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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 32 New Delhi August 1, 2015

TV Entertainment Industry in India: Characteristics and Trends

Friday 31 July 2015

by Naresh Nadeem

The paper presented here, an impressionistic account, deals with the TV entertainment media in India, its course of development, its characteristics, and its implications and lessons for Pakistan. The paper seeks to situate the issue in the context of the development of the TV entertainment media that has registered a phenomenal growth in the last three decades and more so after the entry of private players in the 1990s. Three years ago, the present writer had presented here a paper on “Growth of Journalism in the Subcontinent in the First Half of the Twentieth Century”, detailing how in the pre-1947 period the Indian bourgeoisie by and large refrained from making investments in the newspaper business. In fact it was the urban middle class that brought out newspapers and magazines, often with meagre resources, and made all kinds of sacrifices, as a part of its fight for independence, but it was the bourgeoisie that reaped the benefits which these middle class endeavours and sacrifices generated. But the situation dramatically changed after independence and the bourgeoisie, which had displayed a degree of cowardice vis-à-vis British imperialism insofar as the newspaper publication was concerned, came forward to invest in the business in a big way.

However, as early as in the 1950s, the Press Commission of India had noted the degeneration, then albeit in an embryonic form, that was creeping into the newspaper business. And now, our finding is that the journalistic as well as entertainment media are in the grip of a full-fledged degeneration, with little ray of hope at the end of the tunnel—at least at the present juncture. Dominance of corporate houses, Indian as well as non-Indian, a strong orientation among media houses to profit-making, casteism and communalism, blatant anti-woman bias, and disappearance of the peasantry, working class, artisans and even lower middle class from the contents of the entertainment media are some of the vices that we in India are forced to contend with. In this process, the media in India are not only going increasingly away from the social realities but also increasing and intensifying the sense of deprivation among the viewers, thus making its own contribution to the growth of criminality in the country.


Writing in weekly Young India on July 2, 1925, Mahatma Gandhi thus explained his own preference for taking to journalism: “I have taken up journalism not for its own sake but merely as an aid to what I have conceived to be my mission in life.” It is another thing that many of the contemporary newspaper editors did not really give much credence to his mission, which was “strictly limited” in his own words—to propagate the ideal of satyagraha and non-violence through journalism.

However, what he said some time between 1925 and 1929, when his autobiography was being serialised in a Gujarati newspaper, must have been more acceptable to the makers of public opinion at that time: “One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments, and the third is to fearlessly expose popular defects.” (Quoted by J. Natarajan, History of Indian Journalism, second reprint: July 2000, p 184)

In fact, the whole of Indian nationalist media—confined though it was at that time to newspapers and periodicals on the one hand and cinema on the other—grew along these very lines: understanding and giving expression to the popular feelings; arousing among the people desirable sentiments, and fearlessly exposing the “popular defects”.

While the subject chosen for the present paper is growth of the TV entertainment media in India after independence and its characteristics, we have to come to cinema for a comparison with the pre-independence period.

Cinema in the Pre-1947 Period

The period when Indian cinema came into existence, and when its contours became more clearly defined, was also the period when India’s struggle for independence gradually reached a crescendo. The first Indian film came out in 1912 and the immediately following years—1914-15—saw a powerful, albeit poorly organised and failed, attempt for independence in the form of the Ghadar Party whose saga inspired revolutionary youth of the later years. Then there came the Khilafat movement, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the non-cooperation movement, the rise and growth of communist and socialist ideas in the country, the movement of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, the Chittagong armoury raid, the formation of the All India Kisan Sabha, All India Students Federation, Progressive Writers Association and Indian People’s Theatre Association, to name only a few events—all within a span of three decades.

Cinema certainly could not remain isolated or unaffected from these myriad trends. Though there indeed were made what were called “propaganda films” even at that time, largely with the finance coming from official or semi-official sources, nationalist and progressive ideas dominated the cinema at the time. A case in point is the Ashok Kumar-Devika Rani starrer Janmabhoomi, a 1938 production, which very clearly identified the landlords, government officials, moneylenders and purohits (priests) as the four biggest enemies of the Indian peasant. This reminded the viewer of Godan, the magnum opus of the great Urdu writer Premchand, which had appeared only two years earlier.

A deep sense of idealism was one of the direct products of our struggle for national liberation which was propelled by a full-fledged and powerful vision about the country’s future, and anyone wishing to have a feel of that vision may go through the Congress resolution that was adopted in March 1931 in this very city, Karachi. It was this very vision of a free, sovereign, secular and prosperous India, which motivated the media, including cinema, at that time.

How idealistically oriented Indian cinema was at that time is clear from, among other films, V. Shantaram’s classic, Teen Batti Char Rasta, in which daughters-in-law of the family’s head came from various linguistic groups and in which one of the members of the family depicted is engaged in preparing a pan-Indian dictionary, covering all the languages spoken in India at the time, including Sindhi, Pashto and Baloch. The idea was that Indians of various linguistic nationalities must not have any difficulty in conversing with one another and that our national unity must thus get strengthened amid all the linguistic diversities found here. There is no doubt that the project was a gigantic one, and was utopian and almost impractical as well, but what gave meaning to the film was the genuineness of the sentiment that lay behind it.

And Shantaram was no exception at all; in fact all the leading banners of the time, including Himanshu Ray, Bimal Mitra, Ardeshar Irani, Chetan Anand, K. Asif and Mehboob Khan, were motivated by this kind of idealism. The three greats of Indian cinema, namely, Dilip Kumar aka Yousuf Khan, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, made their appearance in the 1940s when this sense of idealism was at its peak. Their greatness as well as their appeal among the masses owed much to this kind of all-pervading idealism.

How this trend continued for some time is evident from the films produced by Raj Kapoor, for instance. These included Aag,Barsaat,Awara,Shri420,Boot Polish,Jaagate Raho,Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and Mera Naam Joker. All these are films with one or another message. Aag (Fire), for example, tells us that one need not run after external beauty; the basic thing is that one’s heart should be beautiful. Awara (The Tramp) stresses the idea that criminals are not born; they are made. Shri 420 (Mr Fraud) tells us that there is no shortcut to prosperity and that only collective action can meet our grievances. Boot Polish is a film in which the Great Showman totally absented himself and gave the space to two toiling children, while the veteran David left a lasting impression on viewers. Dignity of labour: this is the message of the film.

As for Jaagate Raho (Keep Awake!), there is no direct message in this film which tells us the story of a simple young rustic who comes to Bombay in search of a job but nobody offers him even a few drops of water when he feels intensely thirsty. In a poignant sequence, and this is the height of tragedy, a drunkard Motilal offers him wine but no water. But the film is memorable in many ways. To escape the residents of a chawl (big multi-storey houses in Mumbai, crowded by the low class or lower middle class people) who take the hero to be a thief, the young peasant (Raj Kapoor) passes by or through many of the quarters and sees what immoral or criminal activities are going on there. The chawl in fact represents in microcosm the India which we know, and the film turns out to be a big and biting exposure of our society as a whole. While the sequences where Motilal and Raj Kapoor come face to face, present a marvellous acting competition between two greats (Raj Kapoor’s silent acting through changing facial expressions in this film is memorable), the song accompanying the bhangra dance can be easily put among valuable pieces of socialist verse in the world. When one listens to it, one not only feels elated but also feels compelled to think. Here is Raj Kapoor at his elemental best.

Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (The Country Where the Ganges Flows) is concerned with the menace of robbers, and is sympathetic to these victims of society. Nay more, it anticipated by full 14 years the late Shri Jayaprakash Narayan’s feat of inducing the dacoits to surrender and come to the national mainstream. (The film was a 1960 production, while JP organised the dacoits’ surrender in 1974.) Contrary to some other films on the issue, some of them highly (or vulgarly) commercialised, Raj Kapoor shot the film in the dreaded Chambal valley itself. If the dacoits’ leaders of the time welcomed his messenger, it only showed how even dacoits had had great faith in his word.

All these films combined a message with a healthy kind of entertainment, and hit the box office.

Sangam (Confluence, 1964) was a purely romantic film centred on two friends, one of whom shoots himself dead in order to save the married life of his friend. But Kal, Aaj aur Kal (Yesterday,Today and Tomorrow, 1971) is a slow-moving film which neither impressed the viewers nor scored at the box office, despite the relevance of its storyline.

If most of the Raj Kapoor films were commercial hits as well, it only shows that their messages did touch the hearts of the viewers.

From Idealism to Degeneration

But the situation began to change roughly around the mid-1970s, and if we chose the example of Raj Kapoor, it was precisely because, to our mind, his works best symbolised the transition from bourgeois idealism to bourgeois degeneration. It is said that the commercial failure of Mera Naam Joker (My Name is Joker, 1971) disheartened the Great Showman no end, and he then chose a different path altogether. However, it was not the story of one individual film producer but part of a general trend. The fact is that Mera Naam Joker was a commercial failure only in the beginning and that it earned a lot only a few years later, in Raj Kapoor’s own lifetime. We must also not forget that this was the film that gave Raj Kapoor a distinct image and, as a whole line of documentaries and other programmes underlined, it made him the biggest showman as well as the most lovable joker of Indian cinema. The line “rahenge yaheen apne nishan” (our marks will remain here) from one of the lyrics of this film became a permanent reminder that Raj Kapoor is always with us.

Yet this is also a fact that all the subsequent R K productions bear a hallmark of degeneration. To take here only one aspect, if the depiction of female body was sensuous in earlier R K films, it became vulgar in the subsequent ones.

Then there also remains the fact that after the death of Shailendra, Jaikishan and Mukesh, Raj Kapoor himself sidelined the remaining members of his team, namely, Shankar, Hasrat Jaipuri and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, and this only accelerated the speed of degeneration in R K productions. The extent of degeneration was so great that while reviewing Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), an R K film, noted writer Rahi Masoom Raza felt constrained to say that if the title of the film was in Sanskrit, his comment was in Arabic—Lahaul bila quwwat!

Another important fact here is that the demise of the Progressive Writers Association too contributed no less to the growth of this degeneration. If Raj Kapoor sidelined Khwaja Ahmed Abbas at one stage, which deprived the subsequent R K films of all social content, it was by no means an isolated event. The truth is that it was a whole generation of young progressive poets and writers who, ill-fed and ill-clad as they were (for example, Akhtarul-Iman was brought up in a Delhi orphanage), reached Mumbai one after another in search of livelihood during the 1940s and 1950s, and it is they who took the Bombaiya film industry to new heights. These included Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianavi, Kaifi Azmi, Asad Bhopali, Jaan Nisar Akhtar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Mazrooh Sultanpuri, Prem Dhawan, Shahid Lateef, Ismat Chaghtai, Indivar and many others, whose storylines and songs reflected the common man’s joys and agonies; their lyrics too were not only lyrical in a very real sense but also related to the concerned storylines. But most of them had either departed from this world or were sidelined, or else they had become inactive, by the end-1970s. The extent of devaluation of these poets and writers was clear from the fact that in the last part of his life veteran Urdu poet Gurbakhsh Singh ‘Makhmoor’ Jalandhari had to take to ghost writing in order to earn a living.

The Advent of Soap Operas

It was in this milieu that the first soap opera appeared in India in the first half of the 1980s. It was the TV serial titled Hum Log (We People) that was telecast by Doordarshan, the official and at that time the only TV channel in India.

Telecast in 156 weekly episodes after its beginning on July 7, 1984, Hum Log depicted the joys and sorrows, travails and gains of an ordinary middle class family in the first half of the 1980s, and the people expressed their likeness not only for the novelty of the medium but also for the content of the serial. All episodes of the serial except the last one were of half-an-hour’s duration, and every episode left the people waiting for the next Saturday evening when the following episode would entertain them. The fact that several extensions were granted to the serial and it continued for full three years testified to its popularity among the viewers. It is said that the choice of Saturday evenings for its telecast was deliberate—that was the time when most people were expected to be home. (It was a six-day week in all offices, till the Rajiv Gandhi Government introduced a five-day week in all offices except those providing essential services.) Sunday evenings, in contrast, were supposed to be the time when many, if not all, people would be out on a family picnic.

A prominent feature of the serial was the appearance of Ashok Kumar at the end of every episode. Some critics have dubbed him as narrator of the serial, but unlike other narrators he appeared at the end of an episode, not at the beginning. In his about two-minute appearance, he not only summarised the story of that particular episode but also talked about its ethic. This had its own charm for the viewers; they took him as a veteran patriarch trying to show the younger generations the correct path. (Ashok Kumar was then, indeed, like a veteran patriarch of the extended family called India.) His way of presentation, interspersed with Urdu couplets, light but healthy jokes and musical pranks (of which he was an expert), also regaled the audience no end.

However, no one suffered any sense of loss when the serial Hum Log disappeared from the small screen. About a year before this serial ended, another one—titled Buniyaad (The Foundation)—had already made its appearance. The fact that these two serials had some of the cast in common and that the second serial too was written by the same writer (Manohar Shyam Joshi) also gave the viewers a sense of continuity. Buniyaad was centred on the horrors of the country’s partition and its aftermath.

This was followed by a spate of serials by a host of new producers, and these covered a variety of themes. However, serials based on the culture of Punjab (where a secessionist terrorist movement was going on at the time), on women’s issues, on the drug menace etc. received finance from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, as these themes were in the priority list of the Union Government.

This period also saw the appearance of Nukkad (Street Corner) by Saeed Mirza, a well-known film producer, who depicted a small street as India in a microcosm. Its inherent charm soon made the government ask for the creation of NayaNukkad (NewStreet Corner) within a few years.

A serial which deserves particular mention here was Tamas (Darkness), produced by Gobind Nihalani in 1989 and based on the late Bhisham Sahni’s novel of the same title, published in 1974. Like Buniyaad,Tamas too was centred on the theme of the country’s partition but it far surpassed the other one in terms of its bitter and stark realism. The message was powerful and incensed a section of the political class who staged street demonstrations against it; they also attacked and damaged the Hyderabad relay centre of Doordarshan. This was the very first instance of protest against a TV serial in India. However, to the chagrin of its opponents, not only the serial’s viewership increased; the sale of the novel too got a boost and it was reprinted several times within a few months span.

Expansion of the Medium

Now we go a little back in time. Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was alive when Hum Log made its appearance, but she was gunned down by her own bodyguards within a few months, on October 31, 1984.

The regime presided over by Mrs Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, took two major decisions in the context of the electronic media. First, it abolished the licence fee payable at the purchase of every radio or TV set. It meant a substantial loss of revenue for the government (in 1985 the fee was Rs 25 a year for a radio or transistor set and Rs 100 for a TV set, and the first instalment was paid through the dealer at the time of the purchase), but the Rajiv Gandhi Government took steps to make up for the loss through advertisement revenues. The impact of this decision was not felt immediately but it proved crucial in course of time, increased the dependence on corporate houses, and thus paved the way for privatisation of the medium within a few years.

The second major decision was about the expansion of the TV network, and within a few years the network covered over 80 per cent of habitations in the country. TV broadcasting in colour had already begun in 1982 and the network’s expansion added to the people’s preference for colour TV sets. This expansion proved a major lure for the corporate houses which came forward to invest large sums in the TV entertainment industry. The process was simple—many media houses like Hindustan Times, Sahara Media, Times of India and Shri Adhikari Brothers came forward to produce TV progra-mmes for Doordarshan, but soon several of them established independent TV channels when the government opened the field for private players. This took place in the first half of the 1990s.

This led to a contradictory process. To be sure, it freed the TV show business from the clutches of the Central Government and its bureaucrats, which had contributed much to the decline of the official channel’s credibility. The removal of actress Shabana Azmi from the footage of a national unity song simply because she had protested against the brutal murder of theatre artist Safdar Hashmi, or the premature withdrawal of serial Kakka Ji Kahin at the instance of Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting K.K. Tewari, may be taken as milestones in this loss of credibility. At the same time, the initially much touted Prasar Bharati has failed to make a mark in guiding and regulating the official electronic media, and has itself become a playground of the big bureau-crats’ whims. However, with the privatisation of the TV entertainment industry, the medium now became captive of big producers as well as mafia groups who invest ill-gotten money in this line, just as they do in films, and the medium is today as much out of control of the common viewer as it was before. Today the situation is that if the common viewers’ liking and disliking determine the fate of many a cinema producer, the viewers are constrained to see what the TV channels offer them in the name of entertainment. Despite all the hullabaloo about TRP etc, TV is a captive medium, is dependent on the ad-givers’ preferences, and has no care for what the common viewer needs.

Soap Operas Today

This has had its own impacts. If the first TV serial of India concentrated on the joys and sorrows of the ordinary middle class people, this class has almost totally disappeared from the content of TV serials now, while the workers, artisans, peasants and other such people had seldom figured in this sphere. Now it is the life of the upper middle class or the bourgeoisie that is the prominent theme, but that too is depicted in a most superficial manner. Feuds within a big corporate house or between two houses are now the running theme of many a TV serial, at the cost of all other reality. To be sure, some such serials (for example, Manzil) had appeared when the official Doordarshan was the only channel, but this was not a dominant theme in those days. But now the situation is different and the exception has become the rule. Moreover, just like the Indian film industry, any one single theme is being utilised for dozens of TV serials, with only minor variations.

Secondly, the grip of big houses on the industry is palpable. While, as said earlier, several corporate houses have their own channels, there are others who have big stakes in the industry. Particularly mention-worthy in this context is that one single moneybag has been financing dozens of TV serials on various channels, and this fellow is the relative (and supposed to be the conduit) of a well-known financier who is considered close to a mafia don and has once been in the police net though he came out in no time. A number of TV or film actors are said to be at his beck and call, and come to any TV show as guests wherever they are told to come.

It is because of this corporate dominance that TV serials are now being sold at 40 or 50 lakh or even one crore rupees per episode. If we leave entertainment TV apart for a moment, the “paid news” phenomenon, which raised its ugly head in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, showed the corporate greed for profit in a very blatant manner. Needless to say, while TV viewers have not to pay a single paisa now as licence fee for their TV sets, it is they who are being fleeced, as the share of advertisements in the prices of various products has gone up to 60 or 70 percent, or even more.

Thirdly, TV serials are now not confined to 13, 26 or 52 episodes, as most of the earlier serials were. There have been serials which have run into 500 or more episodes, leaving The Mahabharata far behind in the length of their storylines. The method is simple: whenever the story of a serial seems coming to an end, a new character is born from nowhere; this starts another storyline and it continues for a few more months. When a serial was made on the Hindi novel Chandrakanta, very soon the storyline transcended the novel and the new storyline was not to be found either in the original novel or in its sequel called Chandrakanta Santati. 

Fourthly, TV serials have given rise to a tragicomic situation. In these serials one often hears that so and so owns a company of 5000 crore rupees or that so and so lost 800 crore rupees because of some internal sabotage. But just one example will point out the unreality of such assertions—in one serial Ram Kapoor, who resembles Mr Mukesh Ambani a bit (but only a bit) has been described as number one industrialist of the country, but the serial shows him lacking a domestic servant or himself driving his car and that too a very ordinary one. However, such talks of billions, for which the director or the script writer has not to spend a single paisa from his pocket, tend to arouse among the viewers a sense of deprivation, and there have been cases in which TV serials have motivated someone or other to commit a crime in order to get rich quick. Without any attempt at justifying a rape or other anti-women crimes, one may also say that depiction of female body or dressings in such programmes (as a part of crass consumerism) has been contributing to anti-women crimes in our society. Glorification of sex or violence has not yet assumed a menacing proportion in TV serials, as it has in Bollywood productions, but it is already there in an embryonic form and is likely to grow in future.

Fifthly, most of these serials are seen spreading superstitions in the name of religiosity. Scenes depicting magical snakes, healing effects of charms, efficacy of worship for the cure of an ailing or dying person or for the recovery of stolen goods, etc. can be found in many TV serials, not to mention the full-length horror serials or those based on rebirth stories.

Sixthly, covertly communal serials (for example, Chanakya or Maharana Pratap) have also been telecast on various TV channels. As for the weaker sections of society, adivasis or Dalits seldom figure in these productions. Barring a few, social serials based on a Muslim or Christian background have betrayed a dismal lack of understanding of the concerned group’s manners, customs and rituals.

Seventhly, most of these serials are seen to have a strong anti-woman orientation. In most of them, it is a woman (or two) who is the vamp of the piece. It is such women who all the time hatch conspiracies against others, maybe against their brothers-in-law, and if menfolk seem to be mutually fighting, it is only because of the influence of their respective wives. Several of these women are shown waxing eloquent about samskars, family traditions or family honour, but it is they who are presented as playing all the dirty game.

To proceed, the global crisis of September 2008 impacted our TV entertainment industry as well, and there was a big decline in the production of new TV serials, but the industry faced this situation in a very queer manner. Here we may note that most of the TV channels are 24 hour business in our country, and earlier they telecast each programme twice a day in order to run the services. But the impact of the crisis made them telecast every episode more than twice; for example, Sony channel began to telecast six to eight older episodes of the serial CID or of Crime Patrol everyday. Some other channels adopted a different tactic—while a bogus serial like Saath Nibhana Saathiya was being telecast on Star Plus a few months ago, its older episodes were appearing on Star CJ and Star Utsav in different time slots. This way the industry did withstand the onslaught of the crisis, but its character remains unchanged.

The producers’ logic is simple: we offer to the viewers what they want. However, not going into any detail here as it can be the topic of a separate discussion, the reality is the other way round. For example, a serial called Agale Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Keejo, which had a rural background and was based on the life of a destitute low-caste peasant and his daughters, was very much appreciated, as were some more out-of-the-rut serials, but no producer came forward to pick up the thread. What is idiomatically called bhed chaal (one sheep going in a particular direction and others blindly following it) has since long been known as a characteristic of the Indian film industry, and the same can be said about the TV entertainment industry, as it is the same (or a similar) set of people who control this industry too.

[A shorter version of this paper was presented at the three-day international seminar on Mass Media in South Asia, organised by the Department of Mass Communication, Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology, Karachi on May 29-31, 2011.]

Naresh Nadeem is a veteran writer, journalist and intellectual.