Indian Cable TV

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

Cable TV has pervaded India. In every medium-size town and its surroundings, you get Bangla, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, and Punjabi channels; and Indian English channels, BBC, Nat.Geo, and the Indian versions of CNN and CNBC. This had transformed India in many, many ways. Here are some:

India’s many cable TV channels hold music competition in all Indian
languages for those under 25. Invariably, these youngsters choose semiclassical or fully classical film songs, a genre in which India has an extensive repertoire of lyrics in all languages. The songs are in the language of the TV station conducting the program. Asia Net, the TV station in the Malayalam language of Kerala, is an exception. In Asia Net, competitors can sing Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi songs. The judges are veteran music directors or playback singers, who are very fussy when they assess the singers after they display their best skills.

Cable TV has given these youngsters opportunities to display their talents, something they never had before in the monopoly days of government-run TV. In Jaya TV’s Ragamalika program, veteran musicians in front rows are seen enjoying as they watch the youngsters’ musical talents.

These youngsters don’t seem to come from homes with a long tradition in classical music. They don’t have the pedigree we see in the hyped-up brochures of Indian classical musicians visiting the US. Which makes me wonder how much farther these youngsters would have gone — and how much wider the ticket-buying audience base for classical music would have been — if only these youngsters had the opportunity to learn Indian classical music formally. These youngsters are India’s Ekalavyas today.

An assortment of religious channels – Hindu, Christian, Islamic,
and Sikh, widely varying in the quality in what they peddle and how they peddle it – also crowd the airwave. It is funny to watch American Christian televangelists’ fire-and-brimstone sermons dubbed in Indian languages. Having watched them on TV here – I watch them more for entertainment than enlightenment — they appear to speak in tongues!

The false piety and religiosity on garish display on many religious channels have made even my 84-year old religious – not religiose – mother skeptical of these Merchants of Gods. Only a few of them are good. Isha Yoga Center, for example, persuades people not to get embroiled in excessive religiosity, emphasizing lifestyles based on work, faith, simplicity, charity and contentment.

Tamil, Telugu and Kannada masala films on Cable tell another story. In these, actors with make-up to look dark, rustic, rural, less educated and oily-looking, continue to chase svelte and light-skinned — “wheatish” in the Indian lingo — socially upper class kunwaris (girls) in song sequences. They feed the fantasy of filmgoers by making the “wheatish” belles madly in love with the dark, rustic heroes from a socioeconomic class several notches lower in the Indian social pecking order.While in Coimbatore last year, I read a graphic Tamil film title Karutta Paiyyan Sevatta Ponnu — meaning literally, A Dark-Skinned Boy and A Light-Skinned Girl. Several years back, the Kannada filmdom gave this gem of a title for a film: Bili Hendati — literally, White Wife.

These days, light-skinned South Indian belles are not good enough to whet the fantasy of South Indian filmgoers. So they import “wheatish” Punjabi kudiyans to the mix of heroines taking full advantage of the technology in dubbing. (Bollywood now has European, Central Asian, and South American belles.)

In these films, the hero is portrayed not interested in taking advantage of the heroine’s advances, at least initially. But soon, all hell breaks loose and they chase after each other in exotic locales lip-synching songs with convulsive dance moves that put MTV to shame. In this MTV adaptation of film songs — invariably group songs with the hero and heroine amidst a bevy of starlets in contrasting costumes — the dresses for the women have become tighter and skimpier. Further, the extremely physical and tight dance moves between the dark heroes and the “wheatish” heroines and the graphic lyrics in pulsating beats leave nothing for imagination.

In disgust you flip through the channels when you sometime see old “love songs” from Hindi, Malayalam, or Tamil films with emphasis on lyrics and melody, with no convulsive dance moves. Aaahh! What a great sense of heavenly contrast they provide! For me, in portraying amorous situations, what is left unsaid and undisplayed is more sensuous than the epileptic moves and the graphic lyrics in today’s Indian film songs.

Actors in Indian TV commercials (and models in bill boards across
the country) for consumer goods are so light-skinned that they are not like anything you see in people even in most Indian upper crust homes. Their chemically bleached skin and the bad dubbing of the commercials into other languages from their Hindi original make them look like pale Azarbaijanis and Kazakhstanis in Indian costumes.

I wonder if Indian sociologists or psychologists have studied how Indian kids subliminally internalize what they see in commercials and compare their darker — but gorgeously lovely — hues of skin tones against the bleached light-skinned models in commercials. These children, women in particular, may even develop image problems in their adulthood. But then, in matrimonial descriptions, parents continue to seek for their “wheatish, convent-educated, degreed” daughters “well-educated, well-placed professional grooms” from “respectable middle class families.” The grooms’ parents are also equally honest.

This, in a country in which dark was considered beautiful, if you go
by its old literature. In Sanskrit, shyama means black or dark. Shyamalaa, Shyamasundari are descriptive names for women used even today which literally mean, “She Who is Dark,” and “A Dark Beautiful Woman.” Shyama Shastri (literally, Dark Scholar), one of the great Karnatic composers, has chose Shyama-Krishna Sodari (Sister of the dark-Krishna, a descriptive name for Parvati) as his mudra (signature) in all his compositions. One descriptive epithet for Krishna/Rama is Neela-Megha-Shyamala, literally, “He Who is as Dark as the Dark Blue Cloud.” Krishna itself means black, as in krishna-paksha (the 14 days after full moon).With India becoming prosperous, and if the prosperity percolates across the whole population, there is a slight chance that Indians maybe, just maybe, comfortable with their luscious natural skin tones in the whole range of their hues. That is at least one or two generations away.

For now, Indians have to not only live with film titles like Karutta Paiyyan Sevatta Ponnu (A Dark-Skinned Boy and A Light-Skinned Girl), but also be mentally prepared for more ghastly titles like Kannamkarutta Paiyyan Sekkasevatta Ponnu (A Jet-Black Boy and a Lily-White Girl).

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