Category Archives: Television

More Amartya

Sagarika Ghose, known for her tendency to make everyone jump to her conclusions, makes a mess of this entire interview with Amartya Sen.

Sagarika Ghose: So you are not saying talk to the enemy, do not lock him up.

Amartya Sen: No, I am not saying that.

Sagarika Ghose: But that’s the kind of message I am getting from your book.

Amartya Sen: Are you sure you are not reading a different book?

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The importance of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge

Watching reruns of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Star One got me thinking about the impact that this show has had. I suspect that beneath all the fun and laughter, there is something that we can all learn about ourselves through this show. Here then is an attempt to deconstruct TGILC.

Defining Indian Humour
For long we thought that Indians did not have a sense of humour, and even if we did it seemed to rely a lot on slapstick comedy, physical humour and general stereotyping of various ethnic groups in the country. A good reflection of this is of course Bollywood which is a cultural indicator as good as any. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge changed all that forever. It proved that we are not only at good at laughing at others, we can laugh equally well at ourselves too. Why we can also laugh at ‘Seinfeld’ian observational humour (for instance Raju Srivastav’s wittily disguised social commentary on a typical Indian middle/lower middle class marriage function in Mumbai featuring an ensemble of characters like the bride’s father, the mandatory tapori etc all played by Raju ).

I have a feeling this show (now heading to a third season) will have an important role in defining the nature of Indian humour. After all these are defining times for India in a number of other areas too. With the world’s eye on India, it’s a good enough time to take stock of what it is that makes us Indian. This process of definition will no doubt be tumultuous as shown by the spate of protests we see every day (be it the Gere-Shetty kiss, or perceived disrespect towards the national flag). Defining a sense of humour for ourselves is not a new concept – one look at leading American talk shows like The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show etc and you know that the American sense of humour is one that focuses primarily on laughing at oneself. It’s not surprising that a nation that symbolizes wealth and abundance is secure enough to laugh at itself.

Small town ambition
Secondly, this show typifies to me the ambition of small town India. A country whose average age stands at 24.8 surely must have a lot of ambition bubbling in it (or as Sidhu would put it, youthful exuberance), and who says that this ambition should be restricted to urban India. A majority of the show’s contestants have been from towns in UP, Bihar, Punjab, Gujarat etc. They falter in their English, their pronunciation embarrasses us sometimes, but most of them still manage to make us laugh.

One reason why they make us laugh is the elementary fact that they are indeed funny. However, sometimes I find myself laughing out of admiration for their sharp insight into current trends, events, cultural differences etc. What makes them funny is that the point of view they present is often that of an outsider, a common man on the street who fails to understand the strange workings of that mysterious species – the urban elite. Interestingly, this ‘outsider’ is also comfortable in his own skin. He is no wannabe. He seems to be extending a hand of friendship to his urban elite counterpart, and saying ‘we are in this madness called India together’. He is glad to offer to us a peek into his unique world (Navin Prabhakar’s Pehchan Kaun routine about this Mumbai bar girl at a PCO comes to mind).

The urban response to small town India
Shekhar Suman and Navjyot Singh Sidhu seem to typify the urban response to small town India. While Sidhu is usually gung ho to the point of it appearing ridiculous, Shekhar seems to have a more patronizing response towards contestants. Don’t these two extreme responses remind you of how people in urban India react to the reservations issue (after all, the non creamy layer does refer to small town India)? Why, to stretch the argument a little bit, it is actually similar to the way Indian media treats this ‘other India’ – the Aaj Tak approach (no holds barred) versus the CNN IBN (staid, urbane) approach. Hmm.

This formation of identity hypothesis and small town ambition is not restricted to TGILC. They are equally applicable to other reality shows like Indian Idol, Fame Gurukul etc. So the next time you watch The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, pay attention to the cultural subtext that is playing out!

[Readers are welcome to point out flaws in my arguments above]

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Interviewers on TV

It’s that time of the year when I pontificate about the stuff that I find interesting on TV these days. This time, I talk about interviewers.

1. Karan Thapar – Since he started hosting ‘Devil’s Advocate’, Karan has turned into the human equivalent of a rabid dog (at the risk of sounding offensive). He gnaws at his guest’s intellectual ankle as it were, and doesn’t let go till he gets answers. Occassionally this tendency leads to highly defensive interviews (Ex. Chidambaram, Rahul Bajaj) where the guest turns the entire interview into a ‘Karan vs. Me’ freak show.

2. Arnab Goswami‘Frankly Speaking’ is one of the most interesting shows on news channels these days, if only because of Arnab’s unabashed disdain for celebrities. While Karan works with his aggressive puppy routine, Arnab works with a principle of steady, unwavering condescension. Shah Rukh: You want me to be offensive? I can give you a gaali. (Twinkle in the eye. Dimples on display. Audible gushing by millions of female fans.)

Arnab (dripping with sarcasm): You wouldn’t dare to Shah Rukh.

Shah Rukh: Yes I could.

Arnab (unwavering condescension): You wouldn’t dare to Shah Rukh.

If he had a wooden ruler, Arnab would surely cane his guests for misbehaving and/or taking themselves too seriously.

3. Vir Sanghvi: Vir currently hosts ‘Face the Music’ for NDTV, arguably the most tacky show on news channels these days. It looks straight out of DD Metro from the mid 90s. Three guests for a 25 minute show, and a band doesn’t leave much scope for a discussion in any depth. For a while Vir seemed to be the the resident shrink on TV (shades of Simi) with Star Talk (some years back), but since then it’s been a downhill journey of di’worse’ification and dilution of brand equity by hosting multiple shows on various channels.

4. Rajdeep Sardesai, Sagarika et al. – While CNN-IBN is probably the best English channel around, as far as interviewing skills go the less said the better. The dominant strain of interviewing seen here is one of ‘let’s put words into the guest’s mouth – words which we want to hear’. Rajeev Masand also deserves to be locked up somewhere – reading movie reviews from a tele-prompter does not an entertaining show make.

5. Prabhu Chawla: (stunned silence)

Yes there are all kinds of interviewers, but they seem to add a lot more value to television viewing when compared to ‘breaking news’ obsessed journalism.

As for interviewees, Rahul Bajaj takes the cake, cherry, cream, and the cardboard box too.

Rahul Bajaj: (asks where Karan studied)
Karan Thapar:If it is relevant I will tell you. I went to Doon School, Cambridge, Oxford and I know a lot about politics.
Rahul Bajaj: I went to Cathedral, St. Stephens, and Harvard, slightly better than you in every respect. So I understand logic. But I am a humble man unlike you.

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IBN, Times Now & NDTV – keeping the debate on

It is refreshing to note that the TV news media in India has become the only place where the tradition of a good intellectual debate survives. Yesterday, I managed to catch watch two excellent discussions – one, conducted by Arnab Goswami on the pesticide in cola issue, and the second, by the ocassionally rambling, but largely dependable Rajdeep Sardesai on the Natwar Singh story. Of course, the guests (the likes of Arun Shourie) did most of the talking, but credit must be given to the news channels for creating such shows. They could just as well have gone on about Rakhi Sawant, as Aaj Tak is fond of doing, but they choose in times of such cheap titillation to stick to core journalistic values. They choose to hold on to whatever is left of those overarching principles that the fourth estate has always professed. So, I forgive Rajdeep for insensitively rambling about how IBN was the first to carry images of the Mumbai blasts all over the world. And we must be grateful to Prannoy Roy for grooming a fine bunch of journalists, who kept the flame burning, albeit on different channels.

And clearly, parliament is no place for such debates, as voiced eloquently by Sagarika Ghosh here. It’s a shame, this wasting of public money to make a mockery of democracy on national television.

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The war for news

CNN IBN, the only English news channel with personality has one annoying thing about it. It’s these SMS based polls they conduct to test the “mood of the nation”. Surely, Rajdeep Sardesai understands that the only participants in such polls would be English speaking, urban, educated Indians with a mobile phone. Surely, such a poll cannot be representative of the mood of the nation.

On other fronts, CNN IBN has raced far ahead of the old lady in red, NDTV. With the loss of the likes of Rajdeep and Arnab Goswami and a whole lot of others, NDTV seems to be having a crisis of talent. CNN IBN, on the other hand has managed to put together a crew of highly engaging and interesting presenters who all seem to have a distinct personality (unlike Sonia Verma, Vikram Chandra, Vishnu Shom and others at NDTV who all sound the same). NDTV looks as indistinguishable as DD News these days. From a marketing perspective, CNN IBN actually seems to have taken over ownership of the colour red, even though NDTV sported it for long. If I was at NDTV, I would be thinking of doing something about the theme colour, apart from hiring some engaging news presenters and improving content.

The title for the post comes from this new media blog, that seems to have assumed the role of a brutally honest critic of Indian TV news media. What’s more, the blog is actually run by insiders in the media industry, and makes for some interesting reading. Link: The War for News.

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Major irritants on television

Here it is… the list of major irritants on television, based on a scientific study I conducted, which involved swithching channels at a rate faster than a human eye’s blink.
  • All hindi news channels: The only thing good about the Pramod Mahajan attack was that after quite a while it finally gave hindi news channels something real to talk about. Till now they have been very busy with “stories” which involve interviews with MS Dhoni’s childhood hair stylist in Jamshedpur.
  • British Asian Hip-Hop type dudes: I am referring to alien species such as the monkey in the Bombay Rockers duo, the DJs whatevers (including Nikhil Chinappa) with 4 rings on each hand and a woolen cap (that most Indians know rightly as a monkey cap)
  • Hindi News Channels discussing the stock market: My only advice to them is – ‘Leave it to CNBC guys.’
  • CNBC discussing the ‘India Story’ – It looks like CNBC is much more excited about the Indian economy than even the finance minister himself. Watch Ramesh Damania on Oriental and Occidental gush to his interviewees about the Indian economy. He even appears mildly disappointed if one of his guests even mentions China in a positive light.
  • “Original ads” of CNN-IBN and Airtel, both of which try hard to inspire with black and white clips of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela etc. Didn’t Apple do this a long while back??
  • After Hours on Zee Cafe where Nina Pillai takes us through the decadence and stupidity of India’s page 3 brigade.

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Karan Thapar’s interview of Musharraf – One Hour of Television History

A pat on the back to Karan Thapar for what was a fantastic interview of Musharraf that he did for CNN IBN. I cannot recollect having seen such a well controlled and logically conducted interview on television for a long time, not even on BBC. Thapar’s approach is simple. First, he makes a proposition to his interviewee and asks for his opinion. The interviewee inevitably gives a politically correct answer. Then, Thapar follows up with a huge pile of facts that contradict the interviewee’s statement. To see, Musharaff stutter and stammer like an errant school kid in the face of Thapar’s unforgiving logical reasoning was quite an unprecedented moment in television history.

At one point, Thapar quietly inquired whether the General was so desperate to take the peace process forward that he was even willing to take ideas from a television journalist (to which the General mumbled an embarrassed ‘yes’). Take a bow, Karan Thapar.

Observations on Musharraf:
Pervez Musharraf’s statements clearly gave him away as a authoritarian leader. He called for the Indian leadership to stop taking ideas from ‘agencies’ and ‘organizations’. He even clearly stated that any leader should be firm enough to ensure that his own ideas are implemented and if anyone does not toe the leader’s line, he does not have any place in the leader’s view of things. Variations of this theme were repeatedly expressed throughout the interview in a rather unapologetic manner.

Pervez Musharraf loves to show bravado in his words. His repeated usage of phrases like ‘this is absolute nonsense’ in the place of careful logic and argument show a man who pulls the trigger before he thinks. It is not too difficult to imagine him reaching for the nuclear button if Manmohan Singh irritates him too much! Perhaps, his not being a politician in the true sense means that his approach to problem solving is one of proposing ideas, filtering out bad ones, and picking one and executing it. Diplomacy, however does not work in the same way as an advertising agency working on a product’s positioning!

In the end, it was a fantastic 2 part series. Musharraf may regret his choice of words and his illogical bravado, but to be fair, it was quite refreshing to see some honest answers to tricky questions.
Do read the full transcript here.

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