Seeing as I don’t own a TV, I’m pretty clueless when it comes to Indian television. From a few hotel stays, I know enough about cable TV and the vast range of options open to every viewer: endless channels of news, sports, movies and other entertainment. Watching cable TV seems to be defined largely by constant clicking of the remote, trying to find something half-decent as you cycle through channels, then just trying to find something brainless, then going back and trying to find the couple of things that looked watchable. What I really want when I have an hour to kill is something instantly recognisable and entertaining. But I don’t know where to look, or even what to look for. Does such a thing exist on Indian TV?
A couple of years ago, something extraordinary happened on American television. The Price Is Right is one of a select few American shows that has lasted long enough to become an essential part of the country’s cultural landscape, and the game is for regular folks from the audience to make bids on what they think specific sets of prizes are worth. In 2008, 60-year-old Terry Kniess from Las Vegas correctly guessed the value of his ‘Showcase’ - right down to the dollar, $23,743 - and it was the first time in the show’s history this had happened.
That was incredible enough, but the story behind this epoch-making event - told wonderfully in Esquire magazine - was even better. Kniess hadn’t just been lucky. He and his wife had been taping and watching the show for months, noting the prize values carefully, analysing all the patterns of the show. His background in casinos and weather reporting helped him to figure them out. Essentially, his achievement - this moment of TV glory - was something he had been working towards for his entire life.
I’ve never lived in the United States, but I’ve seen The Price is Right. There’s a much-loved Australian version, and there was even a New Zealand version in the 90s. The other big hitter of American gameshows, Wheel of Fortune, also had a long-running local incarnation. I grew up on these shows, so I know what it feels like to hear that someone has done something unprecedented on them. There’s a vicarious rush of adrenaline, especially if you’re lucky enough to see it happen when it airs for the first time, because with someone like Kniess, it isn’t just him up there beating the system; it’s you, it’s your neighbour, it’s the whole nation. The Price is Right, offering its patented, glorious, ultra-short-term satisfaction, is part of your cultural makeup - and it belongs to all of us.
India appears to be quite a different story. A few searches online and asking a few friends has revealed that the closest you get to an Indian TV cultural institution is the late 80s Ramayan, the serial based on Valmiki’s essential epic, or the early 90s Mahabharat, likewise based on an epic poem from the Hindu canon. No time-passing bubblegum shows stick to the insides of Indian households, it seems. You wouldn’t know it as you flicked through those hundreds of cable channels in 2011, but popular opinion points toward stories that have been part of India’s cultural makeup for millennia. If we’re using The Price Is Right and its deep mark in viewers' lives as a yardstick, TV’s hardly made a dent in the subcontinent.
Then what about Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Everyone in India knows that. Indeed, it was the first response from one of my friends when I asked him which TV shows are famous in India. And there’s Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, known elsewhere as Dancing With The Stars and Strictly Come Dancing. And Indian Idol (and its numerous regional offshoots). And Bigg Boss. And MasterChef India. You see where I’m going with this. Franchises from abroad may bring in the TRP, especially with a Bollywood star attached, but they hardly embed themselves in the hearts and minds of the nation. There are so many of them, probably dropped into a timeslot opposite a rival network’s import, perhaps even running up against its original incarnation on one of the English entertainment channels.
I’m not quite sure what to make of all this. It could be a good thing. Perhaps Indian TV viewers relate most intimately to serials based on ancient narratives because those really are the stories most important to them, and no amount of sensationalist, in-your-face TV could change that. This is, after all, a country that has impressed me greatly with its readership. It could also go the other way; with the TV always on and all the chairs in the living room pointed towards it, maybe the Indian audience is so zoned out that nothing even registers beyond a first impression anymore. Whatever the case, I feel oddly sorry for a nation that doesn’t yet have its Terry Kniess. He’s not important, the prizes aren’t important, the show’s not important; but yet they are, and that’s why we love him.