Archive for March, 2008

It’s tunnel vision on television

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

March 23, 2008

I watch very little television. Not because I have anything against the medium, but because I rarely find anything on it to sustain my interest. My TV viewing consists of films on the movie channels once in a while and some favourite English serials. And sometimes I watch bits of Indian reality shows to see how much of an ass people are ready to make of themselves to be on television and earn big money, and how blindingly gaudy are the clothes they are willing to wear in the process of doing so.

Several new entertainment channels have been launched in recent months, and only a Cassandra would know how many more are itching to unleash themselves on us in the coming 12 months. And the absurdity of the whole situation is that each new channel is exactly like all the old ones we had! It is amazing to see the same mix of content in channel after entertainment channel after channel. The identical saas-bahu serials shot in that bright flat lighting that casts no shadows, that is Ekta Kapoor’s contribution to film technique. The reality song-and-dance shows starring vaguely familiar TV stars. The over-the-top comedy shows about eccentric joint families (strangely enough, TV producers appear to believe that Gujarati families are more likely to be eccentric than those from any other community). The serials about troubled young men and women where the actors look like they spend their weekdays in beauty parlours and their weekends at their colleges. Stand-up comedian contests replete with sexist and quite often offensive jokes, but none of the judges, guffawing like runaway locomotives, ever seem to notice this. Not a single new programming idea, not a single attempt to break the mould, do something that has not been beaten and bludgeoned to death, no intention at all to cock one’s ear to a different drummer. Even Ramayana has returned.

Is there no TV audience in India for anything other than repetition, reiteration and recapitulation? Of course, I can sense the logic these channels are following: these formulae have been successful for many years now, so go with the flow, while claiming to be unique. As a client once told me during my advertising days two decades ago: “What I want is a breakthrough idea that has been tried and tested many times before.”

But how many saas-bahu serials can a human being watch? The people who direct these serials would surely look at themselves as ‘creative’ people. Don’t they ever feel like creating something new and distinctive? If the answer to that question is: the masses want only this kind of stuff, and we have to give them what they want, my reply would be: but when was the last time you did anything different and checked? When was the last time any channel aired something like a Nukkad or a Karamchand?

OK, fine, let’s assume the masses have changed since then, and a Nukkad won’t get high TRPs today. And TRPs are crucial to get advertising and sponsorship. So how come MTV commands higher advertising rates than ETC, when the latter music channel has much higher TRPs? The answer is that the MTV viewer is perceived as richer and better educated and more likely to buy premium products. It’s the same as in print media. Upmarket products with smaller readerships are getting fatter by the day, gorging on more and more advertising pages. Have mass television, by all means, but surely there is a market for class television in Hindi (I am not familiar with TV programming in other Indian languages, so can’t comment on them)? That market may be much smaller than the one for serials in which everyone wakes up in the morning in full make-up, but the average household in that market would surely have higher buying power than the saas-bahu one, and is also more likely to be an opinion leader. And they are interested in Hindi entertainment; that’s why so many quirky Hindi movies are making money, the ones that are referred to as ‘made for an urban audience’.

I wish someone would take the risk and try a channel that is intelligent and entertaining for an evolved audience, and call the bluff in this cloning game.

And the client who wanted the tried-and tested breakthrough idea? We got a cricketer to endorse his brand. I don’t think the brand exists any more.

Those anonymous saints of the smile

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

Mar 09, 2008

These last few days, I have been pondering one of the great mysteries of our times. And I can find no answers. So expect a lot of question marks in this column.

Who the hell thinks up those jokes that friends send you via SMS or by mail, and which you then pass on to other friends? I don’t know anyone who has ever written a joke — and I know lots of genuinely funny people. A senior IPS friend of mine regularly texts me jokes, at least five or six every day. I asked him where he gets his jokes from. He said his boss sends them to him (I must admit I immediately had a fleeting vision of our top policemen spending their working day SMSing jokes to colleagues and falling off their chairs laughing while criminals ran riot on the streets). Who are these funny people who do this selfless anonymous social service, periodically letting loose a message on the airwaves that finds it way eventually to possibly millions of mobile phones and email boxes across the world? Who are these saints of the smile?

What sort of persons would they be? And I am not talking here about stand-up comedians or your newspaper comic strip writers or the professional joke writers whose job is to think up jokes for American TV shows. I am talking about the jokes that you and I get in our mail and mobile phones. Some of them may be written by professionals, and someone enjoyed them so much that he wanted to share them with friends. But my guess would be that this would be a small percentage of the jokes that zoom through the ether every day. Most of them would have been created by people who are not paid jokesters but chaps in regular jobs who thought up a joke between balancing accounts or selling soap. The visual ones involving photographs would, of course, definitely be from people who work in some sort of design job, because they demand technical skill.

But what is truly interesting to me is the anonymity part of it. Because I think it would be a rare jokeman who would send off his jokes to his pals with a “Hey, I just wrote this”. So even if his joke has the receivers in splits, they would never know that they have in their midst a comic genius. And the delivery system we are talking about is such that it is very possible that a few months later, the joke would come back to his mobile phone from someone. Does he then SMS back that it was he who is the original author? Or does he just feel a tiny warm glow inside him and a sense of accomplishment, that his joke has been widely appreciated? I may be quite wrong, but I would think the latter would be more true.

Could these people be capable of writing longer funny pieces? Again, I am guessing, the answer is no, for most of them. Jokes are very different from humorous short stories or novels. I doubt whether P.G. Wodehouse could have written a joke. Much of Wodehouse’s humour derives from the plot, the language and the dialogue. It is situational comedy, not the pithy joke as we know it: “Q: What does an agnostic dyslexic insomniac do? A: Stay up all night and wonder if there’s a Dog.” The classic joke, in most cases, is short, precise, sharp, sometimes just one sentence (“Confucius say: Man who want pretty nurse, must be patient). If a Wodehouse novel is a stately manor filled with the sound of laughter, a joke is a brick thrown through someone’s glass window.

Having pondered these extremely serious issues at length, I found myself confronted with even more basic questions: What are jokes anyway? How do they work? So I went to Wikipedia and discovered the following: among experts who have studied jokes are Kant, Bergson, Freud and Koestler (none of whom strike me as men with a great sense of humour). I was also informed that in 1975, anthropologist Mary Douglas noted that “Joking as one mode of expression has yet to be interpreted in its total relation to other modes of expression”; scholar Seth Graham remarked that 30 years later this statement remains largely valid. Whatever that means, other than sounding very meaningful. And I doubt if our anonymous do-gooders would give two hoots about it.