The demise of Channel V is much an occasion to reflect upon the India of today as it is to think back about the time when the channel was at its peak. It is interesting that its central quest- to find a contemporary vocabulary of Indianness in the wake of economic liberalisation and the embrace of globalisation, continues to be relevant, but the shape it has taken today is of a completely different nature.
Apart from the economic opportunities it unlocked, liberalisation and the emergence of a pan-Indian middle class also sparked of an attempt to find a common currency of Indianness that rose above the more traditional sources of identity. The attempt to constitute a ‘we’ that put some flesh on the idea of being Indian featured television in its post-Asiad avatar as a key protagonist. As a medium, by virtue of its presence as in bedrooms across the country, it allowed everyone watching to experience the same reality at the same time. In doing so, it created a sense of community as it aggregated audiences in a way that cinema for all it power, never could.
The search for a common ‘we’ in this era perhaps began with Hum Log which collapsed the story of the Indian middle class into that of a single family, that the country adopted as a surrogate mirror. Advertising played its part too, with the iconic Mile Sur Mera Tumhara (1988) and the later Desh Raag (early 90s) too trying to give form to a ‘we’ that rose above caste and regional definitions. The highly influential Hamara Bajaj ad captured a truth about the middle class and how it imagined itself. The sense of continuity embedded in the words ‘Hamara Kal, Hamara Aaj’, became a blueprint for accommodating the past in the present.
The Indianness of Channel V had a very different quality- it was a blast of freshness, ironically made up of the sights, sounds and smells of our street-selves. The careful enunciation of values, which was otherwise an important feature of the Indianness project, was tossed aside in the favour of a more relaxed embrace of everyday behaviour. Neither shying away from it, nor explaining it in lofty civilizational terms, Channel V dealt with the strangeness of India by revelling in it. There was a madness about Channel V that set us free. It had a fiercely original take on all the things we were familiar with- it used material from everyday life and used it profanely. It eschewed any pious declarations of values, celebrating instead all that we scratched, sniffed, muttered and burped. It cheerfully made public what was otherwise private but all around us. It bent the familiar into the absurd, while never losing sight of its essential truth.
Regional stereotypes were not resisted, far from it. They were made to explode with gaseous glee. Lola Kutty, Udham Singh, Macho and Banjo, Quick Gun Murugan- these were stereotypes injected with a particularly potent hallucinogenic. The base was revelled in, the masala was the meal, the pajama nada spoke the truth. By exposing all that we were afraid to acknowledge about who we really were underneath the apparent ‘sanskar and sabhyata’ and finding reasons to like what we saw, was a burden off our shoulders. ‘We are like this only’ was a staggeringly self-confident statement that made the mirror our friend in the modern world. We were nuts, we were strange, we wore dhariwale underwear, spoke eloquently from both ends of our bodies, and that made us cool.
But while Channel V took nothing seriously, it damaged nothing that we held as serious. The irreverence made us less self-righteous, but did not discard anything we held close to us; nothing valuable was harmed in the process of enjoying it. This was an easy form of Indianness, the least laboured face of the complexity and diversity that marks Indian reality.
In its first coming, the market was a freeing agent rather than a controlling one. it sparked off a real search for who we were and what we really wanted. Popular culture did not have to choose between statist mediocrity (Doordarshan) and formulaic escape (popular cinema). With time however, as the market got its act together, it began to look for its own formula. It was more profitable to cater to the dominant rather than shape the emergent. The irreverence of Channel V became a pose, an ‘attitude’ that could be bought off the shelf.
The idea of new ‘we’, made up from what we all share in common, the lived experience of being Indian, but set in today, has been put on the back burner. Interesting content does exist but it lives on the fringes, in a fragmented way; it is invisible except to those that seek it out. Politically, we are retracing our steps and culturally, we are struggling to find a new imagination of the present. The Indianness project is a grim affair today, full of resentment and petty hate. The search for a purer definition of identity has narrowed our vision and created new rules of exclusion.
In many ways, today we live in times that represent the mirror opposite of the 90s. The mind is closing, rather than opening, we preach obeisance not irreverence; from taking pleasure in offending all that was deemed proper, we are now terrified of causing any outrage. Everything either insults someone’s honour or is deemed politically incorrect. The Channel V of the 90s would today be unable to survive either those on the right or the left-liberals.
The sense of loss that one feels is not for Channel V, for it stopped being anything worthwhile long ago. And even at its peak, it spoke only to a small part of India. But for a brief period, it gave us the hope that we could find ways to like ourselves as we were, messy contradictions and all, and to find a way into the future with the past as a comfortable friend. That hope is difficult to locate today.
(A version of this article has appeared earlier in the Times of India)