Telescope: No Oprahs in India

Telescope: No Oprahs in India

India’s TV shows are limited to voyeurism, myth and lazy formula.

Oprah Winfrey, 75th Golden Globe Awards, Cecil B. DeMille Award, Donald Trump, Bigg Boss, Indian express
Photo for representation

We have heard about the power of “0” but what about the power of “O”? When Oprah Winfrey spoke of “a new day” breaking through the “darkest nights”, at the 75th Golden Globe Awards, after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award — the first black female to do so, as she reminded the audience — you wanted to stand up and applaud (Colors Infinity).

When was the last or first time you wanted to rise to your feet at an Indian entertainment awards function?

On the basis of her eloquent speech against tyranny and lies, the all-time reigning star of the American TV talk show was endorsed by some as a possible future President of the United States. Which is really interesting when you remember that a TV show, The Apprentice, helped Donald Trump occupy, no, not Wall Street, but the White House.

When, if ever, has television in India given us a contender for the highest office in the country? Not so far, although Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi did make Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Smriti Irani, a household name — Tulsi.


Apart from journalists, the entertainers have emerged as the most visible opponents to “Mr President” in the US — Seth Meyers, host of the Golden Globes this year, is just one of many talk show hosts who have rushed in where politicians fear to tread to take on Trump, head on.

And television, as much as cinema, is the site for exploring — and often deploring — “the Despicable Me” in different fields: Big Little Lies — which won so big at the Globes unmasks the silent, tortured suffering of sexual and domestic violence even as the winning film, Three Billboards on the Way to Ebbing, Missouri lays bare with brutal ferocity, social attitudes to both.

Seen in the context of the #MeToo sexual harassment disclosures, art and entertainment are playing leading roles in social and cultural disruptions.

Those of us who watch Indian cinema agree that films are being made which cultivate the green shoots of protest to reflect inequalities and inequities.

But when last did Indian television give us a break-out series like Big Little Lies? The closest Hindi entertainment comes to uncovering, in Winfrey’s words, “something about how man and women really behave”, is the crime show: Crime Patrol (Sony), Savdhaan India — Dar Kar Nahin Dat Kar (Star Bharat), two such series, unearth the brute within us, following real crimes, many perpetrated against women, and how the law catches up with the culprits.

Increasingly, and therefore alarmingly, Hindi entertainment is dividing more and more of its time between reality “peephole” shows such as Bigg Boss (Colors), reality talent shows like the upcoming India’s Next Superstar (Star Plus) and epic tales — Karmafal Daata Shani (Colors) — or what passes for historical series — Porus (Sony).

The latter, clearly inspired by Baahubali, is a lush costume drama of debatable authenticity with a great deal of time spent in the long, silent looks of the main characters, chiefly “Poru” as his mother lovingly calls him, and then some outsized fight scenes. Prithvi Vallabh is up next and looks very much in the same mould.

Sandwiched between the reality (show) and the myth-making are the soaps. It is here that we expect to see “stories of us”. And indeed, many such shows have begun promisingly; within their endless folds they hid secrets which slowly unravel but like Draupadi’s sari never entirely reveal everything. Kumkum Bhagya (Zee TV), which is over 1,000 episodes old, began as a very watchable story of two sisters unlike in almost every way. But it has dragged on and on, thus becoming repetitive and more unbelievable as it tries to sustain interest.

Nimki Mukhiya and Saam Daam Dand Bhed (Star Bharat) seemed path-breaking in their exploration of grassroots politics and empowerment. A few months later, they are shedding their novelty for the time-worn plot of love triangles. Every time a serial screams out “this is us”, it mutates into the same old melodrama. Alas.

So the upheavals we see every day on the TV news channels, the latest being the Dalit protests in Maharashtra, find little artistic articulation on TV. It is said in defence of TV, that the soaps target the middle-class women in cities like Nagpur, Kanpur or Jodhpur and the aspirational younger generation in the metros. Not the rich or privileged people like us. Does that seem condescending and paternalistic? Or just an excuse to justify the lack of experimentation?

Barring the likes of Anil Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan (in at least one series), film stars have disdained television. And television has ignored the limited series like Big Little Lies which could have attracted them to the smaller screen and given audiences something meaty to chew on.


When, if ever, will Indian television fiction come of age?