Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Cine Curve

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to catch a soap my aunt was watching (a particularly nasty example, I should add – about some fellow who has married a dark girl. The least they could do was GET a dark skinned girl rather than smear what appeared to be wood polish on a not-so-fair female)

I just got to thinking about the trajectory of soap operas in India over the last fifteen years or so. And I realized something which I found very interesting - that the early-nineties ‘serials’ (which is what they were called then) were essentially middle class – in the sets, in the stories, in the sensibilities and very – REAL (especially the characterization). This tone of these has changed drastically over the last few years – becoming larger than life, opulent, exaggerated and well, regressive.

Just think about some of soaps from that era – the ones I remember at any rate Girish Karnad’s Sara Jahaan Hamara (the sensitive, understated story of a family dealing with adoption), Ravi Rai’s Sailaab and Thodha Hai thode ki zaroorat hai, Udaan ( WAY ahead of its time), Mr. Yogi, Lifeline, Alpviram – so MANY of them. As opposed to some of the trash that is dished out today - dark skinned outcasts dripping the milk of human kindness, fair skinned- over made up vamp- saas (es?), ineffective bleating men, Alok Nath being Alok Nathish..

Interestingly cinema ( or the multiplex cinema) seems to be headed in the other direction – from a super heroic time where the absolutely perfect, large-hearted hero could take on fifteen armed men, to a depiction of a much more flawed and gray person, who is not self-sacrificing, or extraordinary ( if you discount movies like Ghajini, that is). Whether it is the calculating, self-absorbed Farhan in Luck by Chance, the melancholic, unsuccessful Joe in Rock On, or even the fact that a SRK has attempted to be ineffective, middle class Surinder in Rab De (which I have not seen, just going by reviews).

And what I find most fascinating is the fact that the directors no longer feel it necessary to justify WHY the heroes and heroines are manipulative, egotistic or opportunistic. So we are not inflicted with stories of poor widowed mothers, or gang raped sisters or crushing poverty which has led to the birth of the rather noble villain. The characters of today are not heroes in the conventional sense, but interestingly neither are they anti heroes. A maturity which somehow seems to be lacking in television – rather lopsided, given the nature of the medium isn’t it?

It brings up an interesting conundrum of the sociological evolution of the Indian entertainment. In other words, why is it that cinema seems to be moving towards realism of characters, (if not the trappings – yes, we are still obsessed with picturesque Swiss locales) while soaps are getting increasingly more formulaic and unrealistic.

One possible explanation could be the shifting kaleidoscope of the prime audience for the medium. If we assume that in the nineties – television was available only to the upwardly mobile intelligentsia and not to the ordinary middle class, viewer. For the latter, the distraction from dreary mundanity came from the weekly movie – thus, it had to be as big, colourful and loud as possible. Now television proliferation has meant that they are seeking this antidote to reality within their homes – and at the switch of a button. The upwardly mobile crowd, on the other hand, has either shifted to other channels or are seeking actualization in the entertainment fare.

Another reason could be the fact that as actors are entering our living room trying to sell Navratan Tel to us, it’s too much to expect the audience to be wowed by them in super-heroic roles - which might necessitate a more subdued characterization in cinema. Celebrities are far too real now – what with Page 3 and innumerable gossip and glamour magazines and on every other reality shows. So we are okay with seeing them deglamorized.

On the other hand, television stars since they come from “people like us” - it is easier to watch them in fantasized roles of opulence and grandeur - gives the viewer the legitimacy to dream as it were.

A caveat here, when I speak of cinema in this post, it is essentially the late eighties – early nineties genre ( there HAVE been middle class heroes – who can forget the delightfully wry Amol Palekar and Utpal Dutt combination for instance) and as a broad direction which cinema and television is taking rather than specific movies per se.

Of course, I have refrained from stating any opinion on Rajni or Chiru movies – since they are a world apart.

What do you think?

P.S I had some other points which I had thought up in the middle of the night (when I am at my brightest), which I have completely forgotten now. ..er...

P.P.S Title inspired by Mo who kept on talking about scary sines and inverted sines and giving me a complex.


Soulmate said...

its like giving the flavour of every spice to the audience.. whether there needs to be a shift in grand and far from Reality(!) Television serials or the easy to connect, real life movies on the silver screen.. Remember Life in a Metro.. Most of the people working here could connect with that movie...

Rather the shift is to give a breather from your regular routine considering the kind of audience. While the upper class will like down to earth movies, the lower middle class or middle class will like larger than life serials..

Epiphany said...

I'd say what a soap was meant to be has changed...now it is just an escape from the everyday rat race...thus all the melodrama...earlier they used to be a family thing...dinner khao and TV dekho types...not many people watch soaps nowadays..it just goes on (& on & on) in the background.

narendra shenoy said...

Brilliant and perceptive! I think the television space is even less free-market than cinema. There, there were the barjatyas and chopras and so on but independent film makers could still hope to slip in a sensible movie surreptitiously and make a little money. Once one or two did, there wwas no looking back and a new genre "non-ridiculous" was born.

In television, there are the "creative" bosses, the advertisers, the Ekta Kapoors, and so on. Too many layers. But even if one socially relevant serial makes it through the maze, it will succeed and then EVERY one of them will be "Socially Relevant".

We shall wait and see.

sra said...

That's an interesting point you made about serials changing nature going by spread of TV ownership over the years.

I don't watch today's serials as I find them v dark and depressingpeople are always plotting and planning against family and friends - but I do want to use your post to voice how ridiculous I find the women characters - dripping industrial-strength silks and i-s jewellery everyday, at home, work, in the kitchen ... Hardly "people like us". Genuinely rich people, even nouveau, don't flaunt their wealth in this way. Above all, it would be terribly inconvenient and cumbersome :-)

sra said...

Oh, and an aside ... In Telugu films of the Rayalaseema variety, the story doesn't bother with police, arrests, etc, even when there have been a dozen merry faction murders ... your mention of directors no longer feeling it necessary to justify why some characters are the way they are reminded me of this.

??! said...

Interesting post.

Another possibility - all those writers who came up with those lurid plotlines for the earlier films have now drifted towards TV, which has the advantages of being a more secure and more lucrative (in the long run) option.

AantelAdda said...

Interesting post. I sense however that your observations are based on random selection rather than a census! Serials have definitely evolved, not improved. But it is very much in response to market needs - they now cater to the new middle class,which is less educated but equally aspirational. These serials have therefore taken on the escapism agenda from cinema. While cinema has discovered that it wants both respect and money - and is therefore going down that route, the soaps still needto pursue TRPs. Hence the loud imagery and plotlines.They are going for the 'gasp' moment that brings viewers in - a bit like watching a horror movie. Finally,have you seen how half thescreen is obscured by streaming news or ads - they need the bling to beat that..

Nandini Vishwanath said...

So true! Alok Nath remains the same. Almost, atleast from Thoda Hai...to now.

Its amazing that the sense factor has just dwindled.

gauri said...

Very nicely written!

I've noticed cinema (and TV series too) thrives with the masses in two cases - 1. If you give the audience something they can identify with, and 2. If you give them an escape into a fantasy they could relate to but never have. Anything that deviates from these two could well be non-mainstream / experimental and may appeal to a minority, very likely the intelligentsia.

Well a lot more to say on many other points you make, but let me leave it here. Again, nicely done! :)


roop said...

i had something intelligent to say ... but when i read
"I had some other points which I had thought up in the middle of the night (when I am at my brightest), which I have completely forgotten now. ..er... "

i just burst out laughing and forgot everything. lol i do the same!!! have my best ideas at night and then forget. blaah! :))

Cynic in Wonderland said...

Soulmate - i think thats how it has worked out. i was wondering WHAT has caused this demarcation.

But epiphany people dont watch soaps becase there is nothing consumable no. tell me, if there was a really interesting soap that would come - wouldnt you Want to watch it?

absolutely naren - like you said, we need to get some offbeat fellows coming into television. and reinvent television. i remember a time when i was off movies - and then DCH happened.

sra - most of the soaps are an insult to intelligence. dripping jewelry is one part of it. but the whole swinging characterization swings from one pole to the other. one week i might see a cooing, sugary femme. a couple of months later the same dame is dripping vitriol.

Cynic in Wonderland said...

?1? Would you say so? I think its more a producer led fiefdom and the story and the characters evolve depending upon how cosy ekkkta is with one particular actor at any given time.

aantel adda - nope definitely no census or survey. just random observations. perhaps you are right - the trps may lie in the gasp moment as you call it rather than anything which requires any kind of thought. its far easier and lazier to have these lurid plots than anything complex i suppose

nandini - alok nath should be banned from soaps. that whole being-on-the-verge-of-bawling persona of his is so overdone now no?

gauri - why the mystery aiyo. if you have stuff to say pls to say no. that was the point of this post - as a thought starter!

Rimzie - hehe im especially bright when i am fast asleep.i have been known to solve complicated quantum physics like stuff. pity i couldnt write my papers in my sleep.

Rada said...

If the basic premise of your post is correct, (and I am not saying it is not,), a clever marketing person would use TV actors/actresses to woo the large, rural audience of India. I mean, they could be more effective in convincing the rural population to buy a certain product than say, an SRK or a Kareena Kapoor.

Is this happening?

Again, just curious. I'm not much of a soap-watcher and would really like to know!

AmitL said...

Hi,Cyn-a pretty thoughtful post..memories of those serials-like Mr. Yogi..and,don't forget-Khandaan,Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi..well,frankly,in those days,we could identify with them.And,today,with the market having opened up to all the materialistic goods,people probably identify more with the opulence shown in today's soaps-not that I watch any,of course...can't keep the links..I prefer serials like CID,dance shows like Jhalak Dikhla Ja(But,no other),reality shows like Bigg Boss and MTV Roadies,and,of course,the rare few good comedy shows like Chinchpokhli to China.:)

Maddy said...

I was watching ekta the other day being quizzed by karan over coffee.. and was astounded at the absolute self conviction the girl has, even after doling out hours of sloppy stuff...fortunately one or two of them are winding up and the hero now is trying to lose weight by dancing ..