Six reasons Indian TV needs to get its act together

Suchetana Bauri takes a look at why modern Indian TV is getting trounced by Western TV shows and the Internet.


Indian television urgently needs to rediscover its strengths from the  pre-liberalization days of Doordarshan. With each passing year it seems TV shows are becoming increasingly dull, formulaic and out of touch with reality. I won’t be surprised if you have already stopped watching Indian TV.

Family dramas (more complex than Greek mythology) and teary damsels are ruling the Indian TV roost. In comedy unruly and noisy humor marked by chases, collisions, and crude practical jokes are the order of the day. And if all this is not enough then there is still the crash that is Reality TV which is full of innuendo and has very little (if anything at all) to do with real life and people.

Programmes on current affairs, the arts, and religion are almost extinct as TV channels dumb down to chase TRPs.

I remember, growing up in 1980s, when everyone – newspaper columnists, know-it-all neigbour aunties and bus-stop sages had agreed on a judgment: they insisted that television had displaced film and every other medium as the main source of good entertainment, with its drama and grownup comedy.

Those were the days of Buniyaad and Aa Bail Mujhe Maar. The small screen used to be packed with convincing characters, credible plots and incisive wit. Yet here we are today innundated with crude stories, juvenile jokes and mindless spectacle.

Here are six reasons Indian TV has lost the plot, literally:

1) Tell me a story

At the heart of TV’s failure is the straitjacket of the story arc: the unlimited timespan supposedly forced TV producers into formulae requiring over-complex plots which in turn left little space for character development. Currently there are hardly any intricate stories and convincing characters.

However, in the 1980s Doordarshan’s Tamas showed us that even the complexity of real-life can be shoehorned elegantly into the episodic traffic of the small screen. We were shown how if the script is done right, resolution becomes a bonus, not a liability. Thus, the apparently threadbare format of romance thrilled viewers in Kashish.

It turned out that a character as predictable as Malivika Tiwari’s in that serial was intriguingly accommodated in the otherwise creakingly familiar framework of romance.

2) Power of the word and music

During the DD years production teams were not prepared to spend tens of thousands of rupees on costumes, sets, only to scrimp on the script, as happens to be the case these days.

Purana Qila taught us how language and background music, if rightly used, could enhance the TV-watching experience. In the satellite era Anhoni, Aahat, etc sound like awful synopses.

Remember Karamchand – the unique blend of mystery and wit. The verbal mastery of its composers and scriptwriters turned it into a triumph.

3) The lost simplicity

Nowadays, television production houses are supposedly interested only in vast projects that guarantee high TRPs: so the shows have to be packed with drama, unnecessarily glitzy costumes and women who stay at home so that they can be easily identified by so-called target audiences.

This, has meant that that though the one-episode stories may manage to survive, any script with a defined ending will have to disappear. Somehow viewers do not seem to want resolution; they want endless saga. This has meant the death-knell for serials as we understood them during the DD era.

Eighties television’s unique selling point used to be the intimacy of the living room. Today, small screen offerings such as Iss Pyar Ko Kya Naam Doon, Qubool Hai, Madhubala are beginning to dare to jettison the trappings of color, costumes, and set design to focus on human relationships.

Social dynamics, which fuelled serials such as Nukkad and Chunauti are dead in today’s television.

4) The unused assets

In Doordarshan’s heyday, serial makers used to make the most of a limited budget. The intricate sets designs of Tamas, Wagle Ki Duniya and Malgudi Days still remain a wonder.

Back in the day TV actors were stars too: Priya Tendulkar, Anjan Srivastav, et al. Today there is hardly anyone of such talent or charisma on TV.

5) Do serials mean anything

In the Doordarshan era, television was not vacuous pap. Tamas forced its audiences to confront afresh the partition’s inhumanity. Byomkesh Bakshi addressed the social context in which it was set. Farmaan and Kashish deconstructed relationships.

6) Middle Class is missing

TV today must make efforts to lure back middle class audiences of Wagle Ki Duniya and Hum Hindustani. In today’s serials we are hard-pressed to find a convincing take on what it means to be middle-class. Anjan Srivastav’s character in Wagle Ki Duniya provided that rare thing, a middle-class man trying to deal with everyday struggles.

Can Indian television resurrect itself? In the recent past, it may have been flush production houses that have chosen junk over quality, but it’s not all their fault. Most Indian viewers tend to watch pirated versions of American and British TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Sherlock, etc, and those who don’t download the pirated versions watch older episodes that are now available on Indian television.

Until TV starts reflecting a broader diversity of content, people are going to continue migrating to the Internet instead where they can choose their content. Thrown in the constant commercials and it’s a no-brainer for viewers to make the move away from Indian TV. If deep-pocketed TV producers want to remain wealthy, they better start creating shows for those of us who don’t enjoy immature love stories and boring family dramas in our living rooms every evening.

Speak Your Mind