Getting the story right

Do you like Grey’s Anatomy? Do you think it is reasonably sensitive to human emotions and medical facts. Then thank Hollywood, Health & Science or HH&S. It is a program at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center in America that aims to educate scriptwriters and other creative people on timely facts on health, gender, legal and social issues. The idea is to ensure that the storylines created for mainstream content across all media, which often dramatise fiction, can incorporate information with accuracy. Autism, obesity, road accidents and cancer are among the several topics on which it offers information and expert advice to writers. Over its 11 years HH&S has supported Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Desperate Housewives, among over 500 other titles.

One of its many funders were the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Fact and faction: The Third Eye aims to ensure that TV and film writers and other creative folk get their medical and other facts right even in fiction

HH&S is now attempting a similar program in India under the aegis of The Asian Center for Entertainment Education or ACEE. The Third Eye was launched last week and Mahesh Bhatt is leading it. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

With thousands of hours of original programming being created for its 800 odd TV channels and more than 1,000 films being produced every year, India is one of the largest content creators in the world. It is also one of the largest content consumers — at over 765 million TV viewers and about 3 billion tickets sold every year. So we make a lot of shows and movies, which we consume. And entertainment dominates our media consumption — irrespective of whether we do it on television, in a theatre, on an iPad or on the mobile. We just love watching local entertainment. This in turn makes it very powerful as a tool for change. Because how we think and react to women, men, to situations good or bad is determined, to a great extent, by cultural influencers such as cinema, TV, theatre or books. This is true globally.

In 1984, a US-based non-government organisation (NGO) joined hands with the ministry of information and broadcasting to produce Hum Log. The idea was to convey the message of family planning. Soap operas had done that successfully in Catholic Mexico, where overt family planning messages could not be used. When private television and daily soaps took off in India, every TV critic cribbed about how regressive Indian TV shows are. But a 2007 paper by two US-based researchers proved that cable television, however imperfect its programming, was actually empowering women in rural India.

It is this power that The Third Eye seeks to harness by portraying gender issues or medical facts correctly with the idea that they should be more engaging and accurate.

Vinta Nanda, co-founder ACEE was a prolific TV writer in the nineties. She remembers that she wrote 70 episodes of Tara, which featured divorce. But since she couldn’t get relevant information, she just fictionalised the whole thing. That is what dozens of writers do, sometimes with disastrous results. “If a service like The Third Eye existed when I made Arth (1983) I would have made the film differently and created the other woman, who suffered from schizophrenia (played by Smita Patil), with the same sympathy which I had towards the wife,” says Bhatt in the press release from the launch.

Just like HH&S, The Third Eye will work through workshops, story tours and road trips that help creative people on existing issues. There is information and expert advice available for free through a website, meetings and toll free number. There are interactions planned between writers from India and other parts of the world. To start with a bunch of filmmakers and writers — Kalpana Lajmi, Soni Razdan and others — are going to Bodhgaya. The idea is to harvest, with sensitivity, the human interest stories that the bombings there would have created.

This is one programme worth watching.  

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at 

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