Some years ago, I interviewed the well-known Hindi crime novelist Ved Prakash Sharma. At one point, he spoke dismissively about the Hindi writing establishment's response to his work, saying, "They say it sells because it's pulp. I ask them is it pulp only because it sells?"
Illustration/ Satish Acharya
This echoed an old tension between the cultural and commercial, which is partly born from the snobbery of older elite gatekeepers of culture. Something like Hindi film songs -- written by poets, composed by skilled composers, loved over generations and successful too -- belie this polarity. It is possible for things to be good and popular sometimes.
But not in the world of Love2HateU, the Arjun Rampal hosted TV show that engineers confrontations between successful celebs and people who hate them, usually active on social media like blogger or Twitter. In one episode Rampal says: You want to know how real this show is? It has no script, no retakes. Meaning -- this is the truth. Which is what?
In the episodes featuring Farhan Akhtar and Farah Khan, the Haters (supposedly) did not know what show they're on. As Rampal and Akhtar watch the hater rant from afar, they are shamelessly clubby, very 'us against them'. Rampal to Akhtar: I think he's in love with you. Akthar to Rampal: I think he wants to be me.
Later, Rampal to Farhan hater: I told Farhan, his body language in Karthik Calling Karthik. It's amazing for an actor to get that just in his third film. I'm his friend, so I'd be the first one to criticise him. Oh yeah? No conflict of interest here, is there Mr Rocking On Rampal?
Rampal constantly defends celebs with expressionless exclamations (a great talent indeed): his books sell! Her film is the biggest hit ever! When Chetan Bhagat's Hater asks -- is writing and reading only about selling numbers? No one actually bothers to address that question.
Instead Bhagat says about her: "I think life has not given her the opportunity to shine." Questioned about his writing (not his sales), all Mr Bhagat can come up with is --"she's jealous"? I wonder, if aspiring to be better artists is irrelevant and selling is the real proof of worth, then why create an entire show where these guys desperately want to prove that they are in fact good? Aren't their sales speaking loudly enough?
The real Haters are these people, who can't seem to bear criticism and want to undermine anyone who 'hates' them. The show pretends to be a debate, but instead it strives to set up a cynical and self-serving circular logic: marketing powered sales are actually spontaneous and 'real'. Bad work is actually good, or it wouldn't sell.
And conversely, anything that doesn't sell is not good. So social media is full of bitter losers who can't get published/recorded/get a role. Classical music also would not be worth respecting then. Literature and cinema -- only snobs are into that.
This division between commerce and art is falsely maintained by those who benefit from it. The days when people looked down on commerce are long gone. By maintaining this division, people prevent beautiful work from also being popular and 'commercial' work from also being beautiful. The new gatekeepers of culture, the elites and snobs of our time, are not the ikat-clad elites -- it is the powerful people on such shows who want to decide for us what is good.
They like to tell us this is democracy. But lowering the bar is not democracy -- it's mediocrity. It may be our reality, but it need not be our ideal.
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.