There was a time when one could visit a close friend in the evenings unannounced. That's no longer true. Indian TV serials have now gripped the attention of most households to the extent that weeknights are literally off limits for social interactions.
For quite some time I have been agonizing over the negative impact of the “mini cultural revolution of TV serials” in the lives of people in South Asia. Whatever one may think of these ersatz dramas, one must concede that they are the creations of fertile brains that possess the unfettered capacity for weaving the most preposterous tales of base human emotions: hate, lust, greed, jealousy, vengeance. Whether it's an obsessed mother-in-law plotting to separate her son from his wife or a thwarted lover conspiring to seek revenge, the intrigues are hatched with an air of nonchalance, creating the impression that malice and wickedness are a normal part of human behavior.
In my view tele-serials represent the lowest common denominator of entertainment or what some call “mass art”. But the truth is, they have permeated deep into our national fabric with damaging consequences to our tradition and culture. They have even elbowed out live performances partly because in today's hectic life people prefer the convenience of viewing TV rather than making an arduous journey to a downtown theater. As for classic Television dramas and music performances — these cannot compete with the heady pleasure of watching hip-swinging females feigning obedience to the macho male with the “I will conquer all” look in his eyes. Consequently, “programs of substance” have retreated into oblivion.
I may be in danger of being accused of romanticizing the mostly mediocre TV productions of the pre-serial era. But I would like to remind readers of the contributions that these programs made in entertaining art lovers and educating viewers on their ethnic culture and heritage. Serial watching on the other hand has produced a cohort of couch potatoes replacing the erstwhile reflective and sometimes interactive TV audience. Human communications, too, have suffered since one cannot have a meaningful conversation with a serial-addict for a full 3-hour time slot each evening. An added problem is that non serial-addicts are at a social disadvantage in conversations at dinner parties since they cannot speculate on the hidden reasons for “Saraswati Chandra's amnesia” or express outrage at “Sakshi Goenka's unscrupulous character”.
The proliferation of this kitsch art is clearly driven by the symbiotic relationship between entertainment and big business, since prime time serials generate enormous advertisement revenues. In the context of the art-business nexus I recall the cynical words of Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind”: “what most people don't seem to realize is that there is just as much money to be made out of wreckage of a civilization as from rebuilding of one…..I am making my fortune out of the wreckage”. The serial business is garnering commercial profits through the “wreckage “ of art and culture.
Today TV soaps have become an immense industry, and are fast becoming what Marx termed as “opium of the people”. The characters depicted with their flashy lifestyles are the gilded superstars of this age. True art, by contrast, has declined in status to the level of a pastime and that too for only those who are still interested in the pursuit of the aesthetics. History may not forgive us for allowing this to happen but all we can do now is ask: why did this transformation take place?
One reason may be that the world of soaps is extremely attractive because of its blatant display of intrigue and glitzy glamor. Propagators of true art pay very little attention to catering to the masses through exhibitionism, thus creating a distance between the artist and the audience. Again, for obvious as well as obscure reasons people love to immerse themselves in a fantasy world where bejeweled women decked in sequenced saris cook “dal and roti” in ornately decorated kitchens or the daring policewoman dons her mangalsutra and transforms into a “gharelu bahu” the moment she enters her home. A world where the “real” seamlessly merges with the “surreal” and viewers can escape from the harsh challenges of life.
Serials may offer people the opportunity to escape life's trials and tribulations but this temporary “fix” dulls perception, blunts consciousness and nurtures decadence! It could have long-term repercussions in social attitudes and behavior since with time we may start believing that the “serial characters” really exist and their actions are all kosher….
Advertisements that display dangerous acrobatics are required to warn viewers: “these acts are performed by experts/professionals, please don't try them….” Perhaps serial producers should also issue statutory warnings stipulating that “these acts are performed by fictional characters, please don't try them…”At least that would give audiences a crucial reality check!
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.