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How Indian television's stretching the point

June 11, 2009 10:38 IST
Been living with the folks in Delhi for a few days, and while that means I get to eat all manner of fantastic food and have a morning mug of tea without stirring from bed, my entertainment diet is also affected as most conversations with mom take place with her gazing distantly at the television set and only actually talking during the commercial breaks. So yes, there is some soap in my life right now and it's not the Tyler Durden variety at all.

There is a new show called Bhaskar Bharti, one of those man-in-woman-body concepts with a cast that isn't absolutely ghastly. So far so good, and I'm pro anything that doesn't revolve around heavily contrived familial intrigue. I watched an episode a few nights ago dealing with a simple done-to-death scenario, that of a stereotypical sleazeball trying to score with a chick but interrupted by his wife returning unexpectedly, after which he's put to the sword by the clever chick who has him just where she wants him.

It's a basic scene -- executed most memorably by Jamie Lee Curtis and John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda -- and one would imagine it's hard to bungle, but Bhaskar Bharti proved itself more than capable as a scene with a four-minute running time was stretched well over fifteen minutes. I gaped in disbelief as the makers kept intercutting current action with flashback-cuts -- of scenes we saw half a minute ago! Each shot was elongated beyond endurance, and the scene kept getting longer and longer. Over fifteen minutes? Tragically, I kid you not.

This utter lack of reasonability -- economy is clearly too greedy a demand here -- with running time is not limited to this show, which despite the painful stretching, is more watchable than most of its primetime competition. The fact is that Indian television viewers are constantly force-fed serials with endless, preposterously drawn out scenes. Nine out of ten primetime shows have scenes featuring a moment of drama then underscored by double-take slow-motion reaction shots of every makeup-clad face in the living room.

This is nothing but unforgivably lazy writing to try and milk every moment for as much footage as possible, and keep helpless audiences waiting as a plotpoint that can be detailed over a day is spread out over a week's worth of episodes, or more. It's profoundly saddening, considering that the storytelling itself can be pretty decent even though the narrative is slowed down to stultifying levels.

So what now?

We need premium, pickier networks. We need channels who are willing to pay top price for television content and demand extreme quality and consistency from them. We need a credible ratings system to judge effectiveness of advertising-spending. We need the media to champion quality content and incite more viewers towards it. The wishlist is huge, and this is just the beginning.

What we do need, first and foremost, are boundaries and cut-off dates.

The major reason Indian television winds on forever is that shows are built around a set-up (a Gujarati girl married into a Tamilian household; two sisters growing up on different extremes of the wealth spectrum) instead of an actual plot (a father explains to his kids how he met their mother; a promiscuous New York writer gradually finds stability in LA; a serial-killer policeman subverts justice, one season at a time). And when a setup is in place, episodes run on forever with multiple writing teams and frequent castmember changes, with no apparent need to move the narrative forward.

We need to look to America to get the formula right, because over the last decade, the best of American cable television cleanly outstrips the best of their theatrical outpourings. Fine shows are ruthlessly cancelled for lack of viewership, while quirky and fringe television is heralded by the blogosphere and turned into cult content. It isn't a flawless model -- there is nothing on television right now with the deft comic stylings of the tragically cut-short Arrested Development, for instance -- but it does get results. And, more importantly in this context, it decapitates all the filler.

It's not to say that the US doesn't have shows purely stemming from a set-up. Four realistic, eccentric New Yorkers meet at a diner and talk about anything and everything, assigning nicknames constantly in a 'show about nothing;' a suburban widow sells drugs to give her children a better life; six friends spend too much time at a coffee shop and make the same jokes for nine years... They're all familiar, successful shows and they're all set-up, sure, but be they sitcoms or dramedies that like to meander, even they invariably have an end mapped out right when they start.

The American television model looks at seasons, which means anywhere between 14-24 episodes a year, renewed one season at a time. Therefore a show has to be self-contained within the length assigned to it and willing to pull the plug whenever it must. It is only after a show is renewed that a cliffhanger ending for the current season is drafted up and a new set of plotlines for next season come into play -- but each season by itself tells a complete story.

The massively successful Lost revolves about a very eclectic group with very diverse backgrounds stranded on a deserted island following a plane crash. It is a television phenomenon. And yet its makers are well aware that it needs to continue storytelling and not stall for time. Hence they are using their limited lifespan to an advantage, announcing their end-date gloriously to the world and getting fans to countdown to what will doubtless be a dramatic mega-finale.

And the reason a show like this can work is because it isn't stretched beyond a point, because things happen in the narrative for a reason, not just to get through another few episodes' worth of television. Meanwhile our television producers, hungry for longer running times, decide that every concept can be made into a soap opera and milked for thousands of episodes. Which is why shows that start off promisingly often taper into watered down versions of themselves with very little left to say.

We in India have the stories. We just need to go ahead and tell them fast so we can move on to other stories, instead of yawning and trying to make the same tales taller.

What do you think is the finest show on Indian television today? Are there reasons we can't be more critical of the tripe we have on air? And don't our viewers deserve better than exclusively soaps and talent shows? Write in about TV, movies or whatever you're in the mood for at and head on over for more madness at my blog. Meanwhile, keep clicking those remotes away from bad television to make your voice count.

Raja Sen