Oct 012012

My column in today’s DNA

The cornerstone of a free market economy is competition – many suppliers who compete against each other for the attention and custom of the consumer. For the buyer there is a diversity of products to choose from, and the fact that there are many suppliers ensures that no product will be over priced for too long. Competition is a preferred way of allocating resources, ensuring choice, and enabling consumers of niche products and services to find producers who make those. In the last few decades the move away from controlled economies and centralised planning has been significant the around the world. Market competition has been seen as being as important a mark of a Democracy as elections. As Milton Friedman, the famous monetarist economist pointed out “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”  Questioning free market economics, and wondering whether it leads to the best possible outcomes, has become heresy.

One of the areas where theorists have been committing hearsay for the best part of two decades is in the field of media studies. Leading academics have been postulating whether a free market in the media, in fact, leads to less choice for the viewers. Media policy world over – in Europe, the USA and now in India – looks at the media market in the same way they look at any other market -more Media content providers means more consumer choice. However, unlike most products and services, media does more than satisfy or need for information or entertainment or education. It also shapes opinion, views and tastes. Also, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ – and  in a media market where media vehicles make profits by selling to advertisers as opposed to the consumers of media content, it is inevitable that advertisers who spend big bucks call the tune. Diversity of content declines, as do diverse views, and what sells is repeated across all channels. Film music, soap operas based around family conflict, talent hunts, and news based on talking heads – dominate across the board. Furthermore, whole areas of the country get ignored, because the advertiser is not interested in those consumers – they are either not enough in numbers, or are too poor to purchase the products being advertised.  This has repercussions on coverage. If the advertiser is not really looking at people from certain geography, will you cover that region in the media? The answer is, more often than not, a resounding no.


This is the reason why most countries have Public Service Broadcasters (PSB), funded either by the tax payer (Europe) or by trusts (the USA). The PSB is supposed to provide diversity in terms of content, give a platform for views and voices that are ignored, support arts and culture and popularise them, instil a sense of belonging to one nation, and stay away from sensationalism and obvious bias. In India the role of the PSB is played by the Prasar Bharati that runs Doordarshan and AIR.  For a decade or more Prasar Bharati has been struggling in a competitive market, with a bloated work force and an inability to be responsive to consumer needs. Its content, although diverse, looks terribly dated and out of synch with the audience. Needless to say, the organisation has been struggling.


On Big Bang Friday, while the Government was announcing a slew of measures, there was one regarding the financial restructuring of Prasar Bharati. – Rs.1350 crores of debt waived off, loans converted into grants and accumulated interest excused. Additionally, the Government  (tax payer)  has agreed to pay the salary bill for the next 5 years.  Prasar Bharati is only responsible for the operational costs of the channels – i.e., programming. Prasar Bharati has the reach, the network and the infrastructure to deliver – but for some reason it has not been able to. For Prasar Bharati to be effective it needs to be more than an autonomous body, it needs to be financially independent. It can still be funded by the tax payer but it needs to learn to work within a budget and deliver.


To achieve its Public Service Broadcasting goals Prasar Bharati has to be run like a professional broadcast organisation – with very clear goals and targets. These targets may not be financial, but they still need to be achieved. Content is not just about filling half an hour slots – it is also about diversity, shaping views and opinions, and representation of all parts of India. If any broadcaster can deliver the promise of diverse content from all parts of India, aimed at various niches within India – it is Prashar Bharati. But, to do that it must be set free.

May 062012


After almost 3.5 years I turned on my parents’ TV set today to watch Aamir Khan’s show Satyameva Jayate. I must confess upfront that i am not an Aamir fan – i find his films terribly self indulgent, I find his projected persona very tiresome & self righteous. I far preferred the fun Aamir Khan from the QSQT and Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar days. Its almost as though something has sucked away all the fun and spontaneity out of him, and left us with this pontificating figure.

Having said that, i was curious about Satyameva Jayate, especially given that industry at large was scratching its collective head at both the timing (11 am on a Sunday Morning) and the content (serious, chat show, with no embellishment. Real people, real clothes, little make up – a show that puts the real back in reality). Many I spoke to, some as late as yesterday evening, were not sure if the show will be accepted by the audience.

Today’s episodes was on the desire for a male child and the accepted, though illegal,  practise of female foeticide. It is one thing knowing the data. It is quite another hearing a woman talk about her in-laws who forced her to abort 6 foetuses because they were female. It is one thing to know about a woman being hit, it is quite another to see the scarred face in extreme close up as well as pictures that showed the face when it was all stitched up. The woman’s crime – giving birth to a girl. The show also took head on the myth that female foeticide is rife in villages. It is not. It is practised just as much amongst my neighbours as yours. Statistics show that the richer localities have fewer daughters than the poorer ones. A clip during the show revealed the prevalence of an organised cartel in Rajasthan that provided end to end service in female foeticide. But it was not just about the doom and gloom – it talked about how one DC of Navashehar in Punjab reversed the trend. Solutions are important. Problems are known but is it all beyond hope? no. and that is what is refreshing about this show.

Nothing presented in the show was new. What was new, however, was the approach. First person accounts of brutality suffered or loss endured are infinitely more powerful than experts in studios pontificating. Our journalists should take a leaf out of Aamir’s interviewing style – let the other person talk. The stories were heart breaking. Yet, the courage of these women was totally inspiring. There was nary a trace of self pity or negativity. these are women who give me hope and courage. Sometimes it takes a celebrity to drive a point home. Just as it took Amitabh Bachchan to drive home the point of giving kids polio drops.

The other thing that was very interesting was the treatment, starting with the  nature of the Set.  This is not a chrome and steel, post modern set with sharp edges. It is an old fashioned set in comfortable, non obtrusive  colours and with soft curves. Aamir is apart from the audience and yet is a part of it. The use of space and spatial distances – either by default or design – is very well done. Also interesting was the way it was shot and edited. No jerky camera movement, no ramped up shots. No extreme close ups. The technique was almost old fashioned. No jumping cameras, no racing trollys, no jimmy gibs, clean shots, clean edits… soft dissolves. a hark back to older, maybe nicer values.

This show is setting an agenda by using three things – a) Star value of Aamir Khan b) Star value of Star TV to reach an urban and semi urban household via satellite and cable, and finally c) Doordarshan for reaching households that don’t get satellite and cable. Hopefully a substantial chunk of the audience would be covered. For those of us who consume news on a regular basis most of the revelations are passe. but most of India does not consume news. At the height of the Anna movement last year, news consumption peaked at 11% of the total audience. While people may be aware that there is female foeticide in their family or neighbourhood – the stories don’t really hit home.

What is the reaction to the show? At home rapt attention. Friends of mine have liked it. many I know have spent their Sunday morning watching TV after almost a decade or so.  On twitter, a whole bunch liked the show. In fact most on my time line did. Then there were the moaners, those who wondered about the cost per 10 seconds and Aamir’s fees and the cost of production … not any issue with the show perse … am not even sure if they watched – but issues with the motivations of others.  Yet others were asking questions about Aamir’s religion and secularism . (yeah, there are those kinds as well). Reminds me a bit of the old Hans Christian Anderson Story of the Snow Queen – people who have a splinter of the mirror stuck in their heart and can only see an ugly world. But, hey it is a free country – and people are entitled to their misery and cynicism. And i am entitled to turn away from them and look at the sunshine streaming onto my face.

I am glad that Aamir Khan  has decided to produce & anchor a show like this. Am glad that the number one channel in this country has decided to move away from high pitched drama into sombre programming. I am grateful that it runs on Doordarshan. It has been a long time since Indian Broadcasting worked in the public interest – i hope that this marks the point at which the which an adoloscent industry goes towards adulthood by not just creating content aimed at titilating the lowest common denominator, but also at bringing the lowest common denominator a notch higher

And finally, Ram Sampath & Swanand Kirkire – o ri chiraya

May 022009

Manna De turned 90 yesterday – the 1st of May. Compared to Mohd. Rafi or Kishore Kumar – he didn’t sing as much for Hindi films, but the songs that he sang left a mark.

It’s been a long time since i put together a compilation of songs, in a way my music hearing has been predominantly Hindustani Classical Music. Manna De, more than any other Hindi singer – was completely at ease with the classical form.

Here in no order of preference, are some of my favourite songs sung by Manna De. if you have your favourites, please post them

1) Yeh Raat Bhigi Bhigi – Mukesh is said to be the voice of Raj Kapoor, but i personally preferred the duets that Manna De sang for him with Lata. Be it this, or Pyaar huva or Aaja Sanam …. Shankar Jaikishen composed the music, and the film is Chori Chori . The guitar as the prelude is possibly one of the most distinctive pieces of Hindi film music. i need to hear two chords to identify the song. Enjoy Raj Kapoor & Nargis in this brilliant composition.

2) Tu Pyaar ka Saagar Hai – I used to have this huge crush on Balraj Sahani when i was a kid. in those glorious days of watching Chitrahaar and Hindi films on Doordarshan. I could never understand his films in those days – but i simply thought he looked yummmm :) i still do. and of all his songs, this one was played the most frequently. Soul stirring stuff. Balraj Sahani & Nutan in the film Seema. Music by Shankar Jaikishen.

3) Kaun Aaya mere Dil ke Dwaare – I cannot remember watching this film, though i must i have. i devoured everything on Doordarshan whether it was Krishi Darshan or Santakukdi or Kilbil … Anoop Kumar (Kishore Kumar’s brother) and Anita Guha in Dekh Kabira Roya. Music by Madan Mohan

4) Dil Ki Girah Khol Do – the film “Raat aur Din”. The subject multiple personality disorder. The year 1967. And a commercial success. Nargis in her last leading role. Fabulous film. Fabulous music. Watch it also for a very young Feroze Khan. Music Shankar Jaikishen

5) Ja Tose Nahin Bolu Kanhaya – Raga Hamsadhwani. Lata Mangeshkar & Manna De. The movie is Parivaar and the music director is Salil Choudhary .

6) Hoke Majboor Mujhe – The film Haqeeqat. Possibly the finest war film ever made in India. From the point of view of the men who serve. Directed by Chetan Anand it starred Balraj Sahni (him again), Dharmendra and a host of others it is set around the 1962 war – which no one talks about. The song ‘kar chale ham fida jaan aur tan saathiyo’ by Rafi is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes. But, this song, more philosophical is equally good. Check out Manna De in this

7) Mausam Beeta Jaye – The film “Do Bhiga Zamin”, the director Bimal Roy. Music Salil Choudhary. Actor Balraj Sahni and the voice Manna De. I cry everytime is see this film – nothing has changed for the farmer. When we decided to make our film “Jhing Chik Jhing” i went and rewatched this film — the famers’ lot is the same. there is a line in Jhing Chik Jhing where Bharat Jadhav says ‘we are farmers, we grow food but our children go hungry; we grow cotton and our kids wear torn clothes’. This is not the post to call for agricultral reform or greater support to farmers, but consider it said :(.

By the way, despite the subject this was not an art film. it was a commercially viable film .

8) Zindagi kaisi yeh Paheli – Manna De sings for Rajesh Khanna – a man with a medical death sentance. the music by Salil Da. The film Anand. Lyrics by Yogesh.

9) Laga Chunri Mein Daag – Music by Roshan (grandfather to Hrithik ). The film is Dil Hi to Hai starring Raj Kapoor and Nutan

10) Pucho na Kaise Man – The film was hackneyed but the music was great. Staring Ashok Kumar in a triple role , the film is Meri Surat Teri Aankhen. Music by S.D.Burman

11) Sur Na Saje Kya Gaaon Mein – the film Basant Bahar. music by Shankar Jaikishen – who hitherto had been considered to be ‘pop’ music composers without a handle on classical – and how they proved the world wrong. Starring Bharat Bhushan who possibly had some of the best classical songs featured on him. The other great song in this film is Ketki Gulab Juhi sung by Manna De and Bhimsen Joshi !

Mar 222006

CAG indicts DD for wasting funds. and the litany of waste is shameful. Public Service Broadcasting does not mean loss making and boring television. Just look at the way the BBC has capitalised its content globally. Despite the headstart that DD has had in braodcasting, it has little saleable archive. Its sad – DD should be our first choice of viewing – given the fact that it has the highest possible reach and the resources to make truly watchable content. But, somehow it does not. Oh for a vision at Doordarshan !