Censorship and taste of the masses have been two of the major arguments used in defence of the content churned out by traditional TV post-2000, as compared to the more recent digitalised content. But the family audience-friendly content of TVF's latest web series, Yeh Meri Family, shows that there's more to television's ailments, writes UMANG AGGARWAl
The history of Indian television goes back to the heydays of Doordarshan in the 1980s and 1990s. Shows like Hum log, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Shanti, Office Office, and Shriman Shrimati are still talked about fondly. Detective shows like Karamchand and Byomkesh Bakshi carved a niche for themselves. Even in the gothic genre, there were shows like Vikram Betaal and Dada Dadi Ki Kahaniyan. In terms of mythology-based shows, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Krishna have enjoyed popularity that bordered on devotion. In The Classic Popular, Dr Nandini Chandra, who is a professor at the University of Delhi, notes that the impact of these shows on the viewers was such that there were some who would worship the TV box when these shows were being aired!
Shak Rukh Khan, Pankaj Kapoor, Mandira Bedi, Satish Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Supriya Pathak, and Renuka Shahane are some of the faces that ruled the landscape of Indian television from the 80s to the 90s. A majority of these actors had been trained to do stage plays and brought that experience and skill to the small screen. But while they moved on to the big screen to do equally skilled work in Indian movies, their former platform did not evolve the day one would have hoped.
It wouldn’t be baseless to call this lineage quite illustrious. But somehow, it led to shows like Nazar: Due Kar Uski Nazar Tumpar Na Pade and Rishton ka Chakravyuh. What this devolution made space for, though, was day-to-day entertainment in India through platforms other than traditional television.
Defenders of the current content aired on traditional TV often argue that it’s the masses and their taste in entertainment that today’s TV shows have been catering to. Privatisation of television and the limitations of Doordarshan’s role as a non-profit Government-run organisation are some of the other arguments that are used. But the bottom line is that there are large sections in the Indian society that have failed to relate with these shows. Shows about how a recently married young woman, who schemes her way into the new household and even takes the avatar of a nagin, in the process just don’t cut it as entertainment for this part of the population. Till less than five years ago, these people would rely on downloaded international content. American sitcoms like FRIENDS, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and Cheers are some of the shows that would be downloaded and shared between groups in this section of viewers. British shows like Coupling and Pakistani TV shows like Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Humsafar also found space in the same abandoned land of mindful entertainment.
The potential of tapping into this rising demand for new-age quality content was soon realised, and legalised, regulated platforms were created. Streaming applications like Hotstar, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and BIGFlix made an entry into the Indian entertainment market. In fact, new-age televisions come with these apps preinstalled. TVF (The Viral Fever) is an Indian start-up that has played a rather entertaining role in filling the void that traditional TV left. It had started as a YouTube channel in 2010, that showed content young Indians could relate with. But as it gained viewers, they started redirecting all online traffic to their own website. Currently, they have about seven YouTube channels, over 10 million subscribers, and are seen as the pioneers of web series in India. ‘TV is dead. Stories are not’, says the tagline of TVF, and it resonates with many Indian viewers. But how did TV dieij Were there any symptoms to warn the viewersij The stages that Indian TV shows went through in the post-90s, pre-web series age can probably be seen as indications that were either missed or ignored.
Traditional TV is obviously still churning out shows. And there are people who still watch them. What kind of death are we talking about, thenij It’s the death of creativity, originality, and passion. At the beginning of the new millennium in the year 2000, the letter ‘K’ derived a whole new meaning in Indian TV. Ekta Kapoor, who was then better known as veteran actor Jitendra’s daughter, had Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi aired for the first time that year. The popularity of the show was such that Smriti Irani, former Minister of Information and Broadcasting, who was the lead on the show is still famously known as Tulsi Virani. When a significant character on the show was killed, it had a national-level impact. The problem was not with one saas-bahu saga per se. Because as long as it was one, it was new and it had people excited. The problem arose when it became a formula for successful entertainment. It was done to death in that show as well as in parallel shows. So, while a new idea for entertainment had been discovered, it was soon reduced to a six-days-a-week sob story that had people go from intrigue to boredom to disgust. While shows like Office Office and Chacha Choudhary were still the saving grace for Indian television, hapless bahu-hopeless saas-repeat had become the model for entertainment. Kyunki… completed 1,833 episodes.
To offer some respite from the overkill of household drama, 2004 and 2005 saw the dawn of talent hunts and stand-up comedy on national television. Indian Idol, the desi version of Britain’s Pop Idol format, hit TV screens in 2004. With thousands of youngsters from each city applying for the singing contest, it gained immense popularity. But again, repetition killed whatever little fun the new format initially promised. Talent shows for dancing, gymnastics, and rare talents became common, and soon, boring. The Great India laughter Challenge, Comedy Circus, and until very recently, Comedy Nights — shows that showcased the country’s stand-up comedians became all the rage, and then they weren’t.
Digital content has taken over because for a variety of factors, even experiments became repetitive on traditional television. In the pre-2000 era, even if all the shows being produced were not brilliant, there was at least variety. From Circus to Fauji to Filmy Chakkar to Chamatkar, there was a sense of dignity as well as variety to the kind of shows that were being produced.
But after 2000, that started disappearing. There were, of course, phases of hope in the form of shows aired on new channels like Star One and Colors as they tried to bring teenage romance and socially relevant shows back to television. But they either fizzed out or fell back into the household drama format. One TV show that has managed to retain dignity and quality through the seasons is Kaun Banega Crorepati. Sarabhai Versus Sarabhai, one of the more recent comedy shows in the history of Indian television, did not return to TV after “Season 1 ended”. When it did, it was on Hotstar. In 2016, Indian TV producers managed to air an adaptation of American Sitcom, Everybody loves Raymond. It was called Sumit Sambhal lega and it worked. Recently, they tried a remake of Shriman Shrimati, a popular comedy show from 1990s, with little success. While attempts like these are made on and off, they tend to get lost in the monotony of the majority of content showcased through this medium.
So, when digitalised entertainment content sought an entry into the Indian entertainment market, it did not even have to as much as knock. In terms of purely Indian innovative content, TVF takes the cake. The doors were wide open and viewers, who had been frustrated with systemic and tutored mediocracy, awaited it. Arunabh Kumar, former CEO of the organisation, once said: “The actual inception of TVF happened when I realised that even though all of us love watching TV shows, there are rarely any Indian TV shows that we are watching.”
TVF has mastered the adaptation of the sitcom format in a refreshingly Indian setting. Permanent Roommates, its first big hit, is adorably earnest in its portrayal of long-distance love, live-in relationships, fear of commitment, and the struggle of coming to terms with death as a part of growing up. Feeling tied to the workplace, living as an unmarried, working girl unapologetically, changing relationship with parents, and sibling bonding are only some of the other relatable themes explored by them. Their latest production, Yeh Meri Family, takes the viewers back to the 90s and often refers to the celebrated TV shows of the era. The content of this particular web series is almost symbolic of what TV could have been but failed to be despite its memorable beginning.
In an attempt to make international streaming apps all the more relevant to Indian viewers, platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime have gone beyond merely providing popular international TV shows and movies to their subscribers. They started creating original, Indianised series that star Bollywood celebrities as big as Saif Ali Khan, Manisha Koirala, Radhika Apte, R Madhavan, and Neha Dhupia. Sacred Games, a Netflix original show, has Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan, and Radhika Apte. It’s an adaptation of a novel by the same name. Written in 2006 by Vikram Chandra, it is a cops-and-gangster detective thriller. Selection Day and Bard of Blood are two of the other series from India.
Amazon Prime began by promoting serialised acts from popular stand-up comedians across the country. Comedians like Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, and Zakhir Khan shot to fame through video recordings of their stand-up comedy acts that were uploaded on YouTube. As the number of viewers swelled up, these comedians started making videos for YouTube channels and uploaded them online themselves. Pretentious Movie Reviews was one such series of videos where Biswa and Kanan picked up random movies and uploaded hilarious reviews. The unsanitary language and concepts that were often — but not always — used in their performances were seen as a reason for them staying away from national television. But that’s a restriction which digital content is currently free of. There is no post-11 pm time restriction for showcasing adult content.
Breathe, a detective show starring R Madhavan, has also been introduced on Amazon Prime. Talking about the show, the celebrated Bollywood actor recently said, “It is getting tougher every year in terms of trying to reinvent yourself. It is more exciting and more rewarding without a doubt, but it gets more and more tough for sure. This is where I saw something worth investing my time, energy and efforts in, apart from movies. You have to understand that the magic of the big screen won’t go away. But at the same time, the lure of the Internet is something I saw coming long before most people in the entertainment industry.”
Ekta Kapoor, who recently launched an app to showcase her new shows through digital media, said: “Digital is about the content you consume alone. It directly talks to you. At a time of polarised views, while everyone has individualistic taste, this medium gives you a chance to watch what you want to watch. Clearly, for me it will be about addressing stories that I couldn’t say (on TV). You can’t bring too many radical views on television.”
But is censorship really the only problem hereij Hasn’t traditional TV worked its way around that roadblock for over two centuries and haven’t web series and digital media repeatedly come up with content that would be just as entertaining even without a cuss word here and a bold comment thereij Gourav Gopal Jha, editor at TVF, says, “The idea is that content is king. If the content requires a certain kind of violence, theme, and structure — it will be added. Everything else is superficial. The core matters. For artistes, censorship can never be the end of productivity. It is not censorship but a lack of content that has killed TV. Television has been producing shows like one produces washing machines.”
If actors, producers (and even the new TV sets that have entertainment apps preinstalled) can reinvent themselves, maybe Indian television can too. Until then, YouTube videos of the Indian TV shows from the 1980s and 1990s uploaded by their fans should suffice.