What media audiences really want

Dear Ekta Kapoor shall we ask people what they want to watch
Blog Entertainment Saturday, March 05, 2016 - 16:38

In an interview to Mid-Day earlier this week, Ekta Kapoor – she really needs no introduction – said a lot of things about Indian audiences. The gist was that she makes such terrible soaps because Indian audiences want to watch, what Huffpost India called, your “unfriendly neighbourhood ichchadhari naagin”, and other bizarreness on a regular basis.

Ekta Kapoor may have answered Mid-Day’s questions, but her responses have in turn raised some questions. For instance, she says that a serial she made with an “interesting concept with real people” did not work. Then adds: “Then I make 'Naagin', which is an OTT, shamelessly in-your-face show that proudly deals with Indian folklore and it works!”

So, have there been no good serials that people have ever watched? That’s not entirely true.

We could go back into the 1980s, when some of the most memorable, and well-loved television series of Indian television were produced:

Buniyaad (Hindi): Directed by Ramesh Sippy and Jyoti Sarup, Buniyaad was focused on partition of India and its aftermath. Aired in the 1980s by DD National, and re-aired on DD Metro in early 2000s. 

Dekh Bhai Dekh (Hindi): This came some years later, perhaps before the term sitcom was coined. Aired in 1993 on DD2, it was directed by Anand Mahendroo and produced by Jaya Bachchan, and revolved around the Diwan family. It went on to become one of the most memorable comedy shows on Indian television. 

Shanti-Ek Aurat Ki Kahani (Hindi): Starring Mandira Bedi, the 1994 serial aired on Doordarshan is considered a classic. It is a story of two friends and how their guarded past is affected with the entry of a strong woman and aspiring journalist (played by Bedi) into their lives. The serial ran for a staggering 804 episodes.

Mayamruga (Kannada): is about the struggle of two middle class girls wish to make society a better place for themselves and others while balancing their personal lives too. It was widely appreciated.

Muktha (Kannada): sought to infuse civic awareness and action with stories depicting the fight for justice even against all kinds of bureaucratic and political opposition.  The programme concluded in September 2010. The serial was later revived as "Muktha Muktha" involving new characters and different geographical location. During both innings, the serial held its own amid the run of the mill rubbish that passes off as entertainment.

Malgudi Days: Go Google this if you don’t already know about it.

Baalika Vadhu (Hindi): This one started out well, sensitively discussing child marriage if not feudal values, but that’s ok. It was greatly appreciated, not just by critics, but also by audiences who loved it. Now it has descended into god-knows-what.

So no. Even while there has been absolute rubbish, good serials have been around, off and on and done well. (And this isn’t even an exhaustive list even of Hindi soaps.) In the last couple of years, the appreciation for Zindagi channel’s serials has been loud and clear. Even though they not completely free from conservatism, one isn’t looking at a weird time-warp where women look like Rajasthani princesses while the men sport the latest fashion in tight pants. And we aren’t even getting to the noise…

However, Kapoor still thinks that Indian audiences aren’t ready for progressive shows. This is what she told Mid-Day: “Yes, I can openly say that they are not ready for progressive shows. I have tried it with 'Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh' and I can't even tell you the research that went into it; I really wanted to cry. They just don't want to see a married woman move on even if her husband has made her life miserable.”

This said, she appears to think that film audiences were progressive? After all, she went ahead and produced two of the most amazing Hindi films made in recent times on gender: Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, a film that reflected all the centuries the people of India live in, or are confronted by, simultaneously; and The Dirty Picture, which was a brilliant take on a particular kind of hypocrisy of Indian society that can only be exposed by its attitudes to women and sex.

Yet, Kapoor defends herself tooth and nail against criticism of the contents of her serials. (She is not the only one who makes them now, but was still the trend-setter.) TRPs for the last 10 years, have shown that “people don't want to see any other stories except love stories, saas bahu saga etc. I am more than willing to break free from all these age old topics but I don't have an option”.

But she’s not entirely cynical. “Yes, I believe television will change, but it can only happen when the audience changes,” she told Mid-Day.

For a long time, TRPs have been severely criticized for being unrepresentative of Indian audiences, and also for being just bad research. Even if one were to argue that audiences for films are different from audiences of tv soaps, then let’s dispel all doubts.

Wikipedia has a rather interesting anecdote about senior journalist and founder of People’s Archive of Rural India P Sainath. Whether or not it is true (that bit lacks citation), the quote attributed to him raises a very important question.

The entry says: “In 1993 Sainath applied for a Times of India fellowship. At the interview he spoke of his plans to report from rural India. When an editor asked him, "Suppose I tell you my readers aren't interested in this stuff", Sainath answered, "When did you last meet your readers to make any such claims on their behalf?"[this quote needs a citation]”.

Editors in newsrooms also frequently make this claims on behalf of their viewers. Perhaps it is time that we had sound research on media audiences, and find out what people want.

After all, Kapoor herself said it: “I personally believe that we are no one to decide what the audience wants to lap up at any point of time.” And in 2012, she said this: “The day audience demands something else I will make different TV shows.”

So, are you up for a well-designed vox pop, Ekta Kapoor?

Dhadham-Dhadhooom-Dadham-Dhadoooom…

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