A Holiday from the Facts: Watching Doordarshan under Lockdown
by: Sreerupa Bhattacharya , October 5, 2020
by: Sreerupa Bhattacharya , October 5, 2020
‘And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts.’
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
On 22nd March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown for three weeks to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. ‘Draw a “Laxman Rekha” around your house. A step outside can draw the pandemic in’, he urged. The injunction alludes to a well-known episode from the Indian Hindu epic Ramayana, where Sita, wife of Ram, the exiled King of Ayodhya, steps out of the line of defence (rekha) drawn by her brother-in-law, Laxman, as a protective shield outside their home, and gets abducted by the rival demon king Raavan.
The Prime Minister’s chosen metaphor was a staple in the government’s use of Hindu religious symbolism as political rhetoric, ever since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Almost on cue, India’s public service broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, announced that its television wing, Doordarshan, would bring back a host of its old classics from the 1980s and 1990s during the lockdown, headlined by the screen adaptations of the two Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Media pundits were quick to note that, owing to the sudden shortage of content with all private channels having stopped production (Agarwala et al., 2020), Doordarshan was simply capitalising on people’s nostalgia. However, I argue that this was a strategy to reconsolidate State hegemony by perpetuating the government’s divisive politics during the lockdown, politics that had been heavily challenged by the ongoing resistance to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
In the months preceding the COVID-19 outbreak, India witnessed the biggest mass mobilisation against the State in recent memory. After the abrogation of Article 370 in August, which revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy and statehood, and the student protests against fee hikes at the Jawaharlal Nehru University which began in October, the political unrest reached a tipping point with the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December. This act promises Indian citizenship to migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan who belong to any religion besides Islam. The CAA also triggered the discontent around the National Register of Citizenship (NCR) that has been a recurrent fixture in Home Minister Amit Shah’s mission to drive out illegal migrants from the country. In a 2018 article published in The Wire, Ajay Gudavarthy wrote that for Hindutva ideologues, ‘it is just a short step to go from declaring Muslims suspected of being Bangladeshi as ‘foreigners’ to looking at all Muslims as foreigners.’ Thus even as the government used the CAA-NRC issue to polarise the public based on identity politics, an overwhelming majority from across the social spectrum refused to kowtow to the State’s narrative. However, just as the movement was reaching new heights, news of the global outbreak struck. With restrictions on people’s mobility and assembly, the momentum was greatly affected. Soon after the lockdown was declared—and in this socio-political flux—Doordarshan announced its walk down memory lane. This marked a sudden shift in the popular discourse—from social media to news outlets, headlines celebrating the comeback of the ‘golden era’ of television dominated. Had the entire population slipped into a deep slumber? The inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World, had at their disposal a substance called Soma, half a gram of which would ease the pain when the going got tough, freeing them from the burden of truth, providing an escape from the drudgeries of everyday life. Doordarshan similarly acted as India’s happy pill during the lockdown. It provided a respite from the coverage of sustained civil unrest, and the anxiety caused by the deluge of horrifying COVID-19 reports from media war rooms. Unfortunately, though, the frenzy that ensued around the reruns also seemed to have sedated a section of the population into a newfound political complacency, even a deep denial of the grim reality unfolding outside our living rooms.
Notwithstanding the epics’ popularity, Ramayana’s rerun has been embroiled in controversy from the start. When it was first televised in 1987, it marked a schism in Indian television history. The decision to air a religious epic on state-run Doordarshan, the only television channel available in pre-liberalisation India, meant a departure from the secular commitments of the nation. In his seminal Politics After Television (2001), Aravind Rajagopal, professor of Media Studies at New York University, delineates the aftermath of the show as having provided a fertile ground for the Bharatiya Janata Party to politicise a narrative of the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ (the birthplace of Ram) in a bid to consolidate their agenda of reconstituting India into a Hindu Nation. Rajagopal argues that the show was leveraged to stoke Hindu nationalist mobilisation, which eventually led to the December 1992, demolition of the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque that was alleged to have been built on the site of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The Babri incident has left an indelible scar in the Indian consciousness, inciting communal tension and violence between Hindus and Muslims that has lasted generations. Despite such a checkered past, Ramayana almost singlehandedly redeemed Doordarshan from its ignoble existence among the splendour of private channels, making it the front-runner in the TRP battle.
However, while much has been written about the politics of the televised epic (Sircar 2020 & Rajagopal 2020), little attention has been paid to the various strategies employed by the government to keep the show alive in the public consciousness. Let us begin by spotlighting a few examples. Ramayana’s TRP ratings had notched up mythic proportions—a whopping 77 million viewers worldwide—for its penultimate episode. This is a mind-boggling figure in itself, indeed the highest any Indian show has ever garnered, and Prasar Bharati tweeted that the epic had set a new ‘world record (for) Highest Viewed Programme Globally,’ overcoming past giants like Game of Thrones and The Big Bang Theory. However, within days of the report going viral, an online news portal called LiveMint exposed this erroneous and baseless claim, proving that a 1983 episode of the American series M*A*S*H holds that title (Khandekar and Bhatia 2020). Unsurprisingly, officials at Prasar Bharati made no efforts to retract their statement, and some of the show’s stars continued, embarrassingly, to defend Doordarshan’s claim. On the face of it, these concerns seem benign and banal. But a closer look may reveal a far more insidious motivation. It is my argument that, though seemingly innocuous, such half-truths and gimmicks are in no way inconsequential: they belong to the category of what American media critic Neil Postman has called ‘disinformation.’ In his now-classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman writes,
disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing (1985: 107).
That Doordarshan’s revival of Ramayana, as I seek to illustrate, has, from its inception, served to spread such disinformation, primarily to distract the population from the imminent crisis.
A blatant indifference towards truth was evident right from the beginning of the pandemic. In the first week of the lockdown, even as hundreds of migrant workers, devastated by a sudden loss of livelihood, and with no means of travel, set out on an impossible journey back home on foot, in what is perhaps the biggest humanitarian crisis in the nation’s recent memory, Union Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted a picture of himself, seated in front of his television captioned ‘I am watching Ramayana, are you?’ with the hashtag StayHomeStaySafe (Rajagopal 2020). Although he eventually deleted it in the face of backlash, the post stands out as a gross exercise in disinformation, because it tries to impose an illusory sense of normalcy by assuming and projecting the idea that everyone in the country is sheltered, and ought to be tuned in to Doordarshan, even if thousands of migrant labourers suffered on the streets. It is as specious as the Prime Minister’s remarks during the Delhi election campaign earlier in January 2020, when he tried to spin the impact of the anti CAA resistance by claiming that the public outcry against the discriminatory nature of the Citizenship Amendment Act happened only in a few Muslim majority pockets, and is not a larger issue (Modi, 2020). Not only are such remarks a gross perversion of truth, but also menacingly misleading, coming as they do from some of the highest officers of the State. As evidenced by the 2016 demonetisation, the slew of student uprisings, and the current COVID-19 crisis, it is a staple of this government’s playbook to downplay the gravity of a situation to create the illusion of things being under control.
The latest fixture in this trend has been the call to collectively perform certain acts commonly associated with Hindu rituals, from clanging utensils to lighting diyas (Jha 2020), in order to foster a sense of community, even as everyone observes the strictures of social distancing. In the same vein as the metaphor of ‘Laxman rekha,’ this undertone of ‘soft Hindutva’ (a term I use, despite misgivings (Vij 2020), to refer to the means of cultural production used to co-opt the public in the Hindutva ideal) continued in Doordarshan’s primetime line-up at the beginning of the lockdown. Although Ramayana was the North Star in Doordarshan’s meteoric rise from the ashes, a fair share of that credit also goes to the historical drama Chanakya and a children’s show called Shaktiman. However, with all the public attention concentrated on the epic, there has been a significant lack of conversation about what these other shows entail. The government’s decision to pivot Chanakya and Shaktiman as the two other prime time headliners seems telling. Both these shows blatantly celebrate hyper-masculinity and hyper-nationalism based on religious and hetero-patriarchal ideals.
Chanakya, which originally aired from September 1991 to August 1992, is based on the lives and works of the 4thCentury BCE Indian economist Chanakya in the court of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya. While acclaimed for its historical authenticity, critics also pointed out the enhanced religious didacticism of the show. In December 1991, exactly a year before the Babri demolition, journalist Madhavi Irani noted in an article in Times of India entitled ‘Saffron for Breakfast’ Chanakya’s ‘obvious attempt to toe the Bharatiya Janata Party line—with his liberal use of saffron and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ slogans’ (Irani 1991). While the producers denied any such predilection, the show had to be pulled off the air amid these claims, though not before it had aired all its episodes. Even under lockdown, as the air remains thick with anxiety about the government’s authoritarian and divisive politics in the aftermath of the anti CAA protests, Chanakya, with its anachronistic vision of an ‘akhand Bharat’ (undivided India) that needs to be protected or reclaimed from foreign invaders, returned to India’s screens to restate BJP’s political rhetoric with no resistance.
Such an impetus to ward off external influences and the predisposition to locate a pan-Indian Hindu identity is also potent in Shaktiman. As India’s first indigenous superhero, Shaktiman, met with phenomenal success when it originally aired in September 1997. In a 1997 interview with The Screen Magazine, Mukesh Khanna, who played the eponymous hero, explained that the impulse to create Shaktiman rose out of the realisation that although there were many strong characters in Indian mythology, there were no superheroes, and children were thus being attracted to ‘alien concepts’ such as Superman and Spider-Man (The Screen 1997). His ambition to tap into this demographic through special effects was instrumental in Shaktiman’s immense popularity in the early 2000s. Notwithstanding, the serial’s comeback two decades later leaves us with some confounding questions, mainly: who exactly is the target audience of the show in 2020? It can be viewed as merely another attempt to appeal to people’s nostalgia and rake in viewership in the absence of new content, but I would argue that the comeback is a strategy to reinforce State hegemony by exploiting the religious sentiments which lie at the heart of this government’s political project. Shaktimaan explicitly focuses on Hindu(tva) symbolism like the corruption of the present age (‘kaliyug’) to be mitigated by an ordinary man who has extraordinary powers through the knowledge of the Vedas and Yoga. Right from the first scene, we are introduced to the hero, his gurus and his disciples, all clad in saffron—a colour which has come to be synonymous with Hindu fundamentalism—vowing to bring an end to all external evil forces. When asked about the importance of the show in contemporary times, Khanna, a long time Modi loyalist, asserted that kids today need more marg darshan (guidance) than those in the 90s. In the same vein, Khanna’s long-time colleague and BJP ally, Surendra Pal, added that shows like this would help reorient today’s generation, which has been corrupted by ‘western influences’ (Chakraborty 2020). These actors uncannily echo the civilisational impulse commonplace in this government’s political rhetoric (Mody 2015) especially when talking about the (‘anti-national’) youth, who are assumed to rally against the BJP simply because western influences have led them astray!
The tirade against the corrupting influence of the West has been a long-standing rhetorical device in Indian politics, especially with respect to the question of women. Despite concerted efforts being made to promote gender equality and empowerment in cultural representation, little ground seems to have been gained. When the P.C Joshi Committee was established in 1991, the agenda was to ensure that women’s
portrayal must take note of women in all facets of their lives: as workers, and significant contributors to family survival and the national economy. Women must not be portrayed in stereotyped images that emphasise passive, submissive qualities and encourage them to play a subordinate secondary role in the family and the society … [they] should be portrayed in ways that encourage mutual respect and a spirit of give and take between the sexes’(cited in Punwani, 1988: 231).
Accordingly, there was a marked increase in women-oriented shows such as Rajni, Udaan, and Adhikaar. However, the extent to which these shows indeed championed the emancipated New Indian woman remains suspect, because ultimately the women’s energy was always harnessed to serve either the well-being of their families or the greater cause of the nation-building project. Although none of these shows made a comeback during the lockdown, the underlying assumptions about the ideal Indian woman were pervasive in Doordarshan’s reruns.
If Sita in Ramayana had to prove her subservience and loyalty to her husband by being confined within the Laxman Rekha or walking through fire, Chanakya, manipulates a young princess to marry the prince of his choice against her will, because, according to him, she is destined to ‘martyr herself for the greater good of the kingdom, to protect the King’. In both cases, despite the promise of their agency, the women are left with no choice but to concede to the will of the men who control their lives; and when not part of mythological or historical narratives, the women and their families on screen are almost always urban, middle-class, Hindu households. In this context, Jyoti Punwani, in her article ‘The Portrayal of Women on Indian Television’, observes a few recurring tropes in the representation of the New Indian woman. Although in the cusp of economic liberalisation women were exulted for being emancipated in thought and action, most representations inclined towards them being homebound, either married or aspiring to be married, lonely and unhappy despite professional success, supportive and docile in their relationships with men (Punwani 1988). Within that framework, an independent, working woman, like journalist Geeta Viswas in Shaktiman, who fits all criteria save the first, still needs to be rescued by the Hero. Her body becomes the site for the battle between good and evil; she is thus reduced to a trophy of hypermasculine vendetta.
But perhaps the most derisive aspect of women’s characterisation had to be the actual or suggested impunity that any sort of disavowal of male authority would entail. Even a woman in power was defined by the patriarchal norm that saw it necessary to downplay her agency and sexuality. Ironically, such mandates applied even to comedies where women were usually allowed to exceed the stereotypes and act boisterously upon their desires. A prime example of this was the immensely popular sitcom Shriman Srimati (Man and Wife) that aired between 1994 and 1997 in the wake of the economic liberalisation in 1993, and was one of the two comedies to make a comeback early on in the lockdown. The show revolves around two families who are neighbours. The first couple corresponds to the common heteronormative family, where the disgruntled wife is a homemaker and her husband is dissatisfied with their conjugal life. The second couple are oddballs, often ridiculed for their curious relationship in which the wife is an actress, and the husband is a stay-at-home assistant to her. A recurring gag is the ‘effeminacy’ of the second man, whose wife, as the breadwinner, is apprehensive to let the world know that she makes her husband do all the housework, in fear of being criticised for flouting traditional gender norms. On one hand, such conceptions seem especially ironic under lockdown, during which there has been such a welcome change in the domestic division of labour. On the other, the systemic perpetuation of such ideologies contributes to the State’s formulation of a ‘standardised citizenship’ (Roy 2008), even during the pandemic alienating the bulk of society by its narrow, exclusive, representation of socio-economic diversity, while its prescriptive gender and familial norms are targeted across the demographic in order to consolidate an absolute, homogeneous ideal of citizenship.
But are we getting ahead of ourselves? Is it erroneous to draw these conclusions of ruling party politics simply based on the choice of shows being rerun? One can always argue that these correlations are merely speculative. Well, they would have been if the government had not put their foot in their mouth.. In an interview, Prasar Bharati CEO Sushant Vempati denied any political motivation behind the reruns. Arguing that these shows were simply in keeping with Doordarshan’s ‘role in educating, entertaining the citizens as well as on preserving the cultural diversity of India’ (Nair 2020), he conceded that the decision to bring back Ramayana and several other shows was taken six months prior, around November 2019, coincidentally when the public discontent against the State had started to snowball following the Ayodhya verdict of 9th November, when the Supreme Court ruled that the disputed land of the Babri Masjid would now be given to the Hindus for the construction of the Ram temple.
In his article ‘Bringing up TV: Popular culture and the developmental modern in India,’ Abhijit Roy describes how television has been mobilised to consolidate an idea of ‘Indianness’ to ‘homogenise a varied set of addressees as part of the nationalist drive’ (Roy 2008: 1). That assertion has never been more relevant than now. The numerous iterations of social resistance that the government has faced in recent years reached their crescendo with the anti-CAA-NRC movement. BJP’s defeat in the Delhi elections had been a clear indication of the irreconcilable discontent that was so long festering under the boot of authoritarianism. So when coercion failed in the face of such unwavering resistance, television served as a tool for what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky called ‘manufacturing consent:’ to convey ‘messages and symbols to the general populace… to entertain… with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society … (through) systematic propaganda’ (Herman and Chomsky 2002: 1, emphasis mine). It should be noted that this is not by any means the first time that Doordarshan has been used as a tool for disseminating State propaganda. In the 1970s, Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s infamous remark that the channel’s ‘function was to give the views of the Government of India’, dispelled all notions of autonomy and neutrality that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is supposed to uphold (cited in Athique 2012: 41). However, as Adrian Athique writes in his analysis of the evolution of Indian media, ‘Gandhi had seriously misjudged the public mood … the people of India were too powerfully committed to the democratic ideal to be summarily returned to absolutist rule at the whim of the executive’ (Athique 2012: 41).
Over half a century later, it has become increasingly difficult to have faith in India’s democratic commitments. The lockdown which stunted the anti-CAA-NRC protests has proved to be far more insidious: leveraging the impossibility of people taking to the streets amidst a pandemic, the State has imposed ever-more draconian measures, from indiscriminate arrests of activists to new unchecked parliamentary reforms. However, any conversation around these can easily be drowned out by the incessant noise about TRP ratings or a blockbuster rerun. Now, even amidst travel regulations, as India grapples with unlocking its halted economy, Doordarshan broadcast ‘bhoomi pujan’ (worship of the land) to mark the commencement of the new Ram temple at Ayodhya, where the erstwhile mosque stood. A spectacle unseen in recent memory, the televising of the event is a new landmark towards the vision of transforming India into a Hindu nation. Watching Doordarshan in the time of Corona has offered many distractions from the catastrophic socio-political crisis at hand, offering us a holiday from the facts. It has been our Soma, the anaesthetic ‘to calm your anger … make you patient and long suffering’ (Huxley 2016: 102) in the quest for normalcy of a lost past or in keeping alive the vision of an illusory future. If religion, as Marx said, is the opium of the masses, Doordarshan under lockdown has been its most loyal peddler.
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