Can Agent Rathod Save Indian TV?

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I can’t understand what is happening. Why is Anil Kapoor doing so many things at the same time?” says a regular TV viewer, who cannot keep up with the twisty plot, the breakneck pace and the dark brooding atmosphere that defines Anil Kapoor’s small screen debut, a show that aspires to be a game-changer in Indian television. In the first two episodes of 24, super agent Jai Singh Rathod celebrates his wife’s birthday, sets out to save a prime ministerial candidate from an assassination attempt and attacks his boss with a syringe to extract information. Meanwhile, his daughter gets kidnapped, his wife starts hunting for her on the mean streets of Mumbai, a plane in blown up, an agent dies, a mole shows up in the anti-terrorism unit and we peek into the life of a political family, one tantalisingly similar to the foremost political family of India.

Compare this with an average show; just the celebration of the wife’s birthday could’ve been drawn out over a week. The curves and bends from just one episode of 24 could keep a soap opera writer busy for a year. And that puts in perspective the befuddlement of the housewife in Chhindwara and the mother-in-law in Barabanki — as TV executives condescendingly define the average Indian viewers — with the show.

Last year, a television critic of the New York Times came to India to watch Indian television and report on it. Her findings get to the heart of the incongruity and ludicrousness of Indian television, and are as interesting for Americans who have never watched Indian TV as they are to some of us who live in India but never watch it. “Soap operas dominate primetime here and the mother-in-law reigns in almost all of them… Soap operas here are outlandish — some so stylised and wildly melodramatic they verge on camp. The family structures — and tensions — on soap operas mirror those of the audience with one glaring difference. In many series, yearning and betrayal play out in marble mansions. Women are draped in silk and encrusted in jewels, a fantasy of wealth that has grown all the more seductive since the rise of India’s billionaire class. The formula has lasted for more than a decade because it puts identifiable characters into aspirational settings,” says the report.

In a society where modernisation and tradition constantly jostle with each other, television has chosen to side with tradition, to become a showcase for our ancient value system and profited from that choice. Soaps have helped the cause and become the biggest cash cows for television. The status quo has been accepted by our big stars who bring their starry personas into reality shows, like Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and many others who have used the reach of television to further their own careers. Aamir Khan tried to break the mould with Satyamev Jayate, but his was an attempt to use television as a medium to change mindsets rather than change television itself. Anil Kapoor, who until a couple of years back seemed more invested in getting a foothold in Hollywood, is a not a very likely pick for change agent. But Kapoor’s attempt at using the format of fiction is the only one so far that comes close to changing the future of television in India.

The show’s unusual locations in the city of Mumbai, slick stunts, editing and storytelling that propels forward ceaselessly has got approval from critics as well as cynics. “24 is a radical show for the Indian TV audience, tightly-written with excellent production values,” says television critic Poonam Saxena. “We are used to shows where nothing happens for an entire episode. Not only do we have the same stories, but the same narrative style, themes, characters, clothes and make-up. We are repeatedly told India is a single-TV household country where watching television is a family activity with women at the centre. We made good shows in the early days of cable television, but the content has deteriorated as its reach has widened to deliver to the masses. But that’s not a good enough reason to not invest in quality television. 24 has taken that risk, and I’m sure more will follow suit.” Next year will see the premiere of Anurag Kashyap’s ambitious venture for Sony Entertainment Television with Amitabh Bachchan as lead.

Despite critical acclaim, it is perhaps too early to predict the fate of 24. Manisha Sharma, the weekend programming head for Colors, says that “the show will find viewers who are willing to accept change and newer genres just as they have been open to watching newer and different genres in films”. The target is the male audience, which is usually restricted to cricket and the long-running and callow CID. There will inevitably be some viewers who will not be able to keep pace, and would rather tune in to Colors for Bigg Boss and Comedy Nights With Kapil. The ratings have already indicated this. The first episode reportedly drew in 3.4 million viewers, which dropped to 2.8 million on the second day. CID, the closest rival to 24, had close to seven million viewers for the same week, while the opening episodes of Bigg Boss and Kaun Banega Crorepati, both hosted by A-list stars like Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, drew above five million viewers. The makers of 24 had anticipated this. “We’ve been hopeful, but prepared. Those who watch Diya Aur Baati Hum or Uttaran may not relate to the show. Of course, we want them on our side, and with time that will happen. So far we have succeeded in getting where we wanted, that is, to raise the bar,” says director Abhinay Deo.

On the other hand, there is a new group of viewers that 24 is drawing upon. Initial data suggests that more than one-third of the viewership is from metro cities, from a pool of viewers that is middle class and educated, active on social media and exposed to international television, particularly American dramas and sitcoms. This is a viewership that accesses television through different mediums, is not a part of the ratings system, but has a growing influence.

When TEHELKA contacts Anil Kapoor, he is shooting for the 20th episode at Tulip Star Hotel in Mumbai. The shoot has fallen behind by one day as Kapoor was taken ill the day before. “When you make a movie, the promotion comes at the end of the shoot. Here I am simultaneously shooting and promoting the show, and it has taken a toll,” says the 53-year-old actor. The show’s promotion is as elaborate as film promotion — not only is it high in budget, Kapoor travelled across cities to promote 24. The positive response is a validation of a decision he took many years ago. “Before I signed Slumdog Millionaire, I was being offered reality and game shows and was very tempted; all leading men were doing it and making good money out of it. But my heart was not in it. Slumdog came and changed the course. I worked on the American version of 24 and felt this is something I could do in India.” He confesses that one part of his motivation was vanity. “It was a high. I felt like a man, you know. More than anything else, it gave me the chance to employ myself, instead of waiting for scripts at home.”

The smartest decision he took, he says, was to put together the best possible team across various departments — direction, acting, script and technical support. Fresh off the success of Delhi Belly, Deo came on board as director and co-producer, as did writer Rensil D’Silva (who has written Rang De Basanti) and a cast that is sprinkled with seasoned actors like Tisca Chopra, Neil Bhoopalam and Mandira Bedi along with guest appearances by Anupam Kher and Shabana Azmi. All this, besides getting Prime Focus, one of the best post-production facilities in the country. “I had the most to lose if this hadn’t worked. We owe our success to the fact that the right people came on board,” says Kapoor.

To retain the authenticity of an Indian anti-terrorism unit, Kapoor and Deo spent time with Rakesh Maria, chief of Anti-Terrorism Squad in Maharashtra, who assigned an officer to help the team with detailing and trained them in body language and terminology. Kapoor says that his Jai Singh Rathod is as much a reflection of one-man-killing machine Jack Bauer as he is of Indian operatives whom he closely observed. The briskness, the masculinity and the subdued emotional vulnerability that Kapoor brings to his role makes Rathod his own man and less a copycat.

The original 24, which went on air just a few weeks after 9/11 and lasted for eight seasons till 2010, was one of the most highly-rated, and controversial, shows on American television. The format of the show, the first of its kind, with the real-time conceit of every episode covering one hour and the entire season capturing a day in the life of the counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer has been retained in the Indian version, along with the gimmicky countdown clock, the split screen and multiple story tracks.

The espionage thriller, which portrayed an African-American President much before Barack Obama took charge, was known for being provocative and political. Its depiction of terrorism, torture and right wing politics often received flak but no other show has come nearer to reality in its depiction of realpolitik. Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research feels that the politics of the original show will be as relevant for the Indian audience. “The themes of hyper-nationalism, the search for a villain in society and the fear of terrorism fit in with the mood of our nation. I see this show catching on and consolidating a bigger audience base as the weeks progress,” she says.

So far, the Indian version of 24 has not strayed from the original; the differences are expected to crop up from eighth episode onwards and the climax of the show is supposed to be entirely different from the original. The only noticeable difference for now is in the portrayal of the political family. The original show had an African-American couple and their two children. The Indian version goes straight for the jugular by assembling a family that uncannily resembles the Gandhi family: a young, idealistic son, whose father, a former prime minister, was killed in a terrorism conspiracy, a dominating mother, a dissatisfied but affectionate sister with a loutish husband in case we were left with any doubt. There is even a scheming cousin to complete the picture. Not surprisingly, for many viewers, watching the family is perhaps the most titillating aspect of the show. Comments sections on popular television websites are rife with speculation about the portrayal of the family — “Is it an attempt to endorse Rahul Gandhi as prime minister?”, “Is it the ultimate revenge on Congress in a pre-election year?”

The director and writers understandably deny the coincidence. D’Silva, the head writer for the show whose team comprises Priya Pinto and Bhavani Iyer for screenplay and Milap Zaveri and Niranjan Iyer for dialogues, says, “We wanted some masala on the show, something that will make the audience stick and we found that in the political family. The American show was future-casting a black president, we had to go with dynastic politics in India.” Both D’Silva and Deo believe in young leadership taking charge of the country and that is the only place where their personal politics intrudes the fictional universe of the show. “We reduced the age of our leader because we both believe in young leaders. In that sense, it’s almost aspirational, to show a young and idealistic leader who stands by his principles. I feel it is our duty as creative people to comment on our environment and to aspire for something better through our work,” says Deo.

Today, television is the most inert medium in India, almost suspended in time. Those who tune in know exactly what to expect and draw comfort from its ability to stay unchangeable. The one thing that should give us hope is that before their so-called ‘golden age’ that started 15 years ago, American television was a wasteland filled with soaps that died after a few decades of dominance. India, however, is far from giving up on its soap-addiction, but many years later we may just look at 24 as the beginning of the beginning.

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