On culture, TV channels score zero

BY VIKRAM JOHRI| IN Media Practice | 25/10/2014
When it comes to literary reporting, the only notable exception to the inferior climate of reportage is also the one least expected: Doordarshan.
VIKRAM JOHRI rues the lack of genuine culture reporting on TV (PIX: Kitabnama on DD).
Do Indian news channels host dedicated culture desks? This question becomes pertinent (again) after Richard Flanagan beat Neel Mukherjee to the Booker with his novel about Australia POWs in Burma, titled The Narrow Road to the Deep North. No news channel covered the story; only NDTV ran the news on the ticker. The miss is especially noticeable because Indian-origin Mukherjee was also in the contention with The Lives of Others, a multi-generational story set in Kolkata.

It was only the print media that thought it fit to cover the news. Neel Mukherjee visited the country on the eve of his book's India release, and newspapers ranging from Business Standard to Mint, met the author or reviewed his book. Nilanjana Roy, for instance, took him out for lunch which made for an excellent "Lunch with BS" as the two discussed Kolkata, exile and the lure of the mother tongue over an authentic Bengali meal.

Indeed, when news channels deign to cover anything literary, it is either because it is convenient to do so, as with the Delhi Book Fair, or because it is something that simply cannot be ignored, such as the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). 

The annual Delhi Book Fair (not to be mistaken for the biannual World Book Fair) is allotted the most cursory coverage. Looking through the archives, one comes across a mere two-minute story from the 2012 edition of the Fair on IBN. The story is a bird's eye view that tells us only the broad trends at the Fair, such as rising interest in children's books, growing demand for e-books etc. There is no analysis of the business or creative side of publishing, no interest in connecting the dots to yield the larger picture of what is a fast-evolving trade. Given that Delhi is the heart of Indian publishing, such an omission is most surprising. 

Perhaps the only time news channels devote any space to literary matters is during the annual JLF, now touted as one of the world's biggest. Most channels send dedicated staff to the five-day jamboree so there is more than enough coverage. But even here, the focus is less literary and more celebrity-focused. There is a beeline to cover events of authors such as Chetan Bhagat who attract audience in hordes and whose presence is massively sponsored by corporate houses. 

When it comes to literary reporting, the only notable exception to the inferior climate of reportage is also the least expected one. Doordarshan, often considered the poor cousin of flashier channels and in thrall to the government of the day, has built consistent roster of good programs. While Lok Sabha TV has made a name for itself for its understated panel discussions that provide welcome relief from the din on other channels, DD Bharati runs promising specials on theatre and classical music.
Its show Kitaabnama, which interviews Indian authors, celebrated its 50th episode in September. From Ramachandra Guha to Gulzar, Kitaabnama has consistently trained its eye on the Indian writer’s experience. One memorable episode showcased an interview with Hindi writer Yatindra Mishra whose lives of Girija Devi and Bismillah Khan are little-known classics that declare Mishra’s love for music in a deeply poetic voice.
Until early this year when it was wrapped up, “Just Books” by Sunil Sethi was India’s longest-running show dedicated to literature. Mr. Sethi did a fantastic job of introducing newly-released books and interviewing their authors. Over its nearly 10-year journey, the show travelled the world but always kept an Indian eye on the goings-on. Mr. Sethi admitted as much in an interview to the Hindu: "The interviews featured Indian superstars (Chetan Bhagat), Indians abroad (Salman Rushdie), acclaimed Pakistanis (Mohsin Hamid), Indianised foreigners (William Dalrymple) and non-Indian literary giants (Orhan Pamuk), among others."

Besides, “Just Books” was perhaps the only show that made real use of the JLF. Mr. Sethi interviewed such stalwarts as Nadine Gordimer and Umberto Eco against the backdrop of the formidable Diggi Palace. His interviews were always well-informed, and he brought his vast reading experience to bear upon his discussions with writers.

It is understandable that Hindi newschannels would not wish to cover mega literary events due to the latter’s supposed English bias, but even trends in Hindi literature are not discussed on these channels. Curiously, here too, the English print media has taken the lead. A host of recent articles, the most recent by Snigdha Poonam in Open, hail the rise of small presses that are publishing new works in Hindi, not just translations. Writers like Ashish Chaudhary, whose Kulfi & Cappucino flew off Flipkart's visual shelves, are the perfect interview material for Hindi channels. But no one pays heed.

The remiss is particularly striking if one observes how the Internet has upended the publishing climate in the west. From Amazon’s near-supremacy in the books trade to the vanishing of the newspaper business, the trials of Big Publishing make for a cautionary tale. True, India with its rising literacy and huge appetite for news is years away from any such disruption. But one would imagine that the news business would show some interest in the depredations of their global counterparts. 

Culture reporting in India, it would seem, means only one thing: Bollywood. Nearly every channel has dedicated programming for news coming out of the Mumbai film industry. The news, mind, rarely captures anything of value to the discerning viewer. Mostly, it is gossip rehashed as news. Few reviews, be it on Hindi or English news channels, are cogently argued. The Hindi channels are the worst offenders. Picking up on random connections, they concoct entire scenes, with music and narration, in what would seem to be an effort to beat Bollywood at its game.

When Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif were clicked holidaying in Ibiza, channels back home went wild. India TV, as expected, did a detailed story on the pictures, which were merely two-three shots of the couple on the beach. Everything from their impending marriage to Katrina’s relationship with her prospective in-laws was analysed threadbare. Watching the news reports, it would appear that the couple were already married and the pictures were from their honeymoon.

This is but one example of the prurient nature of the Indian news media, which thinks nothing of fictionalizing everything from crime reports to love affairs to draw eyeballs. In such a climate, could one hope for genuine culture reporting?
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