A small item floating past on some social networking site the other day announced that Malgudi Days, Shankar Nag’s television series based on RK Narayan’s famous stories could be viewed online for free made me think about what we mean by the term ‘Indian’.
The criticism of Bollywood was always that what was presented as pan-Indian culture mostly represented people who were North Indian upper caste Hindus as being typical of all India. The main characters, who had these characteristics, were never defined in terms of religion or caste.
Illustration/ Amit Bandre
They just were ‘regular’ Indians. On the other hand, people from other parts of the country — for instance South Indians — and minority communities — for instance mad bawas, good hearted Salim chachas and racy Sandras — were caricatured and rarely played central roles in the films, with the exception of Muslim socials.
Television was, of course, an entertainment wasteland of Sanskritised Hindi news and Krishi Darshan where occasional flowers like Chitrahar and Phool Khilen Hain Gulshan Gulshan suddenly bloomed all too briefly. Yet, you could glimpse other things — regional art films on Sunday afternoons. From the mid-1980s when more entertainment programming was introduced, we began to get Ek Kahani, which were stand-alone episodes based on stories from different regions and languages and then, things like Malgudi Days, which was universally relatable with its heart-warming and humorous tales of childhood mischief in a small town.
It’s not just that the series was rich with flavours of another part of India, but that the relationships and the logic were also a little more local. We didn’t just understand different people’s practices, but learned that they also had different priorities and approaches to life. This inner and outer world combined to tell very different sorts of stories, all of which we were able to enjoy.
Television today has given up on this variety and diversity as it has become more of a hardcore commercial space. We communicate today not through stories but branding ideas. Sure, our TV series have some kind of regional flavouring — Rajasthani, Gujarati etc but it often functions like a kind of window dressing. The stories are the same type and even the regional flavouring is rather like a packaged masala, generic, crudely recognisable but lacking the rich, layered tastes of something made from scratch.
Isn’t it weird that we consume images of ourselves as if we are foreigners? In the world of television shows, each world is fake with a little reality sprinkled on top like hara dhaniya, and it is hermetic — sealed off from any other element except aspects of this brand of soap opera. No other accent or motivation enters it.
One might imagine that if television has replaced cinema as a mass medium, because many people have TVs today, then maybe those other kinds of stories about those other Indias have migrated to the cinema — that’s what the general talk would have us believe.
But those films that make claims to realism, also only serve up an exotic meal — enough masala to feel familiar to an Indian palate but not so much that an adventurous firangi couldn’t sample it and imagine they are having the authentic experience, the real thing, ya know?
We have to wonder really, where do we go if we want to see a reflection of our selves as we are, the stories that are born from the fact that we live in India, not those stories that offer up a generic, genetically modified idea of Indianness which lacks piquancy and bite, zest and the loving eye needed to release our truths into dreams.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.