Contemporary Indian satellite television

Is the sound bite closer to the Indian argumentative tradition than verbiage, characteristic of most Indians?

This volume is part of a series called ‘Routledge Media, Culture and Social Change in Asia’. Nalin Mehta, in his Introduction, seeks to provide a socio-cultural perspective on contemporary Indian satellite television, which is really a post-1991 phenomenon.

In a country where there is a well-established diverse and free press, it is perhaps surprising that state-regulated radio (All India Radio) and television (Doordarshan) have dominated the air waves for the most part of the 20th century. While news continues to be the preserve of AIR, “private industry broke down the barriers of statist control through a confluence of economic, technological and political factors in the 1990s,” as far as television was concerned.

There are reasons for the state’s dogged monopoly of broadcast news. According to Robin Jeffrey, the factors that contributed to this phenomenon included the legacy of Gandhian austerity and the elitist fear of freely-dispensed information inflaming passions among a largely illiterate populace. But once the barriers came down, India experienced the rise of more than 300 satellite networks and 50-odd 24-hour satellite news channels.

A catalyst show

Much in the way that popular cinema theorists have analysed the unifying factors of the Bollywood movie, Mehta discusses the way in which the ‘Indian Idol’ show in Sony Entertainment Television acted as a catalyst in 2007 for national integration in the troubled region of the North-East, following the selection of two of the show’s finalists — a Gorkha from Darjeeling and a Bengali from Meghalaya.

The overwhelming popular support for these two young men had great symbolic value in terms of Indian-ness, since the contest was all about selecting an Indian Idol. In his own contribution to the volume, Mehta is slightly less successful in proving his point that the lively oral forms of communication of argumentative Indians find resonance in many Indian television talk shows and public debates. He quotes NDTV President Prannoy Roy as saying: “I want a three-sentence reply. I don’t want an 18-sentence reply.” That, presumably, is the reason why news channels prefer an Arun Jaitely or a Sitaram Yechury to a Sundhar Singh Bhandari or a Harkishen Singh Surjeet. This begs the question: Is the sound bite closer to the Indian argumentative tradition than verbiage, characteristic of most of our countrymen and women? There is no answer provided here.

Media in U.P.

Maxine Loynd’s contribution is an interesting account of the refusal of Uttar Pradesh’s Dalit leader Mayawati to engage with the mainstream media — which has little or no Dalit representation — given the fact of high poverty and illiteracy in her constituency. Her Bahujan Samaj Party has, over the last 25 years, developed its own counter-public sphere, comprising Dalit myths, symbols, and oral histories.

In her essay, Roshni Sengupta points out that even though there are quite a few Muslim journalists working in the mainstream media, it does not necessarily follow that Muslim-related issues are dealt with in a sensitive manner.

Maya Ranganathan’s article is among the weakest, in terms of analysis, in this volume. The author fails to explain the connection between politics and cinema in Tamil Nadu. Part of the problem is that she views Dravidian parties and politicians in a homogenous and unhistorical manner. The reality is far more complex and nuanced. Furthermore, it is not at all clear why or how popular interest in cinema is transferred to satellite television, just because a few political parties own television channels.

The two articles on cricket and television — by Boria Majumdar and Peter Hutton, respectively — are long on news reporting and short on analysis. Equally uninspiring is Sharmistha Gooptu’s piece that speaks about how, in the 1980s, the Bengali television got the middle classes to watch films on the small screen, leaving the movie houses to be patronised by the subaltern classes. This, according to Gooptu, is the reason for the decline in Bengali movie standards. Like the proverbial curate’s egg, this volume is good in parts.

TELEVISION IN INDIA — Satellites, Politics and Cultural Change: Edited by Nalin Mehta, Pub. by Routledge. Distributed by Foundation Books, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 695.