars in the country. (Did I tell you I worked on a weekly technology show called Tech Toyz? Well, now you know). Everything that’s beyond the realm of common sense should be tried during the event of digging, and you will be surprised how quickly you hit gold. And I was a fast learner.

It’s funny how slowly but steadily I am realizing that in life that I am best at things that are most vile, baseless, cunning, conniving and manipulative. Yes, I derive innate pleasure in spelling this out because it drives home my next point- about having CNBC-TV18 to thank for infusing me with a steady dose of creativity (the good stuff). Here’s where I backtrack a little to my creatively stunted days. At one point of time, I used to file feature stories for the channel, and one of them was on the launch of an international chocolate brand in the market. Let it suffice to say that the creative peg I gave to my story was so bad that my boss used that piece as reference in one of his seminars under the section of ‘what not to do when you’re filing stories.’

Looking back from that high point in my journalistic career, I’ve certainly done myself proud. I say proud because I had sufficient grey cells screaming at me to stay on in a company that could only add value to my career, and I paid heed. A story on accessing internet on the phone? Why not get to the top of a crane and access the internet from there? Reviewing a camcorder? Why not shoot a short film using it and let the viewers decide if they like the quality….and this is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg that was my team at CNBC.

But despite that all, I left. And here I am, talking about my time at the channel, like a withered, old woman reminiscing about the good, old days. So why the hell did I leave if it was so damn good?! Because unfortunately for us, we’re wired to be curious cats and we live on a celestial body that’s too big a playground for our own comfort. There is so much more to do and see and experience (…and the fact that I’m not paying any loans right now or taking care of the 7 kids I want to eventually have) hell, I’m jumping into the wild right now. What’s the wild, you ask? It’s the tangled mess of writers, documentary film makers and globetrotters. That’s where I’m going. Till curiosity kills the cat. Or better still, sends her back to an air-conditioned office.

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