Picture this. One fine day, on a serial targeted at adolescent viewers, a young boy and girl discover their interest for each other, quickly go on to plan a weekend rendezvous and spend the next 20 minutes of screen time trying hard to kiss each other. Not that they really want to do it, its merely a symbol of having made it there. Its an ancient ritual, but newly recast and Archiefied in the form of dating. Their friends, meanwhile, play deliberate pranks to delay the pleasure. At the end of the episode they finally do it. And TV takes its next step forward in expanding its gamut of possible images.
Look around and the most striking aspect of teenagers on TV is that they are all flaunting their sexuality, its an in-your-face, derring-do attitude. In a nutshell, the image of the urban Indian youth beamed from our sets is that of a bristling human-audacious, insouciant, arrogant, who loves to shock and couldnt care less about what you think of it. "Its all about being bold, brash and beautiful," says Vaasanthi of Delhis Centre for Media Studies. This extends to the world of music videos and advertising as well. Remember The Big F campaign of Feast ice-cream? "Its a world of upwardly mobile, urban, westernised youngsters, a Beverly Hills 90210 model," says Akhila Sivadas of the Delhi-based media monitoring agency, Centre for Advocacy and Research (car).
To keep pace with their yuppie progenies, parental love is also being redefined. In Just Mohabbat, you have the parents trying to fix a date for their child and getting worried about his lack of girlfriends. In Naya Zamana, the mother listens indulgently to her daughters tale of kissing her boyfriend in the classroom. In the Ayurvedic Concepts ad, the savvy granny, after lecturing the kids on the benefits of the herbal medicine, has to show that she is in tune with the times by suggesting that they go in for a Spice Girls-style hair-cut. Its not as if TV teenagers were always provocative. Just a couple of years ago, in Campus, the focus was on serious issues like politics and violence in colleges. Imtihaan talked about a young girls struggle to become a successful entrepreneur. Today, the brave new world of TV demands some outrageous acts like stripping yourself down to teeny-weeny briefs in the heart of Connaught Place for the interactive show, V Dares You. Just Mohabbat may have begun by depicting the funny side of childhood, but was transformed in a sudden onrush of pubescence, where the only preoccupation in life is the opposite sex and dating. "The main concern is to love and date in school. Overnight a teenager of 15 has become a 25-year-old," says media columnist Sudheesh Pachauri.
Watch these shows and the basic question that hits you is: does the youth identify with-at least aspire to-such frank, unabashed sexuality? Or are these desperate shock tactics to please advertisers and ensure the kids dont thumb their way to another channel? The Centre for Advocacy and Research recently conducted a field study amongst adolescents in Delhi to look into their televiewing habits. The preliminary impressions of the study, which will be formally released next month, indicated that TV unquestionably dominates young lives. In a focus group discussion at Delhis upmarket Jesus and Mary College, the answer was distinct: the youngsters did identify with what they saw of themselves on the screen. "They regard teenage as the years to experiment with everything in life much like their small-screen counterparts," says Sivadas. The findings showed that the serials defined their strong sense of individuality and the "go-getting" attitude in life. And the most absorbing aspects of TV for them are the music channels which are fun, have an easy, bantering manner, talk to them like a friend and are just a nice timepass. The Centre for Media Studies too, in several of its focus group discussions, found the kids watch these shows primarily because they enjoy them and think they dont necessarily have to relate to them.
At the other end of the spectrum, a group of underprivileged adolescents from the capital also came across as being in the grips of the small screen. The baseline survey of the Centre for Advocacy and Research included adolescents from poorer communities, from slums and red light areas, from broken homes and those with some disability. The urban youngsters on TV might be just aspirational role models for them, but their perception of human relationships is many a time governed by TV. "Boys should not be befriended as they would demand a kiss," said a teenaged girl from an East Delhi slum in one of the discussion sessions. TV is the central reference point in their lives and they exhibited a reluctance to accept the parents point of view if it didnt conform to what TV portrayed. "Times have changed....My father may not have gone to film shows with a girl, but today everyone does. Moreover, it feels good to have a girl by your side," said a 16-year-old avid TV viewer from an East Delhi basti. Not just relationships, TV defines their aims and ambitions in life. It helps these kids fantasise, believe in the rags-to-riches stories, of one day making it big in life.
This brand of TV might be influencing perceptions of the young, but is it a realistic portrayal of the youth? Are the value systems changing for real? Whatever happened to the supposed idealism and romanticism of the young? Media experts claim teeny-bopper shows steer clear of addressing any real issues or problems. "Its a constructed reality where there are no problems of education, unemployment, there are no struggles or pursuits," says Pachauri. The rebellion in TV shows is at best trivial and irreverence exists for the sake of having fun, not out of any strong beliefs and convictions. However, car, in its interactions with urban youngsters, found that like the characters on TV they too wanted to take safe positions in life and were conservative and cautious at the end of the day. "They might be arrogant on the surface but whenever the status quo is deeply challenged they take refuge in very safe positions," says Sivadas.
According to Sivadas, youngsters in the family soaps and serials, be it Kora Kagaz, Janam or Saaya, come across as more nuanced, convincing and idealistic. "Theyre fighting for real issues, personal freedom and growth," she says. However, author and scriptwriter Ashok Banker disagrees. For him, the teenagers in family serials get treated as a part of the family wherein, instead of their individuality, its their relationship vis-a-vis the other members which comes to the fore. "They are just secondary characters who are adjusting to the changing situations within the family," says Pachauri. Neena Gupta, however, claims representations in her Saans are real and identifiable. "This is what happens to the kids in broken homes. If the marriage is bad then everything turns bad," she says.
According to Banker, TVs portrayal of youth is flawed primarily because there isnt much happening for them-something the big screen and the web is cashing in on. Filmmaker Subhash Ghai is reported to have said that now hes making films that can appeal to "13-year-olds". "The serials havent really discovered the teenager of the millennium," says Banker. There are no cult shows which can talk to them directly like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch or The Wonder Years. "We are in the early stages of tackling this audience, weve just begun to cut our teeth," says Banker. "We havent developed a story-telling model of our own," agrees Pachauri. So all you get to see are cliches about the "cool" school life and the pangs of growing up. The serials are not merely aping the western counterparts but also leaving all the complexities behind. Teenage is a simplistic notion ridden with stereotypes and the right voice and style to portray it has still not been worked out. While Sabrina treads on teenage years with lots of humour, Buffy gives an unusual horror twist to the classic theme of teenage alienation. None of this has happened as yet on the Indian small screen. "We are just knocking on the door," says Sivadas. Its time, perhaps, to take a few steps.