On What India's Watching

Why are people in Mizoram watching K-drama? Why are people in Bihar watching dubbed Telugu movies? Are we all just feeling dispossessed?

This is the weekly edition of the newsletter, where I write about culture, and criticism, with a focus on India. You can read more about it here. If you like it, and would like more of it, direct-to-inbox, consider sharing, subscribing, replying. Last week I had written about the desert aesthetic of music videos and why Lil Nas X’s meme-gratified music video didn’t move me much. (The plagiarism was pointed out to me later by a friend.)

Gramsci, an Italian political activist around World War 1, and a leader of the working-class movement was jailed in 1926. It was a time of intellectual churn, with honeyed sickle-and-hammer ideologues running amuck with fresh idealism but also deep doubt. Because people were realizing that in spite of the post-WW1 economic and ideological upheavals, there was no political crisis, and capitalism still reigned supreme. The revolution was supposed to take place in advanced capitalist economies, and yet it failed in the West, succeeding only in 1917 in Russia, a country which by most accounts wasn’t “ready” for revolution.

Gramsci did what he could best—theorize. One of his big ideas was that of hegemony.

“Hegemony is a concept that helps to explain, on the one hand, how state apparatuses, or political society—supported by and supporting a specific economic group—can coerce, via its institutions of law, police, army and prisons, the various strata of society into consenting to the status-quo.” — Antonio Gramsci Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism by Renate Holub

For Gramsci it was very important to understand what people were reading, and why they were reading what they were reading, because it explained fascism.

The paintings in this piece are by the Armenian artist Sarkis Muradyan. On Twitter, on of his images was circulating and a man commented wondering what Muradyan would have been capable of producing hadn’t he been shackled by propaganda, and the need to produce certain kinds of art.

In jail, Gramsci began what can be called “private market research”, to discern the same. His findings — popular novels like those with detectives, those with serialized reproduction, trivial morals, and kitschy aesthetics. According to him it was consumption of these that led to spontaneous consent to the status quo, depleting the revolutionary potential of the people.

I have been drawn to this idea ever since I read about it a few years ago — that to understand a society today, we must engage with what they’re watching and understand why they’re watching it. (Because let’s be honest, people aren’t reading) Even Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian religious tyrant had said, “In a country, the road to reform travels through culture.” That our impulse to be drawn to a work of art is very much related to our politics. That an aesthetic experience — of ennui, or entertainment, or euphoria — cannot be seen as distant or distinct from the society in which it is embedded. That the disassociate lift we experience while watching great cinema has so much to do with what we are disassociating from. That as it is often said, politics flows downstream of culture. That “harmless entertainment” is a false idea.

What Is India Watching?

M. Rajshekhar, a journalist, did a 33-month long reporting project for Scroll.in, Ear To The Ground, where he traveled to 6 different states—Mizoram in the North-East, Odisha in the East, Tamil Nadu in the South, Punjab in the North, Gujarat in the West, and Bihar in Central India—reporting about them by living among them. Those essays became the base for his book Despite The State published last year, which in conjunction with Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers — where she travels to and reports about what young people in tier 2 and tier 3 cities are doing— make for a great portrait of an India whose stories are never given front-and-center attention.

One of the reasons I picked up both books was to get a sense of what are people watching. I was hoping Rajshekhar would be able to write about how people in these states spend their days — what do they watch, what do they avoid watching, what do they watch communally, and what are they listening to? (Apprentice truck drivers in Nagaland, and IIT aspirants in Bihar both seem to love Rihanna and Justin Bieber.)

Since the book is centered around the politics of the state, its engagement with these questions of culture only serve as a backdrop, as side anecdotes. Yet, the book, bleeding with page long footnotes, produces some very striking observations. At the end, Rajshekhar even attempts to tie it to a conclusion that is contentious, and thus, worth investigating further — that we are a deeply dispossessed demographic.

In 2016, the telecom giant Jio with its cheap phones with free voice calling and dirt-cheap internet data produced a revolution, where now almost every person — rural or urban— has a phone with working data, and apps by the dozen. Within two years Jio sold 25 million mobiles. More people are watching more things, mostly on the phone. Streaming sites have a specific “mobile plan” subscription sign-up, which is cheaper than the normal subscription sign-up rates. Netflix, in fact, for the first time deployed the mobile-specific subscription option when they wanted to expand in India. An understandable pivot, given our mobile usage. Smaller apps are deciding the episode duration of 15-20 minutes based on research of how long one can hold a phone in one position without moving. Even where I work, a lot of attention is given to how the site looks on the phone because most of our readers access our content via the phone.

The numbers are staggering. In my opinion the biggest show in India last year was MX Player’s Aashram, which got 450 millions streams in two months. It’s a show about a fake godman — a rapist who runs a hospital to treat the downtrodden for free, an extortionist who shows the upper caste goons their place, a womanizer who encourages wrestling, sports, and education for women. The kind of morally ambiguous show where sometimes you look at the evil underneath the facade and wonder if they are meant to cancel each other out. Isn’t that exactly how most people who voted for the current regime feel? That it’s evil, vile even, and yet the demographic comfort it provides — helping uphold Hindus against the onslaught of Muslim love-jihad, corona-jihad, dance-jihad, and Christian conversation — redeems it.

Rajshekhar begins in Mizoram, in one of the most fascinating asides of the book — the ascension of K-drama, Korean movies and shows, dubbed in Mizo that too took root in the late aughts, being shown regularly on cable television channels. By 2015, there was a “South Korean fever. Youngsters were mimicking characters from Seoul’s films and television soaps. Hairstylists and furniture sellers were lifting styles from these.”

The dubbing-craze started in 2004, when Kasautii Zindagii Kay (the double i’s to ward away bad luck, added by the superstitious producers), written for the Hindi heartland, dubbed into Mizo, became a runaway hit, its serialized transcript being printed in magazines. The switch to Korean drama might have happened in 2009, when to fill time, a local cable company played a Korean drama, “When it switched to news, its switchboard was said to have lit up with viewers calling to ask when the serial would resume.” Some people also date it to 2001 when South Korea in its bid to impose its soft-power, had one of its channels freely available across North-East India.

But what I find more interesting is not when as much as why. One of Rajshekhar’s interviewees explains the allure of K-drama, “They look like us. Their facial structures are clean. Their plots are conservative, ones that Protestants and Catholics can relate to. Even the way they talk, a slight musical tone, is similar to ours.” (Around 87% of Mizoram is Christian)

This yearning for kinship, a yearning to seek in art a mirror, manifests in Rajshekhar’s travels again-and-again. In Bihar, interior Odisha, and even Gujarat, he finds a sudden surge in Tamil and Telugu action films, “Madrasi films” dubbed into the local languages. These are mostly movies about vigilante justice rooted in back-stories of aspiration, responsibility, and belonging. These running themes aren’t surprising given how a part of the film’s success is in its ability to have the audience relate, either in experience or aspiration — strong men who have once been broken, but to only rise up against evil, and prove one’s worth. It’s why the Angry Young Man took root in Hindi cinema when it did, in the 70s, as the allure of Gandhian idealism and Nehruvian socialism was shredded if not on the steep wane. The industrialist was the enemy, and the best way to insult the industrialist is not just outsmart him, but fall in love with his daughter.

This aspirational tone Rajshekhar finds even in Punjabi pop songs “awash with nostalgia about a more masculine past”. Songs with guns, palatial settings, expensive jeeps and bikes, and the arrogance of caste are common. (Even Diljit Dosanjh, the dildaar-darling of Twitter, has been called out on his usage of caste as a sign of pride in his music.)

This urge to cling onto something is understandable. For that thing to be cinema, too, is understandable. Fatima Bhutto in her book New Kings Of The World wrote of Peruvian fan clubs of Shah Rukh Khan, where they don’t even understand Hindi and yet dance to his music is parks. Among these fans Bhutto met an old woman, for whom My Name Is Khan served as medicine during her Cancer treatment.

But sometimes the idea we want to cling to, to provide a sense of comfort in the hailstorm of modern glitz, can be at odds with the society we want to become. Snigdha Poonam in her book spends time trying to profile a man who impersonates the macho personality and steely actor Salman Khan for a living, an impersonation that comes from deep reverence, and detailed study — he insists that even the cut of his abs must look just like Khan’s; sometimes he wouldn’t eat salt or drink water for days for the angular cut of the ab to match. This reverence is a search for masculinity, a balm against the emasculating nature of globalization that renders small-town youths lost, always grappling at the dregs of culture. Salman Khan wasn’t that for them. A documentary was also filmed on the impersonator and the fandom, Being Bhaijaan. Here are my scattered notes from a screening that took place years ago.

  • Nagpurs hot as hell people on FB

  • Never found a girlfriend — finding mother in girlfriend

  • No kiss scene in film

  • If bhai (Khan) gets married 3-4 crore people would get married. Earth will topple over.

  • Vishnu Avatar

  • Onions, garlic, hot milk, and porn

The disheartening part is that even when Rajshekhar speaks of progressive elements in culture, they almost seem marginal—like attempts to screen the documentary Ram Ke Naam for trade union members in TN, Punjabi poets, and novelists trying to discern where their society is headed, and a journalist who is trying to compile it into a book that is going to be read by another walk-englees-talk-englees person. I hope this book is translated, and when translated, read.

Overall, the sense I was getting from the book was that we are experiencing profound alienation— the demographically strong are afraid they are becoming weaker, and the demographically weak are languishing in the hands of the powerful, both looking for entertainment, and in entertainment, some cathartic payback, even if it came through salt-less days in pursuit of that elusive abs.

Limitations Of Gramsci

There can be a limitation of Gramsci seeking in culture the seed of politics. That is, what if culture is produced by politics, as opposed to politics just being downstream of culture. Like propaganda— isn’t that culture produced by politics?

For example, Egyptian cinema, once the toast of the Middle-East is now languishing with well-produced anti-Muslim Brotherhood military propaganda that no one really cares for. The soft-power has thus, declined. (One interesting way of charting this, as done in this article was to show that Arab millennials are typically worse at understanding the Egyptian dialect than their parents.) Is this Egyptian culture or an aberration of it?

Masha Gessen, who writes for the New Yorker about Russia, democracy, and trans-rights with precision, profundity, and restraint, wrote a book The Future Is History, which Rajshekhar quotes in his conclusion, “The shaping of the New Man is [every totalitarian] regime’s explicit project, but its product is not so much a vessel for the regime’s ideology as it is a person best equipped to survive in a given society.”

This quote helps understand why propaganda might not be culture as much as a coping mechanism for those embroiled in it. That as a viewer one engages with propaganda differently, with calculated gloom or calculated glee. When Ece Temelkuran, a Turkish journalist, was discussing propaganda cinema in Turkey with Fatima Bhutto, she asks, “[H]ow can you be both obedient and create something culturally or artistically valid?” And that is it, isn’t it. Propaganda isn’t “culturally valid”. That’s not to say it isn’t worth studying. It is to say it won’t create anything more—it’s the putrefying end-product of a process. And to study the end of something might not yield much of a road-map, the point of which is not to tell us where to get to, but how to get to that place.