Televisionaries

For a long time I have wanted to pay homage to the character played by Roshan Seth in “My Beautiful Laundrette”, a Stephen Frears film, written by Hanif Kureshi. Despite some problems with the film itself – ‘we did not fuck fascists, we fucked them up’ said one of my anti-racist South Asian comrades many years ago, there are some delicate touches – tee hee – in the film. The portrait of the vodka swilling, bed ridden, socialist journalist father of ‘white-boy-kissing’ Omar is among Seth’s best (see Desai 2004:vii). Seth has also played a wide range of roles in all sorts of films, including “Monsoon Wedding”, “Buddha of Suburbia”, right through to utter crap like “Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom”, his take on Nehru in Attenborough’s “Gandhi” and most memorably, as the KGB’s own Beria in a biopic of “Stalin”.

Trouble is, watching the films is the best way to pay homage, so instead I offer a few notes for a talk on Media in India, given on saturday at Sacred Media Cow.

Mythologicals from the very ‘start’ of film in India, with Raja Harishchandra, and on television from the serialization of Ramayana and Mahabharata in the late 1980s, have become the new stock in trade of media anthropological commentary. It is now a standard opening to mention how many ‘anecdotes abound’ (Dwyer – “Filming the Gods” 2006) about these shows – my own version as I have detailed elsewhere revolves around a TV set manifest as shrine, where the oil burner burns a little too well and the TV is reduced to ash, charred wood, and the short circuiting of an entire bustee area of Kolkata. Apocryphal or not, I can no longer remember. But in those days it was rare to see mention of television or film in ethnography, except perhaps as a knowing guilty indulgence.

Attention to Bollywood film changed all that. No longer was the art cinema of Bengal the primary visual media focus. [Though it took a little longer for diasporic films to get the attention they deserve (see Desai and Gopinath books recently out)]

To some degree we are still working through this opening today. There are a great number of anecdotes and studies of the hindi and other language filmi stars, the politics of film, the national allegory (pace Jameson v Ahmad) and the secret politics of our desires (Nandy) as well as a series of excellent conferences at Jadavpur University, Bangalore, Delhi and so on. Film Studies attest to a burgeoning sophistication. Add to this initiatives like SARAI at CSDS, and I think some of the directions of this conference are such that things can be said to have…

– I do not want to say that new media has ‘arrived’ with an explosion in the subcontinent. I would like to make an argument that there has always been a media sphere in India. That cross platform televisual media (satellite with talkback and audience participation via phone or street interview) has always been an Indian phenomena – television an Indian format accidentally invented by the British (to adapt a cricketing phrase by Ashis Nandy). We have to welcome further research on the various imbrications and innovations that bring the Adda to the screen, that offer cybermohalla, or Media Nagar, even doordarshan, ha ha, or that posit the information age – duly explained on the front page of their website – as Sarai. (though there is something slightly inappropriate in this perhaps – CSDS is not exactly a street people’s scene, nor is it a tavern). In any case, to elect Sage Vyasa and Elephant head, broken tusk, Ganesh, the co-producers of the extended family drama of the Pandava Five, as the patron deities of the media age, is not far-fetched, but I think perhaps there are other possibilities – I think of Karna, the disenfranchised sixth Pandava brother, son of Kunthi – this sixth brother might also prove to be significant.

Whatever the case, the media space of India has always been one of a certain density. I want to explore just two examples today where the convergence of television and other media seem to raise questions of an explosive character that might lead one to do as Omar’s papa did in Thatcher’s Britain – grab a bottle of vodka and take yourself to bed.

I once wrote a critique of the way South Asia and its diasporic cultural production (music and music video) was consumed as exotica. Still earlier I described how and entire city was constituted through various media – books, films, stories as a phantasmagoric site of poverty in need of benevolent Western aid. Today I want to look more closely at the dark side – the telematic mediation of terror – or terror-vision.

The first case is that of Mohammed Afzal and the English language news channel NDTV…

On December 13th, 2001, little over two months from another now overdetermined date, five men (at least) piled out of a white ambassador car that had driven into the grounds of the Parliament building in Delhi. The winter session was on, and guns blazing these miscreants/terrorists attacked, killing 9 people and then dying themselves in a hail of bullets, having failed to set off their car bomb as the detonator had been damaged in a collision with the President’s parked vehicle. Military deployed and border with Pakistan sealed, Terror legislation and terror threat level on high for a year, high profile court case, debate all through the press. Much to discuss.

As many commentators have said, it was a fairly incompetent raid. But among the commentators, Arundhati Roy for example, in ‘The December 13 Reader’, has questioned the swift ‘case cracked’ response of the police in arresting and bringing to trial four accomplices of the dead attackers. The reader published in December 2006, as well as a commentary on Kashmir published by the brother of one of the accused (Geelani, a lecturer at Delhi University), raises a whole series of disturbing questions that have become fairly common knowledge, but also something of a media circus – Vikram Chandra hosted a teleconference in a boxing ring to illustrate the stakes involved…

Three of the cases were eventually dismissed, only Mohammed Afzal was found guilty and sentenced to hang, so as to appease the ‘collective conscience’ of the nation. Afzal, also known as Afzal Guru, had been a 20 year old border crossing militant youth in Kashmir, but had ‘surrendered’ to authorities in the early 1990s and then enrolled at university in Delhi. His experience with said authorities was of course not all pleasant – tortured and found to be ‘clean’ by one Davinder Singh, a man who proudly ‘tortures for the nation’, chillies and petrol enemas being the facilitators of storytelling here (even petrol seems to get the red hot vindaloo treatment now) – Afzal’s video ‘confession was judged illegally obtained and unsafe by the Supreme Court, making his conviction based upon serious, yet ‘circumstantial’ evidence of him being seen by a shopkeeper buying the mobile phones and explosives used in the Parliament raid (the phones left in the Ambassador), renting rooms to the five men (or were there in fact six attackers –CCTV footage restricted) and having possession of the computer upon which the fake ID cards were made, well, at the very least this is circumstantial. Media signs proliferate.

Found guilty and slated for hanging on October 20 2006, the television station NDTV screened Afzal’s video confession. They did so without mentioning that this was five year old and discredited piece of footage. It turns out, from reports by a Police Inspector, that this video was version three of a rehearsed statement. NDTV omit to mention the Supreme Court rejection of the footage, all the while allowing an on screen SMS commentary to announce, the ‘collective conscience’ view, that terrorists should hang, that Pakistan was behind it all, that the national institutions of law must be respected and due process must take its course. Let him hang.. At this time, Afzal’s execution was being reviewed on appeal, but the SMS poll seems to have decided his fate. The death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court on January 12 2007. Only a plea for clemency by his wife forestalls the hanging. President Abdul Kalam has yet to decide.

I am particularly interested here in the justice process as it is played out through the televisual public sphere. Arundahati Roy and other prominent intellectuals speak out, television stations set up opposing views and spokespersons of note. This is an elite mohalla discussion with commentary by SMS and phone of the lynch mob variety. I have written about the Hanging Channel as a satellite slot that could aggregate scenes such as Saddam Hussain’s hanging, movies like the Dead Man Walking, and reality TV scenario of the Afzal appeal, with SMS voting to allow the people to decide. For me this is quite bizarre.

NDTV then go on to host the successful show Airtel Scholar Search UK – a mobile phone company sponsored reality TV vehicle to bring a media and cultural studies scholarship student to Cardiff (they will get a surprise – winner announced September 22, 2007) also management students to Warwick, etc. A great publicity coup for UK teaching factories, in which the cultural construction of fantasy India and tamed public spheres proceeds apace (it was once thought the university was a place for rampant intelligence, now its sold like soap in TV, not even as smart as Crorepati).

The rest of this, discussing Derrida, Spivak, Steigler, I’ll save for another post, but the second example retold the story of the buses and my mates Aki and Dave’s singalong bomb song: DIY Cookbook. See Here and here.

Also see Sacred Media Cow

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