You Can’t Box This Idiot
Judgements on soap operas are often misplaced, pop culture is a layered signifier
There are facts that must give us pause before we rush to judgement on the phenomenon of television serials using convenient shorthands like ‘fantasy’—or its apparent opposite, ‘reality’. Both fantasy and reality have been integral parts of film and television forever, and all over the world—beginning with the films of the Lumiere brothers, The Arrival of a Train, for example, and Georges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon. There is nothing to suggest that one is better than the other. It is therefore hoped that both the fantasmatic and the realist will continue to flourish.
Remember, also, that ‘realism’ is a narrative strategy that merely creates the illusion of a real world. A realist narrative strategy is not necessarily closer to the real.
Nor should genres be classified as either progressive or regressive. Ghoul on Netflix uses the horror genre for deeply political ends. Back in the 1980s, Sudhir Kakkar had usefully pointed out a narrative strategy that is non-realist is not any less psychologically real. Take Bombay cinema: for decades it was the target of criticism for offering what was frequently described as escapist fantasy. But as scholars have pointed out, fantasy is not an ‘escape’ from reality, but a play with it; a way of coping with it. Bombay cinema’s unique melodramatic mode managed to forge a tremendous connection with people. These films were released across the country in single-screen theatres where people across class, caste, age, religion and region sat together—albeit in differently priced seats—and watched movies. Bombay cinema therefore had to be all things to all people. As for the single-screen viewing experience, it was a more democratic cultural practice.
Perhaps TV offers the closest parallel to that now, even if as a physically disaggregated community. Contrast it against the multiplex, which has made sure that only the privileged can enjoy the big-screen experience in AC comfort. It is true that the multiplex phenomenon has allowed for greater innovation and experimentation with cinema. But it is equally true that the space of the multiplex is not one that welcomes everyone. Large swathes of film lovers are excluded from its ambit.
Popular culture is popular only when it means many things to many people. While a large number of TV serials are hackneyed and absurd, it does not mean that those who watch them are unintelligent. At one time, women were criticised for reading romantic fiction or Gothic novels. A number of feminist studies have shown that the women who watch TV soaps or read romantic novels are well aware of the absurdities of the plot. Spectatorship is not an all-or-nothing proposition. We know from our own experience that we can enjoy a literary or cinematic text despite the disagreements that we may have with it. Popular cultural texts are always uneven and hold within them the contradictions of their times and are, for that very reason, interesting. They can serve as a useful barometer of the times.
The trouble with general entertainment channels (GEC) is that they tend to play safe for fear of upsetting some group or the other. Zindagi Channel’s Aadhe Adhoore started off as a path-breaking TV show but the moral brigade came down heavily on it. Instead of standing firm, the producers caved in. The show ended on a shamefully problematic note. It is hoped that this tyranny will end with the advent of digital platforms. That’s where the future of innovative television lies.
There has been concern that the current popularity of supernatural and paranormal elements in TV serials—like the endless sagas about naags and naagins—is regressive. The problem lies with bad storytelling, not with the choice of deploying the supernatural. These very elements have been used to create film classics. Take for example, Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski or Monihara (in Teen Kanya) by Satyajit Ray. A good or bad televisual (or cinematic) experience depends on the spectator’s generic preferences and of course, how well the generic elements are used.
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There was a time when TV made little room for the unexplained. Doordarshan, for example, was deeply troubled by Nilita Vachani’s documentary Eyes of Stone (1990) because it was about a woman who was possessed and the film offered no ‘scientific’ explanation for the phenomenon. The film was made in an observational style and was raising a number of deep, philosophical questions. The situation has now come full circle.
The world outside TV is what we should worry about. In times when people are being killed for declaring themselves to be atheists, science has been reduced to speculation. In an open and secular society, we should have the right to be atheists and enjoy the pleasures offered by mythologicals, science fiction, speculative fiction or cinema. And of course, we have to stop judging people for what they watch and what they don’t.
(The author teaches at Jamia Milia Islamia)