“A hole new fashion”: The Polo mint campaign in India
Shanti Kumar/University of Texas at Austin

Hole New Fashion

Hole New Fashion

“A hole new fashion.” With these words, the transnational corporation Nestle launched a new line of “designer” Polo mints in the Indian markets in July 2011. To link Polo mints with the glitzy and glamorous world of high fashion, Nestle India partnered with the Goa-based designer Wendell Rodricks who came up with the package designs for four new “signature” flavors – Lime Mojito, Watermelon Sorbet, Peach Schnapps and Cocoa Mocha.

According to a report in the Economic Times , a spokesperson for Nestle India claimed that almost 80 percent of the stock for the “signature” flavors was sold out within a couple of weeks after the launch of the “hole new fashion” ad campaign. Reflecting on the success of the campaign, Rodricks remarked, “This was completely off-the-cuff. But I approached it from a design perspective. These polos look very festive and I have used bright Indian colours such as saffron yellow and rani pink which would instantly catch people’s attention.” (( http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-08-10/news/29872032_1_polo-nestle-india-new-fashion )) How Rodricks came up with this “off-the-cuff” idea of creating a designer look for Polo mints is visually documented in the following television ad released by Nestle.


Polo mints TV ad

Although many might find the concept of the “hole new fashion” ad campaign funny, few would think that designer labels have anything in common with mass-produced commodities like mint candy. However, Rodricks is no stranger to the strange art of combining the high-end world of fashion with low-end commodities of mass advertising. Crowning him the “the king of collaborations,” the LuxeReport profiles how Rodrick has used his creative skills as a fashion designer to “infuse some life into more utilitarian products.” Among Rodrick’s notable “utilitarian” designs are a signature line of bed linens for Bombay Dyeing, designer uniforms for Goa’s local police, a limited edition of bottles for Himalayan Natural Mineral Water and, of course, the Polo mint campaign. (( http://blog.luxemi.com/2011/09/12/wendell-rodricks-the-king-of-collaboration/ ))

In recent years, other top fashion designers like Manish Malhotra, Tarun Tahiliani and Satya Paul have collaborated with makers of big brand names in India to release “limited editions,” “Diwali specials” and “designer collections” that promote everyday consumer products. Satya Paul, for instance, was hired by American Express to design a cruise wear line of clothing called “Jewels of the Sea” for its cardholders who are part of the Platinum Cruise Privileges Programme. In addition, American Express also got other top fashion designers like JJ Valaya, Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, Suneet Varma, and Malini Ramani and Tarun Tahiliani, to design twenty five shawls that would be available exclusively for American Express Platinum card members in New Delhi. Tarun Tahiliani also designed a special ATM for Citibank in 2010, and Manish Malhotra created a designer line for crockery maker La Opala, and a special series of Pepsi cans for the Hindu festival of Diwali in 2011. (( http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-09-09/news/30135684_1_designers-rohit-bal-ritu-kumar ))

As brand consultant Alpana Parida points out, “This kind of a packaging intervention elevates a mass product to a product also for the select, and lifts a brand’s image greatly.” (( http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-09-09/news/30135684_1_designers-rohit-bal-ritu-kumar )) For instance, Pepsi’s strategy of “Diwali edition” designer cans in India is not unlike Coca Cola’s collaboration in a different context with Italian designers like Donatella Versace to create a “limited edition” of cans in support of earthquake victims in Italy in 2009. However, Parida argues, international designers like Versace or Tom Ford are not well known in India. On the other hand Indian designers like Manish Malhotra or Wendell Rodrick are better known in India. With the growing integration of media, fashion and consumer culture in the past few decades, Indian fashion designers have gained greater visibility as costume designers for Bollywood heroes and heroines, or for beauty queens in global pageants, and for supermodels in fashion shows.

In a hypermarket cluttered with too many products seeking the consumer’s fleeting attention, association with designers who are identified with big name stars in Bollywood, television and fashion magazines can be a big advantage for low-end consumer products in India. In this context, the “hole new fashion” campaign designed by Rodricks for Nestle particularly stands out in the crowd because unlike all other products which try sell something, Polo mints seek to sell nothing; or more precisely, what Polo wants to sell is not the mint, but the hole in the mint.

In fact, when Polo mints were first launched in India in the summer of 1995, Nestle started with the slogan — “the mint with a hole” – which the company has conventionally used for positioning its uniquely designed mints in the highly competitive global confectionery markets. Unsure of success in the emerging Indian markets in the 1990s, Nestle launched the “mint with a hole” campaign on a very low-budget using hoardings (billboards) in cities and towns. The campaign lacked the glamour, glitz and gloss of television and magazines that is usually associated with giant multinational corporations like Nestle.

description of image

“the mint with the hole”

As Freddy Birdy and Naved Akhtar, the Creative Directors of the first Polo ad campaign in India found out, the mint commodity is a very low-interest product in people’s mind. The only way to promote Polo mints, they realized, was to present it “in such a way that every time you see it, you think of it in a new way.” Beginning with that assumption, they began playing around with several ideas to sell the product. But in the confectionery market crowded with minor variants of a banal commodity like mint, there was very little novelty in the product to “play around” with. Thus, they accepted Nestle’s position that the unique selling proposition of Polo in the mint market had little to do with its being a mint commodity. Instead, its uniqueness was based on the fact that Polo was the only mint with a hole. The task was thus to use the “uniqueness” of the hole imagery to sell the ordinariness of the mint commodity. As Akhtar candidly recalled later in a television interview, “the hole doesn’t do anything to the mint as such.” (( Interview with Naved Akhtar and Freddy Birdy. “Dream Merchants.” Zee TV, India. 1995. )) The hole is “just an advertising property of the brand.” Thus, the hole was fashioned as a brand difference to “create some excitement” around the product.

Recognizing the need for continual circulation of new meanings to sustain consumer interest in the imaginary brand distinction promoted by the “mint with a hole” campaign, Akhtar and Birdy decided to “keep doing repetitive advertising throughout the year, rather than have one burst and stop after that.” The idea being, in Akhtar’s words, “every time you see a Polo ad, it is something refreshing, something new.” (( Ibid. )) Constrained by the initial low budget of the campaign, and limited by capabilities of initially available media like hoardings, car stickers, and press ads, Akhtar and Birdy decided to create simple, attention-grabbing spots (after the initial success, the campaign was enlarged and extended to television).

In one of the advertisements, Polo mint is stood levitating in thin air with a halo around it, accompanied by the text “Enlightenmint.” In another ad, Polo is elevated to a “Hole of Fame” where its portrait is placed next to global superstars like Marilyn Monroe and Humphry Bogart, with the tune “Unforgettable, that’s what you are…” being played in the background. By cleverly fashioning the imagery of “Enlightenment” and a “Hall of Fame,” the ad creates an artificial class distinction between Polo — the mint with a hole — and all other mints which do not qualify for the higher status of “Enlightenment” and the “Hole of Fame.”

In the 16 years between the award-winning 1995 campaign of “Mint with a hole” and the most recent 2011 campaign of “A hole new fashion,” Polo had a few other less influential ad campaigns. The more notable among them, were campaigns with the taglines “Polo khao, seeti bajao” (Have a Polo, blow a Whistle”), “Beta Sweater Pehno” (Son wear a sweater), and “Looking for the Hole.” When examined “rationally” all the Polo ad campaigns seem outright silly or even nonsensical. But as Birdy remarks, “the nice thing about Polo advertising is that it takes the whole thing as one big joke and the consumer is involved in that joke… he is party to that joke… It is one big mass level joke… The minute it starts taking itself too seriously, it stops being funny.” (( Ibid. ))

While Birdy may be right in his insistence on a playful reading and his refusal to read the ads “seriously,” he does, however, ignore the central paradox inherent in the mass-level joke. The mass-level joke, as Slavoj Zizek tells us, is serious business. In Zizek’s words, “the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze. Which is why the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask, we confront exactly the same face as that of the mask.” (( Slavoj Zizek, “The Christian-Hegelian Comedy.” In The Artist’s Joke, Ed. Jennifer Higgie. London: Whitechapel, 2007. p. 219. ))

Of course, the significance of the “hole” in all the Polo ad campaigns – from “mint with a hole” to the “hole new fashion” — is recognized as “one big mass level joke” which should not be taken seriously. Yet, the very success of the campaign depends on consumers taking the hole in the mint seriously and buying Polo over other brands. But instead of being alienated by the fact the hole does not do anything to alter the taste of the mint, consumers are invited to acknowledge –with a chuckle — the empty promise of the hole as a founding principle of the ad campaign.

However, the fact that the “hole” joke in the Polo campaigns must be taken seriously by consumers for it to work does not indicate ineptitude or “false consciousness” as traditional Marxist ideology critique would have us believe. Rather, it is the consumer’s conscious involvement in the mass-level joke, and not false consciousness that sustains and promotes the seriousness of the ad campaign. As Zizek would say, the hole is “not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.” (( Slavoj Zizek, “How did Marx Invent the Symptom?” In Mapping Ideology, Ed. Slavoj Zizek. London: Verso, 1994. p. 312. )) To put it another way, from Zizek’s perspective, “Enlightenment” is not Enlightenment. But consumers are buying into it not because they do not know the truth about the emptiness of the hole imagery in the advertising. They know it, but they are still doing it.

Image Credits:
1. “Hole New Fashion” campaign
2. Hole New Fashion Ad
3. “The mint with the hole” campaign

Please feel free to comment.

Know Your Audience: The Quest for Digitally Addressable Systems in India
Shanti Kumar/University of Texas at Austin


DTH Players

In the shift from analog to digital television in India, much of the discussion in the media industries and policy circles has focused on whether the new digital addressable system (DAS) will be a revolutionary transformation in the delivery of programming services, as its proponents claim, or a mirage that critics argue the Indian cable industry will be chasing in futility for years to come. This is a debate I have covered more extensively in an earlier Flow essay.

To briefly summarize, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act of 2011 made it mandatory for analog Cable TV systems in India to switch over to a new Digital Addressable System (DAS) by December 2014. The advocates of DAS view digital addressability as an ideal new technology to overcome the problems posed by the current analog systems in the cable television industry, and to offer television content providers and audiences the ability to directly interact and communicate with each other. It doesn’t matter whether you get your TV through broadcasting, cable, direct-to-home satellite systems or the internet, direct addressability seems to be the fix-it-all solution to problems of analog television like limitations of bandwidth, delivery of digital HD, 3D, interactive services, targeted advertising, standardization of TV rates, reliable billing practices and so on. (( Consultation Paper on “Issues related to Implementation of Digital Addressable Cable TV Systems” ))

For the critics of DAS, the elevation of digital addressable system as a technical fix to all the problems in Indian television is rather problematic. Their criticism of the DAS policy has at least four dimensions to it: The first is an argument about the inherent difficulties in uniformly implementing DAS as a new technology in a politically, economically, culturally and linguistically diverse country like India. The second strand of criticism comes from those who question the assumption that giving cable companies greater access to television households through DAS will automatically improve the quality of services for the viewers. The third strand of criticism comes from those who argue that the kind of “choice” proposed by the advocates of DAS is a menu-driven format of click-and-choose options that does not fully exploit the interactive potential of digital addressability. The final strand of criticism is that the menu-driven format of choice does not promote the interests of the television viewer at home, but instead serves the commercial interests of the powerful media industries and their elite allies in the government.

Although advocates and critics in the media industries differ in their assessments of the ways in which the new DAS regime is being implemented in India, there seems to be little disagreement in these circles about the potential of new digital technologies to overcome the many problems posed by the old analog mode of delivering broadcasting and cable television services. Therefore, not surprisingly, much of the debate on the shift to DAS television system in India has been framed in technical terms about the relative advantages and disadvantages of digital set-top boxes over the current analog cable technologies. Underlying this consensus about the ills of the analog world is a common view that the attempt to realize the full potential of the broadcasting revolution of the 1970-80s, and the satellite television revolution of the 1990s is being hindered by the inability of television content providers to directly address the audiences at home.

In this essay, I want to move debate on DAS away from the focus on the pros and cons of digital technologies for the delivery of television services where the digital is seen as a technical fix-it-all solution for the problems of the outdated analog system. Instead, I want to pay closer attention to the distinction between addressable and non-addressable systems of communication, and critically analyze the cultural implications of the wholesale shift toward digitally addressable systems in Indian television. I argue that the shift from the current regime of non-addressable analog systems and hybrid analog-digital systems to a uniformly digital addressable system is taking place in the television industry in conjunction with similar transformations in other allied and equally crucial sectors of the Indian economy and culture. This generalized shift toward uniformly digital addressable systems is visible most prominently in the unique identification number system called “Aadhaar” launched by the government of India, and in the “Know Your Customer” (KYC) system promulgated by the Reserve Bank of India for use in the banking industry to prevent financial fraud and other criminal activities.

Aadhaar (meaning support in Hindi) is a 12-digit unique identification number (UID) issued to all residents in India on a voluntary basis by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) The UIDAI agency was established by the government of India in 2009, and began assigning UID numbers in September 2010. The aadhaar numbers are stored in a centralized database and linked to demographic and biometric information such as photographs, ten fingerprints and iris scans of every individual with a UID number. The stated goal of the Aadhaar project is to serve as the single source of verifiable identity for the delivery of various public services by using the UID numbers and the associated database information to uniquely address each individual resident in India. (( uidnumber.org ))



The Know Your Customer (KYC) system is used in the banking industry to individually identify each customer and verify his/her identity by using uniquely identifiable data such as a photograph, residential address, marital status and so on. Introduced in 2002 by the Reserve Bank of India, the KYC system is now used by all banks to ensure that they are fully compliant with the government of India’s regulations aimed at preventing money laundering, terrorism financing and identity theft schemes. (( Know Your Customer (KYC) Guidelines ))

Know Your Customer

Know Your Customer

Similarly, the Digital Addressable System (DAS) is being promoted in the television industry as a way to uniquely identify each subscriber on the cable delivery system. DAS comprises of a set of digital hardware and software tools used in satellite and cable TV industries for the transmission of television channels in encrypted form to their subscribers. All subscribers get set top boxes with authorization to view free, paid or on-demand encrypted channels on the satellite or cable network. Authorization is given and controlled by the Multi System Operator (MSO) who owns the DAS but may work with Local Cable Operators (LCO) in different markets.

While the current interactions and intersections among the television industry’s DAS platform with the aadhaar system and the KYC system are limited, the future potential for integration of these digital addressable systems in India is immense. According to a study released by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in April 2012, Telecommunications companies can save over Rs. 1,000 crore (( 1 crore = 10 million. 1 US dollar = 55 Indian rupees )) every year if they use Aadhaar to verify the identity and address of new subscribers. The report claims that the Telecom industry can save this money by going paperless in back end processes, and by avoiding the fines that the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring (TERM) cell imposes on companies for failing to verify subscriber identity in a proper and timely manner. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/using-aadhaar-as-kyc-norm-can-save-telecos-rs-1000-cr-says-study/471088/ )) Recognizing the potential benefits of such digital integration, DISHTV – the leading provider of DTH services in India – embraced the aadhaar UID and the KYC IDs for uniquely identifying its customers, and rapidly expanding its subscriber base across the country. “Dish TV is proud to align with UIDAI to recognise and support the country’s largest movement to provide unique ID numbers to its residents. Aadhaar will also serve an additional payment option as the UID has a direct connect to the banks and financial institutions,” said Dish TV COO Salil Kapoor in statement released to announce the implementation of the new policy in February 2011. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/dish-tv-alignsaadhaar-to-accept-uid-number-as-id-proof/124598/on ))

The development of new digital technologies to communicate with citizens, consumers and audiences in nationalized systems such as Aadhaar, KYC and DAS respectively, requires a new understanding of the emerging modes of digital address in India today. However, the debate over digital addressable systems cannot be simply reduced to the positive versus negative effects of new technologies at home, or more generally in media culture and industries. Television viewers are ambivalent about the potential threats of DAS to their privacy and may also be vaguely aware of the possibilities of greater surveillance by the media industries in the digital world. But at the same time, television viewers recognize that many everyday conveniences of better programming services, efficiency of delivery mechanisms, and greater security in the television household depend greatly on digital addressable systems. As is evident from the recent attempts of major players in the media industry like DISH TV to integrate the DAS platform with KYC and Aadhaar systems, the rise of digital addressable systems and their ability to uniquely address viewers as consumers and citizens raises new questions about the changing relationships between public and private spaces, privacy and surveillance, and the state and its subjects. These are questions that Indian media scholars need to address by extending our analyses of television more broadly to the changing mode of digital address in systems like DAS, KYC and Aadhaar, as well as to the increasing intersections and the growing interdependence among various digital platforms.

Image Credits:

1) DTH Players
2) Aadhaar
3) Know Your Customer

Please feel free to comment.

Digitizing India: the transformation from analog to digital cable television
Shanti Kumar/University of Texas at Austin


Broadband India

Television in India is on the threshold of a major transformation as the country embarks on an ambitious project to completely replace the current analog cable networks with a digital addressable system. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act of 2011 made it mandatory for analog Cable TV networks in India to switch over to a new Digital Addressable System (DAS) by December 2014.

As per the consultation paper issued by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in 2011, the shift to DAS will take place in a phased manner across the country. The four major metro areas of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai were expected to switch over by 30th June 2012. The second phase would cover Cable TV households in all cities with population over 1 million. The third phase will be implemented in smaller towns and urban areas with municipal corporations. The remainder of the country will be digitized by 2014. (( For a brief overview of the main elements of the TRAI consultation paper, and its discussion of the key challenges facing the industry in the shift to digital cable, see the consultation paper on digitization ))

According to a study conducted in 2011 by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India (Assocham), the number of TV households in India is estimated to be around 147 million, and the number of cable TV homes is about 94 million. It is estimated that the digitization of Indian television will cost up to 400 billion Indian Rupees (currently 1 USD = 56 INR). The installation of mandatory digital set top boxes in all cable television households in India thus poses an enormous set of challenges for cable operators, broadcasters, advertisers, consumers, TRAI and other associated governmental agencies. Among the major challenges are concerns about the timely installation of digital set top boxes in all television households; questions about the availability of necessary funds for the procurement of new digital cable boxes, particularly by local cable operators in smaller towns and villages; lack of proper communication with viewers about the implications of the shift to digital television; confusion about the new regime of revenue sharing agreements among television programmers, advertisers, cable operators, and so on.

Already, there is great amount of confusion and uncertainty about Phase 1 of the switch to digital, and the government of India was forced to extend the deadline for digitization in the four metros to October 31st. Given that there are 10 million Cable TV households in the four metros, critics have wondered if the digitization schedule has been created in haste without adequate preparation both in the industry and among consumers. For instance, the June 2012 issue of Cable Quest magazine – whose editorials have in the past been strongly supportive of the shift to digital – carried a cover story titled “Digitalisation: Are we on the Right Track?” Another study released by Frost & Sullivan Market Insight in 2011 predicted that digitization would be a mirage for cable television in India.

Digital Cable

Cable Quest

However, advocates of digitization see it as revolutionary change that is long overdue in Indian television. They argue that the shift to DAS – however expensive, confusing and cumbersome – is not only essential but inevitable because what constitutes “television” today is very different from what it was when Doordarshan, the government-sponsored network, was the only broadcasting service in India till the 1990s. Although Doordarshan is still the only terrestrial broadcaster in the country, since the early 1990s several commercial television channels like CNN, MTV, BBC – and later Indian language channels such as ZEE TV, SUN TV and ETV — became available on local cable networks in India. Television viewers in many cities, towns and villages were willing to pay a local cable operator – known as the cablewallah — anything from 40-100 rupees per month for a variety of programming in English, Hindi and other Indian languages. For much of the paying audiences in India, cable television and not broadcasting soon became the dominant mode for the delivery of programming content. The local cablewallah not only controlled the supply of television content into the viewers’ homes but also dictated which channel were part of the “bundle” and where each channel would be located in the programming lineup.

During late 1990s and the early 2000s, as satellite and cable television began to spread rapidly across India, the business of cable distribution rapidly shifted from the early disorganized, entrepreneurial phase of the cablewallahs toward a more corporate structure that emphasized rationalization of business practices, efficiency of scale, professionalization of management and technical expertise, transparency in billing systems, and standardization of choice and customizability of services across local operations. According a report released by TRAI on the status of the cable television industry in 2010, the number of cable television subscribers in India grew from 410,000 in 1992 to more than 91 million by the end of 2009. The number of satellite television channels grew from literally a handful in 1992 to around 550 channels in 2010. The cable distribution industry which began as an entrepreneurial venture of enterprising cablewallahs in the early 1990s, now includes 6000 Multi System Operators (MSOs) , and 60,000 Local Cable Operators (LCOs). Now competing with the cable operators for distribution of television channels are 7 Direct to Home (DTH) satellite TV operators and several IPTV service providers.

DTH and IPTV services in India are already compliant with the new regulations for digitization because they are distributed through encrypted signals that can only be received through a digital addressable box at the consumer end. In addition to transmitting a digital signal, DTH and IPTV also provide a variety of HD channels and 3D features that most MSOs and LCOs in the cable industry currently do not have the technological resources for. While some MSOs provide a hybrid system of analog and digital cable, DTH providers like Videocon counter that hybrid cable signals are not really HD, whereas the DTH signal is “asli” (real) HD; as showcased in the ad for Videocon D2H below.


Videocon D2H advertisement

As the many limitations of the cable model have led consumers to look for alternative television delivery systems, DTH has emerged as a very successful alternative to cable in many rural and urban areas in India. IPTV, on the other hand, has been a minor success in some of the major metros and cities but is seen as a delivery system with great potential as broadband connections become available in other parts of the country. In recent months, DTH providers like DISH, Videocon and Tata Sky have also been quick to capitalize on the seemingly chaotic transformation to digital in the cable industry, and have been running ads in newspapers inviting cable subscribers to switch to DTH, and providing incentives to owners of LCO in the cable industry to switch their allegiance to a more stable DTH industry. More importantly, the success of DTH and IPTV in recent years has forced MSO and LCO cable operators to hasten the transformation of the cable industry from its current analog system to the new digital system. Only time will tell if the shift to the new digital addressable system will be a revolutionary transformation in Indian television as its proponents claim, or a mirage that critics argue the cable industry will be chasing in futility for years to come.

Image Credits:

1. Broadband India Magazine

2. Cable Quest Magazine

3. Videocon D2H advertisement

Please feel free to comment.

Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss: (not) responding to the Richard Gere-Shipla Shetty controversy in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Shilpa Shetty, it appears, cannot stay out of controversy and news headlines these days. Shetty, a well-known Bollywood actress in India, shot to international prominence after appearing as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K. in January 2007. The British reality TV show was engulfed in a major controversy when Shetty became the target of racist remarks and bullying by some of her housemates led by the now infamous Jade Goody. When Shetty went on to win the show, she not only became a household name in Britain, but was also the focus of attention in many newspapers, television channels and online sites around the world.

Shetty was back in the global news headlines in April 2007, when she was embroiled in another controversy, this time in India. At an AIDS awareness campaign organized in Delhi to benefit truck drivers, the American actor Richard Gere planted a series of kisses on Shetty. Although taken aback by Gere’s actions, Shetty reportedly laughed it off with a comment directed to the truckers, “yeh thoda zyaada ho gaya” (“This is a bit much.”)

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Condemning the kiss, Prakash Javadekar, the spokesman for Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) proclaimed, “Such a public display is not part of Indian tradition.” In Mumbai, members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena stormed onto a set where Shetty was shooting a film, set fire to her photographs and burned effigies of Gere. Poonal Chandra Bhandari, an advocate in the city of Jaipur, filed public interest litigation accusing Gere and Shetty of committing “an obscene act” in a public place. Conceding that the kiss at the public event was “highly sexually erotic,” Dinesh Gupta, Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate in the Jaipur Court, issued an arrest warrant against Gere and summoned Shetty for appearance on May 5, 2007.

Sensing trouble due to the growing controversy, Gere tried to set the record straight with an apology. In a statement addressed to “My dear Indian friends,” and released to the media, Gere wrote, “What we thought was a very successful HIV/AIDS event has taken a sad turn. The evening and event in question was intended to celebrate courageous people and partnerships in the supremely important fight against HIV/AIDS, a worldwide pandemic which has afflicted over 5 million Indians and is still increasing.” Applauding Shetty for taking a leadership role in the fight against AIDS, Gere said, “I assure you, I have utmost respect for her, and she knows this. Of course, I’ve felt terrible that she should carry a burden that is no fault of hers. The burden is mine and no one else’s.”

Shetty, on her part, strongly defended Gere saying, “He is such a gentleman. He is incapable of indecent behaviour.” Lashing out against her critics, Shetty argued, “It was just a kiss on my cheek! What’s the big hue and cry about?” She explained the reason for the kiss as follows: “Earlier during the day during lunch we were teasing him about a dance step in Shall We Dance? When he suddenly bent me down on stage he was doing that whole step from Shall We Dance? I was as taken aback as the people who saw it. It was nothing but a joke and not pre-planned at all.”

But some critics of the kiss seemed unwilling to accept either Gere’s apology or Shetty’s explanation. “The indecency might have been purposefully done as a publicity stunt,” argued Lily Agarwal, a BJP member of the Bhopal City Corporation. Supporting the protests, Agarwal said, “An Indian woman’s greatest asset is her modesty, her reputation and dignity. Shilpa’s lack of any protest only confirms that we are still slaves of the ‘White.’ We will tolerate all humiliation just because we feel the ‘White’ is our master.”

In many postcolonial nations like India, the myth of a homogenous and homogenizing (white) Western culture is a convenient reference point for many political parties and ideological blocs struggling to establish their hegemony in the very diverse terrain of culture. As the noted postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy argues, the myth of “the West” has engendered (and has in turn been engendered by) three responses in colonial and postcolonial India; or more precisely, two responses and one non-response.

The first response, writes Nandy, is to model Indian culture on the idealized myth of Western culture. However, there is more than mere imitation or mimicry involved in this process: It involves “capturing, within one’s own self and one’s own culture, the traits one sees as reasons for the West’s success on the world stage.” This process is seen as a liberal synthesis of “Indian” and “Western” cultures, and justified in terms of universal principles such as “democracy” and “civilization.” In the Gere-Shetty controversy, for instance, some in the Bollywood fraternity embraced this view in their defense of Shetty. Noted Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt declared, “When the mother of civilisation gets obsessed with trivia, you can be sure doom is around the corner.” Actress Celina Jaitley asked, “If she [Shetty] does not have an objection, why should others be bothered? She is above 18, is grown up and knows what she is doing. I really wonder what has happened to the world’s biggest democracy where every citizen has the right to expression and this reaction from fundamentalists groups is really uncalled for.” Shetty also seemed to endorse this view when she said, “I don’t want the Indian media and Indians to look foolish to the outside world.”

In a similar vein, former attorney general, Soli J Sorabjee criticized Judge Gupta for behaving like the “Taliban moral police,” and opined that “the order is unsustainable and makes us look ridiculous.”

The second response to the so-called clash between “Indian” and “Western” cultures is that of the fundamentalist zealot whose sole aim is somehow to defeat Western culture at in its own game. Examples of this type of response abound in India; the over-zealous moral policing of the Gere-Shetty episode by Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like the Shiv Sena in the city of Mumbai, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level being only the most recent. The strategy of the Hindu fundamentalist groups is all too evident. As Nandy puts it, the goal of the Hindu fundamentalists is to:

[D]econtaminate Hinduism of its folk elements … then give it additional teeth with the help of Western technology and secular statecraft, so that Hindus can take on, and ultimately defeat, all their external and internal enemies, if necessary, by liquidating all forms of ethnic plurality — first within Hinduism and then within India, to equal Western Man as a new ubermenschen.

Many liberal-minded Indians who are embarrassed by the political manipulation of religion by fundamentalists tend to classify the response of the Hindu right wing groups as “a retrogression into primitivism and as a pathology of traditions.” But look closely, argues Nandy, and there is nothing “fundamental” about the “fundamentalists.” The almost complete lack of tolerance of the fundamental principles of religion, and the inability to accept the diversity of cultural traditions demonstrate how Hindu right has morphed into a highly modern political machinery that seeks to create an “Indian” culture which not only equals but ultimately surpasses Western culture.

The third response of postcolonial Indians to the myth of a Western culture, writes Nandy, is a non-response. This (non)response emerges from a pragmatic recognition of the cultural and historical continuities and tensions between the “colonial” and the “postcolonial,” “Indian” and the “Western” or the “traditional” and the “modern.” This non-response, according to Nandy, is voiced by a majority in postcolonial India and is based on the belief that diverse cultures in India have known how to live with each other for centuries. This belief emerges from a cultural consensus that religion is not a tool for political manipulation but is a way of life with its own principles of tolerance.

The three responses outlined above are inextricably linked in the political, religious and cultural realms of everyday life in India. But, paradoxically enough, both the enthusiastic admirers of the “West” and their over-zealous opponents in the Hindu right wing would like to believe that the third response is merely a minority view. However, the non-response is clearly in evidence as a majority of Indians ignored the controversy over the Gere-Shetty kiss and the protests organized by Hindu right wing groups fizzled out with a whimper – notwithstanding the excessive media coverage in India and abroad. But the perhaps the most powerful impact of the non-response by a majority of Indians to the Gere-Shetty controversy has been that Judge Gupta (who issued the warrants against Shetty and Gere) was quietly transferred from his post in Jaipur to the small town of Kishangarh several hours away. A spokesman for the Court claimed that the transfer was “routine,” but he also said that Judge Gupta acted on a “frivolous” public interest litigation, and noted that the transfer order came from the state’s Chief Justice. Although it is not clear what effect the transfer will have on the Gere-Shetty case, one can only surmise that the judiciary has recognized that the non-response to the controversy is indeed a majority opinion in Indian public culture.

Effigies of Richard Gere burn in India
My dear Indian friends, I’m surprised: Gere
Richard Gere cannot do anything obscene
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Nandy, Ashis. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” Alternatives, XIII (1988): 186.
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Indian judge who ordered Richard Gere’s arrest transferred: report
Nandy, 187.
Ibid., 188.

Image Credits:
1. Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Please feel free to comment.

Race, Gender and Class in Reality TV: The Case of Celebrity Big Brother 2007 in the U.K.

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas at Austin

Big Brother Winner Shilpa Shetty

Big Brother Winner Shilpa Shetty

Celebrity Big Brother (CBB) 2007 was the fifth series broadcast on Channel 4 in the U.K. A spinoff of the popular reality TV show Big Brother, CBB invited several celebrities – past and present – to live together in a house as “housemates” without any access to the outside world. Television cameras were placed all over the house to capture the interactions among the celebrities. Over the course of 26 days, one or more of the celebrities was periodically evicted from the house and the last remaining contestant was declared the winner. On January 28, 2007, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty was crowned the winner of the show with 63% of the final vote.

In addition to Shilpa Shetty, other notable housemates in CBB 2007 were Michael Jackson's brother Jermaine Jackson; former Miss Great Britain Danielle Lloyd; English film director Ken Russell; Jo O'Meara, a former member of the pop group S Club 7; singer Leo Sayer; American actor from the A-Team, Dirk Benedict; former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody; Goody's boyfriend, Jack Tweed; and Goody's mother Jackiey Budden.

In the first two weeks, the show struggled to garner ratings, and had received an all-time low audience of two million viewers. However, on Day 14, the show received national and international attention due to confrontation between Shilpa Shetty and Jane Goody over the use of chicken stock cubes in the house. Jo O'Meara and Danielle Lloyd sat next to Goody and were seen giggling as Shetty looked visibly upset during the heated argument. After Shilpa left the room, Danielle told Jo and Jane that Shilpa should “just fuck off home,” and that she couldn't even speak English. Jo O'Mera also said that she didn't like Shilpa touching her food because “you don't know where her hands have been”.

Jade Goody (left) and Shilpa Shetty (right)

Jade Goody (left) and Shilpa Shetty (right)

The next day, Danielle Lloyed tried to apologize to Shetty saying, “I feel really bad, I feel disgusted with myself the way I've treated you and the way I've acted, because I'm not like that, Shilpa, really,” … “And you can even cook me curry and you can pick the onions out with your fingers.”

However, a few days before the argument between Shilpa and Jade, Danielle and Jo had made fun of Shilpa's accent and her cooking. While Danielle Lloyed referred to Shetty as a “dog,” Jo O'Mera complained that Shetty had undercooked chicken curry, and implied that Indians are thin because they always undercook meat and fall ill.

In earlier episodes, Jade Goody's mother Jackiey Budden refused to call Shilpa Shetty by her name, and referred to her only as “the Indian,” or “Princess.” When asked why she would not call Shilpa Shetty by her name, Budden claimed that it was only because she could not pronounce her name properly.

Jade, Jo and Danielle constantly told the other housemates that they felt Shilpa was a “fake” and a “phoney” and that she should go back to the slums in India where people adore her as a Bollywood star.

Jade Goody referred to Shilpa as “Shilpa Popadom,” “Shilpa Durpa” and “Shilpa Fuckwala.” Speaking in the Diary Room later, Jade said that she had done this only because she could not remember Shilpa's last name. Claiming that she had no intentions of being racist, Jade apologized if her actions had offended Shilpa or anyone else.

Jade's boyfriend, Jack Tweed said that he was disappointed with Jade for apologizing to Shilpa and insulted Shetty by calling her a a “dick” and and a “wanker.” Jack also referred to Shilpa as a “fucking [expletive].” Since the expletive was beeped out from the show, many audiences though that the beeped word Jack had used was “Paki” (a racist slur used to refer to people of South Asian descent in the U.K.) However, after reviwing the tapes, Channel 4 and Endemol, the producers of Big Brother, confirmed – evidently with great relief – that the slur Jack used against Shilpa was not “Paki” but “cunt.”

Even though Jack did not use a racist slur, what is surprising, and indeed shocking, is that the producers of the show did not seem to find it equally problematic that Jack was being sexist and misogynist in the Big Brother house; and that too not just once, but repeatedly in his attacks against Shilpa.

Initially, some media reports were also rather dismissive of the sexist attitudes on the show when they completely ignored Jack's attacks on Shilpa. Instead they appeared to perpetuate sexist attitudes of their own by referring to the incidents between Shilpa, Jade, Jo and Danielle as “girlish rivalry.”

However, over the course of the show as the arguments and confrontations began to mount, Shilpa told a fellow housemate, Cleo Rocos, that she was being targeted by Jade, Jo, Danielle, Jack and Jackiey because of her race. Although, Shilpa later withdrew her allegations of racism and tried to make up with her fellow housemates, many viewers and some media reports began characterizing the incidents as “bullying,” “racist” and “racist bullying.”

Ofcom,the media regulator in the U.K. received over 19,000 complaints and an additional 3000 complaints were sent to Channel 4 directly. Hertfordshire police formally launched an investigation to determine if the incidents in the Celebrity Big Brother house were motivated by “racial hatred.” A spokesperson for Hertfordshire police released a statement saying, “Hertfordshire constabulary is investigating allegations of racist behaviour in the Big Brother house, and will be conducting an inquiry, including a review of tapes.”[1]

The Big Brother controversy – characterized my some in the media as “Shilpagate” – became a political issue when a Labor Party M.P. of Indian descent, Keith Vaz, asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to condemn the show in the House of Commons. Vaz's motion in the House of Commons read: “This house views with concern the comments made about 'Big Brother' contestant Shilpa Shetty by other housemates; believes that 'Big Brother' has a role to play in preventing racist behaviour in the 'Big Brother' house; regrets that these comments have been made; and calls on the programme to take urgent action to remind housemates that racist behaviour is unacceptable.” Although the Prime Minster refused to directly criticize the show because he had not seen it, he made a general comment about not tolerating racism in any shape or form. The Big Brother incident also became a subject of intense debate in India, and several demonstrations were organized to protest the show's racist treatment of Shilpa Shetty. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who was visiting India during this time, was repeatedly asked to respond to the Big Brother controversy.

Jade Goody arguing with Shetty

Jade Goody arguing with Shetty

Due to the growing controversy in the U.K and in India, Big Brother's sponsor Carphone Warehouse withdrew its sponsorship of the show. Explaining the decision, CEO Charles Dunstone said, “We had already made it clear to Channel 4 that [if these racist remarks] were to continue, we would have to consider our position. Nothing we saw last night gave us any comfort. Accordingly we have instructed Channel 4 to remove our sponsorship name and branding with immediate effect.”[2]

However, executives at Channel 4 and Endemol insisted that there was no racism directed against Shilpa on the show. They released a statement saying, “The social interactions and dynamics of the group are one of the key parts of the BB story, and viewers have a right to see these portrayed accurately. However, this is balanced with our duty not to broadcast material that may cause unjustifiable offence. We take this matter very seriously and BB does not tolerate bullying or racist abuse in any form. Big Brother is closely monitoring all the housemates and will take appropriate measures to reprimand such behaviour where necessary.”[3]

By arguing that the “viewers have a right” to see the social interactions among housemates “portrayed accurately,” Channel 4 and Endemol were essentially advocating the view that television merely represents reality by mirroring the actual events that are being shown on the viewers screens. In embracing the “mirror” theory of representation, the producers of Big Brother were cleverly choosing to ignore their own role – and responsibility — in the selective process of framing and editing everything that goes on in the Big Brother house into a compelling narrative for viewers at home.

However, as it became clear that not many in the media or among the audiences were buying into the “mirror” theory of reality TV being put forth to defend the actions (or more precisely inaction) of the show's producers, Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan released a statement on January 18, 2007. The statement read, “The debate has been heated, the viewing has at times been uncomfortable but, in my view, it is unquestionably a good thing that the programme has raised these issues and provoked such a debate. These attitudes, however distasteful, do persist – we need to confront that truth. We have reached the view that we cannot with certainty say that the comments directed at Shilpa have been racially motivated or whether they stem from broader cultural and social differences.”[4]

By arguing that it is a “good thing” to show the heated debate in the Big Brother house even though it was at times “uncomfortable” to watch, Duncan was slightly revising the earlier theory advocated by Channel 4 that reality TV is simply a mirror of social reality. Instead, Duncan advocated an alternative view that television can and must stand in for the true character of British society by representing the harsh reality of those attitudes which may be uncomfortable and distasteful to watch but do exist in society.

Columnists in newspapers, magazines and online forums argued that it was disingenuous and cynical of Duncan and Channel 4 to claim that Celebrity Big Brother was standing in for social reality by representing the true character of “cultural and social differences” in British society. In an article titled, “Pedigree versus Pitbull: Big Brother's Cynical Face,” Carol Midgley of the Times (London) wrote, “Far from 'not tolerating' bullying, the brains at Endemol have deliberately caused it.” She argued that Celebrity Big Brother went for “the lowest common denominator” by parading the “uneducated, loud Goody” and her family like a “circus act” before us and “encouraging us to snigger at her stupidity.” Therefore, Midgley argued, “It is not just Shetty who is the victim” but also “Jade (herself mixed-race) who suffered the most underprivileged upbringing and was rolling her mother's spliffs by the age of 5.” Moreover, Midgley concluded, “For what it's worth I doubt she and her gang are even particularly racist. I think they are jealous — of Shetty's beauty, poise, talent and, yes, her class.”[5]

By arguing that the controversial comments and attitudes of some guests on the show were caused by the producers of Big Brother by casting a lower class “pitbull” like Jade against the upper class “pedigree” of Shilpa Shetty, Midgley sought to refute Duncan's claim that Channel 4 was trying to be a “truthful” representative of the reality in British society where “distasteful” attitudes about cultural differences – however uncomfortable – do exist.

However, by recasting the terms of the debate from concerns about “race” to questions about the lack of class in Goody and her family (versus Shilpa's class), Midgley's arguments only seemed to give credence to Duncan's claim that the controversial remarks on CBB may have been “distasteful” but were not “racially motivated.”

What Midgley described as “pedigree” in Shilpa Shetty's demeanor seemed to be for Germaine Greer the very reason for the racist attacks by Goody and company in the Big Brother house. In an article in the Guardian titled, “Why does everyone hate me? Greer wrote, “There are no good reasons for watching Celebrity Big Brother and very good reasons for not. Not watching will spare you the nerve-fraying annoyingness that is Shilpa Shetty. Everything about her is infuriating: her haughty way of stalking about, her indomitable self-confidence, her chandelier earrings, her leaping eyebrows, her mirthless smile, her putty nose and her eternal bray, “Why does everyone hate me?” Not to mention the crying jags. What no one seems to have quite understood is that Shilpa is a very good actress. Everyone hates her because she wants them to. She also knows that if she infuriates people enough, their innate racism will spew forth.”[6]

It is shocking that Greer, a noted feminist of yesteryear, seems to suggest that racist abuse is something that one deserves if one does not behave with proper modesty when dealing with people of lower class in society. Shilpa's upper class demeanor, Greer argues, was so infuriating for the lower class Goody and her family that their “innate racism” came to the fore. However, by claiming that “Jackiey's inability to pronounce Shilpa's name had less to do with failure to conceal her own racism than the fact that she has no idea how to spell anything” Greer falls prey to an age-old belief among proponents of British “high culture” that racism is a problem of ignorance in the working class.

This view is explicitly stated in an article titled, “Beauty and the beastliness: a tale of declining British values,” by Stuart Jeffries, also in the Guardian. “The Big Brother house,” Jeffries writes, “remains one of hate, divided between ugly, thick white Britain and one imperturbably dignified Indian woman. There are also some stereotypically weak men in the house, but they are functionally irrelevant. Shilpa Shetty has taken the supposed British virtues of civility, articulacy, reserve and having a stiff upper lip and shown that, at least in what passes for our celebrity culture, we lack them.”

Whether “the bullying and backstabbing of Shetty by Goody and her Regan-like foils, Jo O'Meara and Danielle Lloyd,” was racist or not, Jeffries argues that it had the resonance of racism. He continues, “I thought Britons had moved beyond this kind of rubbish; it's shaming to see that we have not. And we shouldn't let Jack, Jade's piggy-eyed ankle bracelet, off the hook: let's not be sexist in damning people who give the lie to Britain's tolerance of difference and reputation for intelligence.”

Although Jeffries, unlike Greer, recognizes that it is sexist to criticize only Goody and her female housemates when Jack and other male housemates acted just as badly, it is surprising that Jeffries – not unlike Midgley — is unable to recognize his own complicity in the “intolerance of difference” as he reveals his class bias in “damning people who give the lie to Britain's tolerance of difference and reputation for intelligence.”[7]

By reducing the debate on racism to a simple effect of the lower class standing of “ugly, thick white” Britons in Big Brother, media analysts like Jeffries, Midgley and Greer fail to recognize the more insidious form and character of racism as a systemic problem in contemporary British society. To suggest that the discourse of racism survives only because some lower class Britons are ill-equipped to be anti-racist not only smacks of upper class elitism, but also seems historically false and empirically invalid given the marginal status of minority representations in mainstream British society.

As the Big Brother controversy reveals, both overt and covert forms of racism derive their cultural meanings and social legitimacy through a complex articulation of racist stereotypes to other stereotypical representations of gender and class standing. To take an anti-racist stance against the discourse racism thus requires us to go beyond simplistic notions of racism and recognize the complex ways in which representations of race, class and gender are linked together in contemporary society.


[1] Guardian Story

[2] Yahoo Story

[3] www.bigbrotheronline.co.uk/

[4] BBC Entertainment

[5] Timesonline.co.uk/

[6] Guardian.co.uk/ Story #1

[7] Fuardian.co.uk/ Story #2

Image Credits:
1. Big Brother Winner Shilpa Shetty
2. Jade Goody (left) and Shilpa Shetty (right)
3. Jade Goody arguing with Shetty

Please feel free to comment.

Mixing Mythology, Science and Fiction: The Sci-fi Genre in Indian Film and Television

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

In recent years, the sci-fi genre has become a rage in India. Indian television channels like Doordarshan, Sony and Star Plus have ventured into the sci-fi genre in the hopes of gaining a bigger share of the lucrative but competitive television market in India. Science fiction is a relatively new genre in Indian television, but the recent success of the Bollywood blockbuster Koi Mil Gaya (2003) and its sequel Krrish (2006) has propelled the sci-fi genre to stratospheric heights.

Koi Mil Gaya

Koi Mil Gaya

Koi Mil Gaya (I Found Someone) revolves around the friendship between a mentally challenged young man Rohit (played by Hrithik Roshan) and a lovable alien, Jadu, who gifts superhuman powers to Rohit. Krrish, the sequel to Koi Mil Gaya, is the story of Rohit's son Krishna (also played by Hrithik), who inherits his father's superpowers. When Krishna travels to Singapore to be with a girl he is in love with (played by Priyanka Chopra), he encounters a megalomaniac scientist who is out to destroy the world. Krishna must transform into Krrish and use his superpowers to save the world from the mad scientist. So popular was Krrish among the young and the old alike that it netted a record $15 million in its opening week, and ended up as the highest-earning film of the year.

Following the enormous success of the Bollywood blockbusters, sci-fi shows have cropped up on the primetime schedules of several Indian television channels as well. Television producers, networks and advertisers see great potential in the genre to attract audiences who have been drawn to sci-fi by the popularity of Koi Mil Gaya and Krrish. Case in point is Karma: Koi Aa Raha Hai Waqt Badalne (Karma: Someone is Coming to Transform Time) a one-hour weekly show about a superman-like character which aired on Star Plus. Produced by Balaji Telefilms – a powerhouse of soap opera production in India – Karma was initially called Kaalki (named after the Hindu god Vishnu's 10th and final avatar on earth). Kaalki was scheduled for November 2002 on Star Plus, but the network did not seem too keen on the sci-fi show for that year. However, in August 2003, Star Plus launched Karma in the hopes of capitalizing on the success of the Bollywood blockbuster Koi Mil Gaya.

Karma: Koi Aa Raha Hai Waqt Badalne

Karma: Koi Aa Raha Hai Waqt Badalne

Another TV show which tried to ride the sci-fi wave created by the success of Koi Mil Gaya is Bongo which aired in the primetime slot of 8:00 p.m. on the state-sponsored national network Doordarshan's DD1 channel in April 2004. Bongo is an animated serial about an alien who comes to earth to save his planet Zapata. The producers of the show, Rudraksha Arts, signed an advertising deal with Parle-G Biscuits, and the show was named Parle-Bongo. The serial did fairly well initially by getting high ratings to become one of the top five shows in children's programming for the week of July 11-16, 2004. Although Parle-Bongo could not consistently sustain its high ratings in subsequent weeks, it garnered media attention as the first television serial in India to use 2-D and 3-D animation to combine cartoon characters with human actors.

In May 2004, Sony Entertainment Television launched a sci-fi thriller King Aasman Ka Raja (King of the Skies) also produced by Balaji Telefilms. But Aasman Ka Raja, which was launched without any media promotion or publicity campaign, failed in the ratings game and was quietly withdrawn by Sony. The most recent venture into the realm science fiction on Indian television is Antariksh: Ek Amar Katha (Space: An Eternal Story) which began airing on the primetime slot of 8:00 p.m. on Star Plus on October 2, 2006. The story of Antariksh, which is set 10,000 years in the future, focuses on the adventures of Prince Amar who battles the bad guys led by Rankaal the evil ruler of the Kavran Galaxy. Amar, eldest son of King Shylan, is in line to be the next king of Prithiv. But Amar's jealous brothers plot to strip him of his crown and banish him to the outer regions of space. Exiled in space, Amar fights a hi-tech war against Rankaal who must be destroyed to protect the future of humanity.

Antariksh has been billed by the creators of the show, Wild Fire Productions, as India's first mega-sci-fi- serial which they hope will have a cult following among young audiences. However, Antariksh is also being promoted as an epic good versus evil story that is loosely based on the Hindu religious mythology of Ramayana. Rama, the protagonist of Ramayana, is the eldest son of Dasaratha, the king of Ayodhya. Although, Rama is the heir-apparent, he is forced to go into exile by one of Dasaratha's wives who wants her own son to ascend the throne. While in exile, Rama's wife Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. To rescue his wife, Rama goes to Lanka and kills Ravana in an epic battle.

The epic story of Hindu god Ram's triumph over the forces of evil led by Ravana in Ramayana has been an inspiration for many films and television serials in numerous Indian languages. Ramanand Sagar's serial Ramayan, which was telecast on Doordarshan in 1987-88, is by far the most popular and commercially successful versions of the religious epic.

In a recent film, Rudraksh (2004), the Ramayana story is recast in the genre of science fiction by director Mani Shankar. Bhura (Suniel Shetty), a laborer working on an archeological expedition finds an ancient rudraksh seed belonging to Lord Ravana from Ramayana. The rudraksh seed gives demonic powers to Bhura who, with the help of his girlfriend Lali (Ishaa Kopikar), seeks to destroy the world. Enter the hero, Varun (Sanjay Dutt) who has supernatural powers of healing other people's pain just by touching. Gayatri (Bipasha Basu) is a scientist from the U.S. who comes to India to study the supernatural, and is fascinated by Varun's powers and falls in love with him. Rest of the film is about how Varun fights Bhura to ensure that good triumphs over evil in the end.

One of the reasons for the recent spate of sci-fi films and television shows mixing mythology, science and fiction is that animation and content development is a booming business in India. According to a study by Anderson Consulting in 2004, the Indian animation industry is growing at the rate of 30 per cent annually, and is estimated to be a $15 billion industry by 2008. The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), attributes the growth in Indian animation and content development to the lower cost of production. A typical half-an-hour 3-D animation TV episode in India costs between 70,000 and 100,000 dollars compared with 170,000 to 250,000 dollars in the US (Agence France Presse, “World 'tooning in to Indian animation,” August 26, 2005).

To discuss the transformations in Indian animation and content development only in terms of the lower costs of production, as the NASSCOM report suggests, is reminiscent of similar debates about India's relative advantages in outsourcing due to its large low-cost pool of skilled labor in the software industry. However, one major difference between the software industry and the animation industry is that the creative talent required for animation and content development in India is currently very limited. NASSCOM acknowledges that India will need 300,000 professionals in content development and animation by 2008. By way of comparison, in 2001, there were only 27,000 professionals working on animation and content development. (Press Trust of India, “Indian animation industry: $500 mn and raring to go,” August 2, 2004).

With a limited but growing pool of experienced talent that is increasingly becoming adept in the use of animation and special-effects technologies, the Indian animation industry is looking both inward and outward for business and creative opportunities. One the one hand, the Indian animation industry is looking to expand globally by providing low-cost services to American, Western European, East Asian and other higher-cost media industries. On the other hand, animation experts and content developers in India are keen to experiment with newer genres in the domestic film and television industries which have for long relied on time-tested formulae like melodrama, slapstick comedy, song-and-dance, and mythological epics.

For animation experts in India, providing low-cost services to the global animation industry may well be their daily bread and butter, but producing content for Indian films and television shows is their creative inspiration. If the recent emergence of sci-fi is any indication, Indian animation and content development is in midst of an epic adventure of its own as filmmakers and television producers seem more willing to experiment with formulaic conventions and narrative traditions by mixing religious mythology, science and fiction into hybrid genres and formats. Whether or not this epic adventure of science fiction will result in a triumphant ending, only time will tell; but in this case, time travel is not an option.

Image Credits:
1. Koi Mil Gaya
2. Karma: Koi Aa Raha Hai Waqt Badalne

Please feel free to comment.

Fox News and the Redefinition of “Objectivity” in U.S. News Media

Fox News Channel logo

Fox News Channel logo

In the world of 24-hour cable news channels, journalism has transformed
into a “faith-based initiative.” Based on the premise that journalism
is now a matter of faith, and faith is the unquestioning belief in the
universality of a particular worldview, I seek to critically analyze
the redefinition of journalistic “objectivity” on cable news channels
in the United States.

It has been argued by many media critics that the growing power and
rising popularity of faith-based reporting on cable television news
channels is a direct result of Fox News Channel's conscious strategy to
ignore journalistic principle of “objectivity” which has been the
bedrock of news media in the United States for centuries.[1]

However, my criticism of Fox News is not that it ignores media critics'
concerns about being “objective” in its news coverage. Rather, what is
more troubling–and perhaps most insidious–about Fox News is the
systematic way in which it has redefined “objectivity” in the world of
24-hour cable television news. It has done so, I argue, by
strategically recasting the ethical principles and philosophical ideals
of American journalism in populist terms that appeal to Fox News
Channel's target audience of political conservatives and evangelical
Christians in the United States.

In the historical traditions of journalism in the United States,
adherence to the principle of “objectivity” has always been considered
the ultimate goal for professionals in the news media. In the world of
24-hour cable news, however, Fox News has emerged as the dominant
channel by redefining journalistic “objectivity” as only a path toward
a greater goal (which is defined in terms of a populist desire to
acknowledge the dominance of conservative political principles and
evangelical Christian traditions in the United States).

Thus, to many journalists on competing cable networks like CNN and
broadcast networks like ABC, CBS and NBC (all of which proclaim their
faith in more traditional theories and practices of “objectivity”), the
coverage on Fox news seems “unethical” and “unprincipled” in many ways.[2]

On the other hand, many journalists on Fox News hold that the
traditional definition of “objectivity” has a liberal bias, and
therefore journalists on other networks have no legitimacy in
criticizing Fox for its “conservative” bias. For instance, Bill
O'Reilly argues, “If Fox News is a conservative channel–and I'm
going to use the word 'if'–so what? …. You've got 50 other media
that are blatantly left. Now, I don't think Fox is a conservative
channel. I think it's a traditional channel. There's a difference. We
are willing to hear points of view that you'll never hear on ABC, CBS
or NBC.”[3]

The way in which Bill O'Reilly characterizes Fox News as being more
faithful to the “traditional” principles of American journalism than
all other news networks reveals how definitions of “objectivity” are
inherently political in nature, and a journalist's claim to being
“objective” is always implicated in ideological discourses of
nationalism, liberalism, conservativism and so on.

In his historical analysis of the evolution of mass media in the United
States, James Cary argues that the quest for “objectivity” in American
journalism has always been based on an ethnocentric conceit:

“It pretended to discover Universal Truth, to proclaim Universal Laws,
and to describe a Universal Man. Upon inspection it appeared however,
that its Universal Man resembled a type found around Cambridge,
Massachusetts, or Cambridge, England; its Universal Laws resembled
those felt to be useful by Congress and Parliament; and its Universal
Truth bore English and American accents”.[4]

Given such historical biases, are we to assume that media professionals
who claim to report “'Truth” are blissfully unaware of the ubiquitous
and pervasive ways in which their ethnocentrism frames the way they
think, and behave? Is the “'Rashomon” effect unavoidable in the world
of 24-hour cable news channels where journalists from different
networks look at the same event through different ideological lenses?
Are journalists critically inclined or even capable of looking beyond
their own ethnocentric biases and ideological lenses to seek and find
an “objective” reality?

Denis Chase hits the nail on the head when he says, “The problems of
journalism are, at base, philosophical problems. They involve questions
of definition and function: What is news? What is truth? How can one
know Truth?”[5]
Chase is of the view that most journalists are largely aphilosophical
in that they passively accept the dominant cultural philosophies which
govern their profession at any given time. Chase is not alone in this
argument. Edward Jay Epstein goes to the extent of questioning the
ability of journalists to seek after truth, while John C. Merrill says
that journalists speak of objectivity “while reflecting the world
through a prism.”[6]

In such a scenario, any attempt to arrive at a broad definition of
“objectivity” which can be uniformly applied as a standard for
criticism against news coverage on CNN, Fox and MSNBC may be futile.
Instead, I would argue that media critics must focus attention on the
ways in which Fox News has re-defined the traditional notions of
“objectivity” by recasting the ethical principles and the philosophical
underpinnings of American journalism in more populist terms that
resonate with political conservatives and evangelical Christians in the
United States.

As Jim Rutenberg points out, the Fox formula of reporting news about
the war in Iraq and the so-called War on Terror with an “America-first
flair” has been a huge ratings hit, and network executives and
journalists at CNN and MSNBC have been forced to make similar changes
to their own programming and scheduling strategies. As a result,
Rutenberg argues, there is now a “Fox Effect” in cable news channels
where a “new sort of TV journalism” has gained prominence by casting
aside traditional notions of “objectivity” which have been at the core
of mainstream journalism in the United States.[7]
When Fox News arrived in 1996, it brought with it the theories and
practices of “faith-based” journalism which were often incongruent with
many of the philosophical ideals and ethical principles of
“objectivity” in American news media. When confronted with ethical
dilemmas on political issues of race, class, gender and philosophical
concepts like freedom, truth, and social justice, many journalists on
Fox News have placed their faith in “conservative” principles of
American politics (which were deemed to be congruent with the
evangelical Christian worldview of the television viewers that Fox News
cleverly targeted by catering to their perceived sense of
marginalization in the mainstream).

However, to sustain their credibility as professionals in the
discipline of journalism, news anchors, reporters and commentators on
Fox News continually proclaim their unwavering faith in the more
traditional definition of journalistic “objectivity”–as evidenced by
the network's oft-repeated slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report,
You Decide.”

Roger Ailes, the Head of Fox News, was clearly aware of the power of
“objectivity” as an ideal in American journalism, when he declared at a
news conference in 1996 that one of the reasons for launching Fox News
Channel was to “restore objectivity” to the world of television news.
In other words, from the very beginning the professed goal at Fox News
has been to rescue “objectivity” from the so-called liberal bias and
recast it in more conservative terms.

A key strategy used by Fox News for recasting “objectivity” in more
conservative terms has been the slogan “Fair and Balanced” that the
network has used effectively to set itself apart from other cable news
channels. For instance, the concept of “fairness” in the Fox News
slogan–“Fair and Balanced” clearly does not refer to the principle of
being open to all viewpoints. Instead it refers to the need for being
open to the views of political conservatives and evangelical Christians
that Fox News claims have been unfairly marginalized in public
discourse due to the so-called liberal bias of the mainstream media. As
Fred Barnes, the host of “Beltway Boys” and a frequent analyst on other
Fox News shows puts it, to “balance” the news is to offer coverage
“that's quite candidly conservative” as a way to counter “the more
liberal tendencies of the other networks.”[8]

The notion of “balance” has, of course, always been a crucial element
in definitions of “objectivity” in American journalism. Balance is an
ideal that journalists must strive to attain through the ethical
application of what philosophers have called the Aristotelian principle
of the mean. For Aristotle, the mean is an appropriate location between
two extremes. In the context of journalism, finding a “balance” between
two extremes is considered a worthy goal for journalists as a way to
achieve “objectivity” in news reporting.

Although every news story has more than two sides to it, the
Aristotelian principle of the mean has been enthusiastically embraced
by journalists as a way to convey a sense of “objectivity” in covering
a news story. Its power and popularity can gleaned from the sheer
number of times television journalists like Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Bill
O'Reilly on Fox News and Chris Matthews on MSNBC have proudly
proclaimed their desire to cover “both sides” of a story, provide equal
time to the two sides and attain the “balance” that is deemed necessary
for journalistic objectivity.

It is important to note though that for Aristotle, the mean does not
refer to an ideal midpoint between two ideologically extreme positions
(in other words, covering “both sides” does not automatically translate
into balance for Aristotle). The “mean” is not a mathematical average
between two equidistant points either (that is, giving “equal time” to
both sides is not the way to attain balance in the Aristotelian sense).
Aristotelians only talk about “relative means” which depend on the
particularities of a situation. If a news story is about the relative
values of boastfulness and bashfulness, then an Aristotelian journalist
would posit modesty as the golden mean. If the question of the day is
about finding a balance between stinginess and wastefulness, the
Aristotelian mean would be located in the virtue of generosity.

However, in the context of Fox News Channel's slogan of “Fair and
Balanced,” the principle of “balance” does not seem to refer to the
Aristotelian principle of a relative mean that is always
context-sensitive. Instead, the sense of “balance” that Fox News claims
to provide is ideological in that one of two sides in every story is
always a “conservative” position (which is then opposed to a
non-conservative position that is often conflated with the “liberal”

Although not “objective” by any stretch of imagination, Fox News
Channel's “Fair and Balanced” approach has served the network extremely
well in the ratings war among the three major 24-hour cable news
channels. Not surprisingly, then, the Fox formula of defining “balance”
as an ideological battle between a “conservative” position and a
“liberal” position has been embraced by other news channels like CNN
and MSNBC in their quest to play catch up in the ratings game.
Therefore, my critique of Fox News is not that the network has
discarded the principle of “objectivity” in its news coverage. Rather,
my critique of Fox News focuses on the ways in which it has changed the
definition of “objectivity” from ethical principles and philosophical
ideals of “fairness” and “balance” to an ideological battle between
conservatives and liberals in the world of 24-hour cable news channels.

[1] See for instance, “The Most Biased Name in News: Fox News Channel's Extraordinary Rightwing Tilt”, and the critically-acclaimed documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004)

[2] See for instance, “FOX chairman Ailes defended his network as 'fair and balanced'; Media Matters disagrees” and “Fox News: the Inside Story”.

[3] As quoted in Mark Memmott, “Fox newspeople say allegations of bias unfounded”.

[4] James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

[5] As quoted in Herbert J. Altschull, From Milton to McLuhan: The Ideas Behind American Journalism, New York: Longman, 1990.

[6] As quoted in Herbert J. Altschull, From Milton to McLuhan: The Ideas Behind American Journalism, New York: Longman, 1990.

[7] Jim Rutenberg, “Cable's War Coverage Suggests a New 'Fox Effect' on Television,” New York Times, April 16, 2003.

[8] As quoted in Neil Hickey, “Is Fox News Fair?” Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 1998.

Image Credits:

1. Fox News Channel

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Religious Tolerance versus Tolerance of Religion: A Critique of the Cartoon Controversy in Jyllands-Posten

Turkish Miniatures in the 16th Century

On September 17, 2005, a Danish newspaper Politiken published an article with the headline “Dyb angst for kritik af islam” (“Profound fear of criticism of Islam”). The article outlined the difficulties that a writer, Kåre Bluitgen, had faced in his attempts to find an illustrator to draw images of Prophet Muhammad for a children's book Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv (“The Qur'an and the prophet Muhammad's life”). Three artists contacted by Bluitgen reportedly refused the project fearing attacks by Islamic extremists, while one artist agreed to work on the book anonymously.

Meanwhile, over at the now-infamous Jyllands-Posten, Fleming Rose, the cultural editor of the newspaper asked several cartoonists to submit drawings of the Prophet Mohammed in response to the Bluitgen episode. On September 30, 2005, Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons; some of which were extremely derogatory while others were self-reflexive attempts by the cartoonists to poke fun at themselves.[i]

Following the publication of the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten, some Muslim organizations in Denmark staged protests. Soon, the protests spread around the world as some or all of the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers, reported on television and displayed on the internet. While some protestors turned to violence, others staged non-violent protests to voice their concern about the cartoon controversy. In recent months, many news media outlets and media watchdog groups around the world have been extensively covering, debating and archiving media accounts of the cartoon controversy. For example, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has an extensive archive of the controversy, along with various images of the prophet Muhammad in both historical and contemporary contexts.[ii]

However, very little attention has been paid to the editorial commentary which was published alongside the twelve controversial cartoons in Jylands-Posten. Following is an abridged version of the editorial commentary in which the cultural editor for Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose wrote:

The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. […] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.[iii]

An editorial statement is a fascinating media text in many ways. It is an illuminating window into the soul of a newspaper or a magazine, or a TV news channel, or a website, where editors fleetingly bare their sentiments even as they seek to mask such sentiments in claims of journalistic objectivity in news reports and analyses. Between the reasoned lines of political criticism and the impassioned plea for journalistic freedom, what finds voice in Jyllands-Posten's editorial statement is an ideological assertion that seeks to obfuscate the role of secularism in the history of modern nationalism and journalism.

Even if one were to concede Jyllands-Posten's claims that “the modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims,” it does not negate the fact that there are many Muslims and non-Muslims alike who insist on making their religious sentiments compatible with “contemporary democracy and freedom of speech.” What is at stake here is not an arithmetic question of numerical superiority, but a political question of the dominant ideology governing journalistic sensibilities in a democracy. When he invited several Danish cartoonists to create pictorial representations of the prophet Muhammad, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten must surely have known that in Islam there is a long historical tradition of tolerance on the contentious issue of pictorial representations of the prophet Muhammad in religious and secular texts around the world.

Although the Qur'an prohibits idol worship, and some Islamic traditions do not permit any pictorial representations of the prophet Mohammad, many Muslim communities around the world have been tolerant on the issue of pictorial representation in different ways at different times in history. In contemporary times, for example, many Islamic scholars, clerics and believers have recognized the pervasive power of mass media, and advocated religious tolerance toward respectful representations of the prophet Muhammad in photographs, film, television and the internet.

Given this diversity of viewpoints in Islam, what prompted the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten to marginalize the tolerant views of a majority of religious believers in the editorial commentary that, ironically enough, claims to rescue traditions of tolerance from the clutches of “some Muslims” who are intolerant extremists? The marginalization of the centuries-old traditions of religious tolerance in Islam, and the privileging of secularist ideologies in a project about pictorial representations of the prophet Muhammad, is rather troubling given the self-proclaimed bias towards secularism in Jyllands-Posten.

The history of the emergence of secularism as the dominant ideology in Western Europe has been extensively documented over the years. Here, I will only venture a brief recapitulation following the influential writings of the postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy.[iv] According to Nandy, the concept of secularism – the 19th century European ideal of a nation-state — is based on a mythology that “rejected religions and made science its deity.”[v] This European ideal of secularism demarcates a public domain of rational politics where religion is refused entry. Implicit in the ideology of secularism is the belief that statecraft and politics are rational sciences that can be universally implemented. Religion, being “irrational,” is seen a potential threat to the universal project of scientific nation-building.

Thus, when self-proclaimed secularists like Felmming Rose of Jyllands-Posten criticize “some Muslims” for claiming “special consideration of their own religious feelings,” they argue that the “irrationality” of religion must be kept out of the rational domain of politics in order to protect ideals of free speech and democracy. However, in their secularist attempts to rid politics of the “irrationality” of religion, Rose and Jyllands-Posten have, paradoxically, given greater voice to religious extremism both within Europe and around the world.

Capitalizing on the perceived threats of “Westernization” in the ideology of secularism, religious extremists in Islam have criticized the secularists for alienating people from their own religious traditions. The secularists on their part have assumed the mantle of protecting Islam against the onslaught of Islamic extremism, and manipulated religion as a political instrument to galvanize mainstream believers into their political formation. However, the editorial comments made by Rose for Jyllands-Posten clearly imply a confrontation between “us” (secularists) and “them” (Muslims).

In this confrontational framework, anyone who advocates greater role for Islamic traditions in the domain of politics is at once seen with suspicion. As is evident from Rose's editorial and subsequent statements,[vi] the self-proclaimed secularists at Jyllands-Posten do not acknowledge that Islam may have its own principles of tolerance and intolerance; because to do so would be to deny secularism “the right to be the ultimate reservoir of sanity and the ultimate arbiter among different religions and communities.”[vii]

In the inability and unwillingness to grant Islam its rightful place in the public domain of democratic debate lies, perhaps, the rationale for the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten to represent principles of tolerance solely in the name of secularism.

In the secularist anxiety to rescue free speech in democracy from the threat of Islamic extremism, Jyllands-Posten does not acknowledge that Islam may also have something to say about traditions of religious tolerance as well. Therefore, I would argue that when the ideological apparatus journalism pressurizes believers of religious traditions to give up their faith without any assurance of protection from the zealotry of secularists and religious extremists, the ideology of secularism transforms into “a modern demonology … with a built-in code of violence.”[viii]

When powerful segments of mass media — and Jyllands-Posten is just one among many in our world today — uncritically accept the ideology of secularism, and grant it the sole authority to rescue religious believers from religious extremists, democratic choice is reduced to a crude caricature that is at best a pathetic ideological choice between two reified visions of “Islam” and the secular “West.”

As Nandy points out, tolerance that is religious is clearly distinct form both secular tolerance of religion and its ideological appropriation by religious extremism. Secularists must recognize that respect for the religious tolerance practiced by the vast majority of Muslims — in the “Islamic world” or call it what you may — requires an ability to honestly own up both the reasonable and unreasonable aspects of one's own traditions. The tragedy of modern nationalism in Europe — and perhaps elsewhere in the world — is that the ills of religious traditions are compared with the ideals of secularism, and the ills of secularism are attributed to the ideals of religious traditions.

In the coming years and decades, as academics, journalists, and politicians will continue to excavate political debris surrounding the cartoon controversy in Jylands-Posten, there will be many historical and political lessons to be learnt about religious tolerance, modern secularism, free speech and democracy. There is one journalistic lesson, however, that clearly emerges from editorial commentary of the cultural editor in Jylands-Posten. The lesson for journalists is to recognize that the objective of journalism in a democracy is not to delegitimize the concept of religious tolerance by recasting it as secular tolerance of religion. Instead, it would be a worthy goal for journalists to grapple — however clumsily — with the traditions of religious tolerance that the majority of Muslims practice in their everyday lives around the world.

To appropriate the religious tolerance of the Muslim majority in the name of modern-day theories of secularism – or for that matter against the name of modern-day ideologies of religious extremism — smacks of imperial arrogance rather than democratic sentiment. True democratic sentiment requires respecting religious tolerance of the Muslim majority of for what it is — religious, tolerant and in the majority.

[i] For the published cartoons see Jyllands-Posten Epaper, 30 Sept. 2005.
[ii] See wikipedia.org: Jyllands-Posten_Muhammad_cartoons_controversy.
[iii] Translated text from wikipedia.org: Jyllands-Posten_Muhammad_cartoons
[iv] Ashis Nandy, “The politics of secularism and the recovery of religious tolerance,” Alternatives XIII, 1988: 177-194.
[v] Ibid., 181.
[vi] For instance, see Flemming Rose's interview with Newsweek.
[vii] Nandy, 179.

[viii] Ibid., 185.

Image Credits:

Turkish Miniatures in the 16th Century

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Who Wants to be a Crorepati?: Global Television and Local Genres in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Host of India\'s Version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

Host of India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

In 2000, when Star Plus Channel launched Kaun Banega Crorepati? (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the show quickly became the biggest hit on Indian television. Hosted by the megastar of Hindi cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, KBC, and catch-phrases from the show such as “lock kiya jaye,” “computer-ji,” “pucca,” and “fifty-fifty,” became popular parlance in India. At first glance, KBC may seem very similar to the many versions of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? produced in more than 30 countries under a franchise agreement with the London-based Celador Productions which produced the first version in Britain. The title of the Russian version of the show translates into English as “Oh! Lucky Man,” while in the Spanish version the title reads “50 for 15” (which refers to the 50 million pesetas that the winner of 15 questions takes home as the grand prize).(1) In the Indian version, “crorepati” refers to the contestant who can win the ultimate prize of Rs. 1 crore (approximately 220,000 US dollars).

As with all the international versions of the Millionaire show, the producers of KBC were contractually obligated to reproduce, down to the exact detail, the trademark title design, the show’s sets, music, question-format and the qualification process which are laid on in a 169-page document created by Celador Productions.(2) The studio setting for KBC consists of the standard blue background, while the foreground is well-lit to bring into focus an elevated stage with two seats in the middle for the host and the contestant, and a computer placed next to the host. The studio audience is seated around the stage, with the family members of the contestants seated prominently in the first few rows. The studio audience contributes to the pace and tone of the show by applauding for the correct answer, and observing in hushed silence as the stakes get higher for the contestants. The camera work, editing, lighting and music also contribute to create the heightened senses of suspense and relief in relation to the highs and lows of each contestant’s fortunes. The host also plays an important role in creating and maintaining the ebbs and flows of suspense and relief through the show by first putting the contestants at ease small talk at the beginning, reminding them of the rising stakes as the show goes along, and nudging them to consider the use of lifelines for the more difficult questions. A quick conversation with the family members in the studio audiences, or an occasional joke at the expense of the contestant in the hot seat, a polite hello to the friend who calls in to help the contestant in a pickle, and finally a sense of empathy with the winners and losers alike; all help to personalize the host and make a connection with both the studio audiences and the television audiences.

In other words, the program format and the studio settings created for KBC are almost identical to all the other international versions of the Millionaire show. However, during the 2000-2001 season, when it was telecast for four days a week at 9:00 p.m. on Star Plus Channel, the show captured viewers’ imagination in a manner not seen in Indian television since the serialization of Ramyan and Mahabharat on Doordarshan in the late 1980s. Initially, the ratings for KBC were stratospheric with the first season enjoying a TRP rating of 14 (while most other shows on cable were struggling in the single digits). Although KBC‘s TRP rating fell to 10.2 in the following year, viewer interest remained very high, and Star TV continued to receive around 200,000 calls a day from potential contestants.(3) Fans of the show who could not, or did not want to, get on the show were just as eager to share a seat next to the Big B (as Amitabh Bacchan is popularly known in India).

Not everyone, of course, was caught up in the euphoria over KBC. In an online discussion group on KBC at mouthshut.com, a couple of irritated reviewers tried to explain to an overwhelming majority of fans that the show was just a cheap imitation of a foreign program. A posting by “Amrita” reads, “Before I start my review, let me educate the members here that KBC is an exact copy of American show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Another posting by “Sujay Marthi” is even more scathing, “What is it about this pack of new-age foreign-trained producers of TV serials/programmes that makes me think that they’ve all worked as stable hands before? The similarities in the two fields are too glaring to miss.”(4)

For the diehard fans of KBC, however, the criticism that the show is “an exact copy” of the Millionaire seems to be of little concern, as the following posting by “dhrumil 83” on mouthshut.com reveals: “KAUN BANEGA CROREPATI might have had been copied from ‘WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE’. But to tell you the truth the copied version is better than the original one. SIMPLE ANSWER – It has AMITABH BACHAN [sic] in it. He is the one the greatest…”.(5)

Although some of reasons for KBC‘s success may have to do with the trade-marked presentation and packaging of the Millionaire franchise around the world, it would be difficult to ignore the role that Amitabh Bachchan plays as the host of the show in making the show more appealing to Indian television viewers. In one of the more astute analysis of the Crorepati narratives, Shiv Visvanathan points to Amitabh’s uncanny ability to create “human interest” encounters with the participants of show, in spite of his status as a living legend in Indian cinema.(6)

It is important to note the reasons for Amitabh’s uncanny ability to make a personal connection with the average television viewer cannot be understood by simply comparing his role as the host of KBC with the performance of other hosts of the Millionaire show such as Regis Philbin in the United States. Given Amitabh’s status as the undisputed megastar of Hindi cinema, we must recognize that his performance as the host of KBC is akin to the role of a cultural translator who skillfully connects texts with audiences by drawing upon their common understanding of the codes and conventions of old and new genres.

Following Amitabh’s success as the host of KBC on Star TV, a variety of game shows and reality shows on competing networks featured other famous movie stars from the Hindi film industry. To get a share of the advertising pie in the 9:00 p.m. primetime slot that was all but owned by KBC on Star Plus, Zee TV began airing its own game show called Sawaal Dus Crore Ka (A Question of Ten Crores) with the noted character actor Anupam Kher in the host seat. Although Zee TV had upped the prize money stake by ten times over what Star TV offered contestants on KBC, the ratings for Sawal Dus Crore Ka remained poor. Anupam Kher was soon replaced by the well-known heroine Manisha Koirala, but the show failed to take off. Over at SaBe TV, a new game show called Jab Khelo Sab Khelo (When You Play, We All Play) was launched during the daytime with the popular television personality Shekar Suman at the helm of affairs. Sony TV introduced its own game show called Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke with superstar Govinda threatening to give Amitabh Bachchan and KBC a run for the advertising money.

In 2002, Sony TV quickly followed up on the success of Chappar Phaad Ke with a reality/game show hybrid called Kahin naa Kahin Koi Hai (Someone, Somewhere) featuring Madhuri Dixit — the #1 heroine in Hindi cinema during the 1990s. Known as K3H, for short, the show took the traditional concept of arranged-marriages into television land by bringing together young men and women, along with their families, and helping them find a life partner over a span of four episodes.

In this essay, I have chosen focus on Amithabh Bacchan’s role as the host of KBC not because I believe that KBC is the most “Indian” game show on television. Clearly, other game shows like Chappad Phar Ke with Govinda, and reality shows like K3H with Madhuri Dixit playing the role of the host are equally, if not more, “Indian” in their format, content and character. Rather, I focus on KBC because it appears to be an extreme illustration of commonly held view that internationally-syndicated game shows and reality TV shows in India are cheap and vulgar imitations of popular American television genres. Yet, when we look closely at Amitabh Bacchan’ role as the host and his creative enlisting of “computer-ji’s as a sidekick, it quickly becomes clear why many Indian viewers did not see KBC as a copy of a globally-successful franchise, even though most of them were well aware of the existence of other versions of the Millionaire show around the world.

Notes and Links
“Murdoch’s Millionaire Fight,” BBC News, September 21, 2000. Online at: BBC NEWS.
“Survival of the Fittest,” India Today, October 10, 2001. Online at India Today.
These postings are listed online at Mouthshut.com.
Emphasis mine. This posting is also listed online at Mouthshut.com.
Shiv Visvanathan, “The Crorepati Narratives,” Economic and Political Weekly, August 26-September 2, 2000. Online at: EPW.

Image Credits:

India’s Who Wants to Be A Millionaire

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