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Telling Vision

(written for Indian television's Silver Jubilee, c. 1980)

It is a scourge; it arrests development of mental faculties and frequently retards them; it is a curse, a boon, an opiate, an escape; which entertains, informs, reforms by educating; and, under political pressures, lies most convincingly and unleashes a relentless chant of misleading propaganda, most brazenly.

Everyone loves it and virulently abuses it and wants to own it. By a transferred metaphor it is called an Idiot Box, and even those who make the brave effort to retain their individuality, feigning indifference, sooner or later abdicate themselves surreptitiously or without pretext to its addiction. It is everything it is called and justifies every praise and invective hurled at it: both sublime and profane. It is Television.

As an extension of the motion picture, its invention has outguessed and surpassed everything else in human experience in its influence on mankind. Each day, around the world, it draws more people to its rectangular emission of light and sound and initiates them into its fold, herding them in front of it to be willingly glued, suspending all belief, mesmerised, immobilised, irrespective of class or creed, obsequious to that cubicle of light.

It epitomises all media and is its ultimate message. It is theatre and it is cinema. It is literature and music. It is art and science and commerce, and it is education and escape from reality. Its flickering images say it all to the detriment or elevation of the human mind, which can seldom escape its invidious prevalence.

Doordarshan, its Indian name, is no different, except that it deserves some more unsavoury epithets. It had a slow and deceptively inconspicuous start 25 years ago in the nation's capital, where the few privileged tolerated it more as a claim to status than to obtain fun.

In the last decade however, it spread to all the major Indian cities and began to relay programmes regularly for more or less five hours every evening and some mornings, in black and white. In 1982 began what has been called the National Hook-up via satellite, and inevitably after much politicisation, colour splashed in 1983, changing vastly its complexion but not its quality.

No television around the world is without its share of criticism. The Doordarshan however unceasingly strove to deserve more, and got it.

To its credit however, it can be argued that it faced a difficult task and formidable obstacles. Its greatest handicap was that it was owned by the Government which showed great resolve in perpetuating mediocrity and uninventiveness at the expense of creative artistry, competence, and harmonious organisation.

Idiot Box, or Transferred Metaphor?

Secondly, it had to deal with the paradox of wanting to reach the poor and illiterate who were many and were indispensable voters, but could not afford to buy the machine. Those who could buy the machine found the fare unappetising, insipid and generally insulting to their intelligence. Then there was the problem of too many languages and resurgence in regionalism in various states in some of which the opposition political parties came to power on the strident plank of revival of their own language and cultural heritage. This posed acute problems in the choice and selection of programmes to be presented and their quality; in an attempt to please and placate many, all were displeased, except perhaps the rural folk who comprehended nothing and became more idle and disoriented.

The ubiquitous red-tape, regardless of transmission in black and white or colour, took its toll as nepotism in Doordarshan flourished while authentic talent -- not being sycophantic -- languished, a la Ameeta Malick who grouched and grouched more and grouched herself hoarse, unheeded. Added to this was the Indian penchant for collective confusion. The news reader caught drinking water much before her appearance time, two technicians enjoying a private joke suddenly making an unscheduled appearance on the screen by mistake, lack of synchronisation of various elements, sounds of shifting furniture and props and conversations back-stage, inadequate grooming of the inexperienced guests and performers who would furtively look in various directions for a signal or hint, and such other bungling, make up for the missing humour in the general drab proceedings.

It did acquit itself very well indeed with its transmission of the Asiad and Chogm. In fact, so near-perfect was the relay that most people suspected a 'foreign hand.' The real compensation to the Indian viewers for the price they pay to deaden their senses is however offered by protracted relays of cricket test matches, Wimbledon and other sports events. While most people appreciate this and actually look forward to them, some cannot help feeling that such long and uninterrupted relays also reflect the paucity of Doordarshan's own programmes for presentation.

It is a problem that apart from these sports and games events almost everything that is approved by the public is directly or indirectly cinema based: cheap, vulgar, in bad taste, devoid of the barest minimum of logic, consisting mostly of rape and mayhem. A child of eight in Bombay was reported to have asked his mother at what age he would be allowed to rape, or for that matter, deliver a fatal kick to the solar-plexus of a benevolent passerby.

With Doordarshan going commercial in a very big way now, there appears to be no dearth of sponsors who are willing to present programmes of international repute purchased for Indian consumption. This to some extent would mitigate the requirements of the middle-class and the affluent. What its relevance is to the major segment of rural viewers is yet to be known or understood. Perhaps the government will do well by minimising its control on this extremely powerful instrument of communication so that it can instill competitiveness that would generate its own potential for improvement.

All said and done, taking into account the barriers of too many languages, diverse cultures, the dilemma of servicing too sharply contrasting target audiences, and at the same time, most importantly, not overlooking the fact that its most cardinal function is to serve the interests of the government in power, Indian television has not done too badly. But even if the target of 180 transmitters to be commissioned before this year is out is set with an eye on the coming election rather than the improvement of the destiny of three-fourths of its populace and one-tenth of the world, in the final analysis the unflappable despots of Doordarshan can do with a lot more vision, to really come of age: 25 is not too early to start.

ramesh gandhi