Thought Box



by Vinta Nanda April 8 2015, 1:42 pm Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 9 secs

In the last week I happened to spend an evening with relatives who were visiting Mumbai from Jammu; my hometown and the place I took birth in. It’s a no-brainer that I asked them what the latest was, in the city that I keep craving to go back to. My sister-in-law claimed that nothing is new about anything anymore. She loves giving me a piece of her mind about the mindless television serials that we broadcast across all our channels. I haven’t produced a seriesin the last nine years or so, but I am still at the receiving end of things; so I listenedwhen she said, “jahandekho (wherever you look), you see these young girls,sabziwaalis (vegetable vendors) andkamkarnewaalis(house workers), dressed like they’ve jumped straight out of TV Screens! Sindhoor (red powder applied in the parting of their hair by women who are married and not yet widowed), Mangal Sutras (Gold and Black beads that ascertain that a woman is married), thetikkas (dots on Indian women’s foreheads) and wearing silly hairstyles and jewellery that you guys pick up from the streets”.

 I smiled as she continued,“I don’t understand why all women in India, are so enamored by the way your actors are dressed in TV serials? In Jammu, it was never a tradition to wearsindhoor and mangalsutras, nor bindis and clothes like they wear them in TV serials today, but every day when I see the woman who comes to work at my house dressed up from top to toe like a TV star, I ask herwhy it is that on one day she looks like a Gujaratan (a woman from Gujarat as spoken in Panjabi), and another day she lands up looking like a Biharan (a woman from Bihar)! …I ask her, bhaihuntu das(friend now you tell me!), terinasl da ki hon walahai(what is going to be left of your pedigree?); isn’t somebody making any serial based on your background, or is it that the Madrasans (women from Chennai which was originally called Madras) these days, are dressed in clothes that you girls once used to wear in Jammu?”

While she cracked up at herself, I laughed as well; but as it does happen at most times like these, it set me thinking. What is going on with all the various cultures and diversities that we have forever in India, been so proud of? If the blends taking place were driven bythe evolving societies of metropolitan cities that are fast becoming melting pots of diverse cultures in India, it would’ve been great; but the mindless homogeneity emerging from aspirations dictated by the poorest form of costuming on television soap operas is a huge tragedy.

 How it goes is like this

 It begins from what Kareena Kapoor wore in her last film or what Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt or other stars wore in their latest; and then it filters down from a Manish Malhotra original to a meaner versions made by his poorer cousins who costume actors in TV serials and TV shows; but of course tweaked a bit so as to justify their own labels on it. My point is, costuming is serious business!Art Direction, Script Writing, Lighting, Camerawork, Music, Lyrics, Direction, Production and Costuming are components of entertainment that are as important as sales and marketing of a product that brings in the cash; but who would dare attempt to fit the idea to the matrix of an Excel Sheet?I’m reminded of what the finance head of an organization I was working ata couple of years ago, said to me when we were making plans for the seating of staff at a brand new office. I reacted to the allotment of a tiny corner of the office space for the creative team. I asked him why he was being so ungenerous and pat came the reply, “When you calculate how much office space is to be given to people in terms of square feet, it must be directly proportional to the revenues that are being generated by them. My sales team gets me the most so the best and largest section goes to them, then comes the marketing team.”

He was quiet for a moment but because I continued to stare at him, expecting him to say more, he was compelled to go on,“What does the creative team bring to me, huh? Nothing?” I looked at him aghast and asked him point blank, “What are the sales team and marketing teams, selling?”He was caught of guard (I’ve experienced often, that finance guys hate to be questioned because their logic rests comfortably in a Math nobody dare challenge); so he looked at me for a long time before replying in an irritated tone, “it’s the sales teams and the marketing teams who pick up trends and insights; they are the ones who tell creative teams what they should do.”

I could had gone on arguing with him till the cows came home that day, but I gave up in that moment because it was no point in me trying to fit my abstract but absolutely clear and nuanced visualization of the logic I could provide him, in a column of his Excel sheet that was designed particularly to please his investors.They read the best of literature, watch the greatest cinema and even enjoy it; butwhat they firmly believeis that successful cinema is good cinema, and unsuccessful cinema is either very bad work, or else then it is an anomaly, an abstraction that only intellectuals can appreciate; and they also believe that an artiste is the Van Gogh from Irving Stones, Lust for Life, who lived his life anguished and pained, and died uncelebrated. They believe that successful cinema is made byMarketers and Salesmen; an aristocracy that has the means to buyand invest in artproduced by an agency that doesn’t count except for at photo-ops; a romantic illusion, an image of theunsung painter, poet, bard and musician dominates their minds.

 “You were such a good writer, Irving Stone, look at the damage you have done!”I left the organization a few months later and became an entrepreneur. I had no alternative, because where you are considered irrelevant to the process in which your passion is, you are left with no other choice. It became my mission in life to qualify in numbers what the work done by artistes in every field of entertainment generates in terms of revenues, and where the mission landed me to was in the business of measuring impact that our entertainment has upon audiences.How else can one convince the guardians of the top and bottom lines that a creative mind is he that picks up impressions from various places which he visits, and his expression of those insights is art; on canvas, film or whichever medium magnetizes him toward it?

When the creative mind is pounded with facts and statistics that contradict the observations he made when he collided with alternate situations that threw up abstract data at him, he gets paralyzed?In other words, the only way to make creative people who depend upon the industry for their livelihoods submit in obedience,is to dump hypothesis and speculative assumption upon them and back it with the power of numbers. A creative person who leans on you for survival will follow your orders and not question you, but the one who doesn’t need you, will run far away.While in-depth analysis may certainly provide guidelines and provoke nuance, we have to accept that explorations to achieve commercial targets alone, don’t make the cut. Therefore research codified without the participation of the creative constituency of the business and interpreted without an emotional understanding of cultures, beliefs and practices that only the artists or writers can provide, is bereft, totally irrelevant when telling stories.

 So when we went to remote villages in Bihar in our first attempts to suggest corrections to the agencies that dictate creativity in the business of entertainment in India; to immerse writers and creative leaders in those experiences where the poorest of the poor found ways to empower their communities; to those places where women’s collectives contributed the smallest of their savings to set up enterprisesmanufacturing affordable sanitary napkins for their sisters inhabiting various clusters of villages; and to those places where groups of women had organized judicial systems providing justice and support to themselves as well as others who faced inequalities and abuse at the hands of societies trapped in patriarchy; what we were stunned to witness was the way self reliance and confidence flourished among women in the most marginalized communities in India.When we returned to Mumbai, writers who had accompanied us submitted their proposals to various channels and the programming teams were excited to build characters around the new Indian woman who despite all odds, sought to empower herself. But what again caused the barrier between the real and fiction were consumer insights delivered to creative teams and leaderships, through a faulty ratings system that gets dumped by decision makers every time it is challenged, but that continues to prevail despite being trashed again and again, because of a lack of an alternative. It is a system in which the investment of creative capital is an irritant.It is a system thatdirects creative communities to neither build stories around women who should take stands in their lives, nor around those who questionstatus quos. It is a system that releasesdictatesthat stories portraying women who assert their rights, don’t garner ratings!It has just never occurred to the systemthat audience as well as the creative workforce maybe a step ahead of its analysis?

 Now how does one explain this?A consolidation of secondary research put out by various social research organizations and institutions with primary data collected by us at The Third Eye, on the contrary, revealed that women belonging to single TV homes (which accounts for most Indian TV households), lunge for the remote control when their menfolk who normally monopolize it, go out to play or to work.

That women consume drama and access stories that give them a view through a window to the world outside their homes; and what they seek besides empathy and emotional catharsis, is knowledge and awareness about various health, sustainable development and other issues that touch their lives; they seek solutions to the many inequalities they face in their day to day lives and they seek progressive idioms that enable them to assist their daughters when they grow up andstart getting set to take the curve.Almost all women we spoke to said that they did not want the cycle of their own lives to repeat itself upon their daughters.Besides imitating costumes as fashion, and sets as interior design for their homes, audiences follow behaviors and attitudes; they react to dialogue, screenplay and performances and also emote to music and lyrics. They take action in their lives based on characters that appeal to them; not necessarily the ones who are noble, but ‘also those who pander to their base instincts’(I’ve put the last bit in inverted commas because most finance planners in the business would not care about which story you tell; it doesn’t matter to them whether the story you are narrating is one that either subtly or overtly, panders to the base instinct of the demographic they target, or one that constructs characters who are liberated and free; whether it reinforces patriarchy to maintain the status quo, or releases it from the confines of the norm;as long as the story being told generates the revenues they are after).For many of our audiences in India (many of the roughly 287 million illiterate adults in India), for whom education is elusive but entertainment is in abundance now; storytelling creates awareness and also informs.

Informed and aware characters in stories enrich lives and motivate audiences to aspire to be like them and actors who take positive action in their lives with confidence, persuade viewers to confront the challenges they are faced with; they galvanize change.Urbanization, ironically, has pushed women further back from where they were in their villages and sadlyarrested them in tiny spaces between four walls today; because the freedom they enjoyedin times when they walked miles to fetch water,when they congregated around the local ponds and riversides to bathe and wash their clothes along with their friends, has also been snatched away from them.We talk about having lost touch with our traditions because of capitalism and pontificate about the spaces that as a culture, defined us; we invest so much of intellectual capital inreconstructing a past which we have lost in the battle between our beliefs and the politics that govern us; but in doing all that, we forget that the only medium that will save our world and that we desperately need to reclaim, is the business of art and the business of storytelling; and if we don’t liberate creativity from columns of Excel sheets, we are doomed. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.