Video games brought to you by the news
Many are jubilant about Anna Hazare's Mumbai protest being a flopmbai
Many are jubilant about Anna Hazare's Mumbai protest being a flop. Some have serious problems with the flattened debate and totalitarian position of India Against Corruption (IAC) on what is seen as the unwieldy, potentially fascist Lokpal they support. Others just dislike Anna Hazare's ornery patriarch moralism, typified by his unerring talent for fishing up the kind of politically incorrect metaphors about 'barren women' even Bollywood has avoided for about a quarter century.
Illustration/ Satish Acharya
I share these criticisms, but not quite the celebrations. The failure of this week's action is not proof that previously blind supporters have suddenly begun to engage with the Lokpal issue more critically or thoughtfully. Rather, it is one more example of what is becoming the standard method for urban middle-class involvement in political matters -- frenzy and fashion followed by absolute disinterest, justified by weak disillusionment (yaar I got put off by x or y thing).
Although there are complex reasons for this, it is no small part because the very medium that helped generate a seemingly revolutionary turnout in support of the IAC campaigns -- television news -- also prevents any sustained political engagement from those deeply entrenched in the system they critique.
While entertainment channels specialize in epic length daily soaps, TV news relies on shaping and presenting events as short, intensive cycles for us to involve ourselves in addictively. Hindi channels did it by presenting "kaands" via the sting operations and scandalous expose's of the mid-2000s. These usually lasted a week, with each day bringing the latest sensational 'development' in the ongoing kaand -- Kavita kaand, Majnu kaand, Julie aur Professor kaand, Jain saadhvi kaand. English news channels prefer a video game structure, following the same episodic, operatic, minutiae as breaking news treatment for most political issues -- each breaking news, a new level of the game.
In the days of the 8 o'clock DD news bulletin, with its school principal newsreaders and laughably obvious government line, people generally felt a healthy skepticism and perhaps worked more to inform themselves. In these times of many media outlets and supposed choice, we have the illusion of being well-informed even though mass media coverage has never been narrower.
That's partly because TV news works hard not to inform us, but to redirect all our energies into becoming supposed political actors by participating in these episodic political video games. Experiencing politics in this way, people, more so if they rely on the mainstream news for information, begin to feel that their only way to be present in the political process is to be actors in this theatre of postures and poses, where they can declare "I am Anna" or "Where is our security?" or whatever is the tagline for these game cycles, often endorsed by celebrities. Through our for or against positions, the only kind possible in a game, and allowed on the news, we are glued to the TV.
Being based on a logic of endless consumption, TV news generally floods are senses until the appetite for that particular political event eventually sickens and dies and people Return to Start, steeped in ennui, waiting for the next cycle to begin.
The truth of political change, even small shifts, is of course relentless engagement -- look at the number of years people like Irom Sharmilla, the Bhopal tragedy survivors, the Koodankalum anti-nuclear movement, Kashmiri movements or for that matter RTI activists persist irrespective of the restless media spotlight, achieving critical mass only over years.
To equip oneself with this persistence, this patience and so become genuine political actors, weaning ourselves from this episodic video game called TV news might pose the real struggle.
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.