There is something queer about the television scene in God’s Own Country. It reflects the myriad hues of a culture and life-style unique to the most literate state in India. Outwardly people here are liberal and gregarious; broadminded and parochial; secular and communal; sober yet politically volatile; fiercely independent with a pretension of omniscience .That gives the average Malayalee a complex personae that makes him sarcastic and consider everyone else inferior! No wonder, Kerala boasts of one of the most fascinating television industry.
No other state in India would have allowed a free run for a daily programme like ‘Munshi’ ,[on Asianet],a raw if not, low-brow political satire which relentlessly lampoons politicians and their alleged misdeeds for over 16 years. It is episode number 3040 as one writes this. This probably is the longest running such daily programme which is immensely popular with Malayalees across the globe. The programme, a commentary on a socio political or any other event that is in public domain has larger than life representative stock characters. There is a local comrade, a Congress Panchayat leader, a rustic Catholic, an ubiquitous Muslim and a village bumpkin. All of them have earthly wit and humor, representing different political and even communal viewpoints. At the end of their 3 minute discussion in an open air location on the topic of the day the wise Munshi [ a Malayalam or language teacher ]rounding off with an indigenous old saying or an aphorism. It is no holds barred. No one is spared. Sometimes it is slack slip; sometimes biting satire; sometimes sacrilegious and sometimes its taste is questionable. But with the ease of a cartoon the viewers accept them and laugh them off as in jest.
It is interesting that earlier, for a brief period there used to be a character representing the extreme right. This character was suddenly withdrawn never to appear again. Probably the satire was too hard for them to digest and couldn’t accept being shown in a lighter vein! One is reminded of the great cartoonist of yester years K.Shankar Pillai who used to lampoon our first Prime Minister week after week. Nehru enjoyed the Shankar’s Weekly cartoons and considered them part of a great democratic tradition.
It seems only in Kerala satire and cartoons are tolerated. Think of what would have happened in neighboring Tamil Nadu during the late Jayalalithaa’s regime if the leader was attacked by cartoonists! Or, how many other leaders cutting across party lines would have handled cartoonists who used satire to make a political statement? There are plenty of examples of cartoonists or bloggers being sent behind bars. It requires not just political maturity but tolerance, a quality fast disappearing to appreciate humor.
There are many other programmes in Malayalam channels using political satire but they ate one too many to be detailed. One of the trends is to put appropriate dialogues from popular Malayalam films in the mouths of political leaders. Humor comes in other mundane forms like the so called funny scenes from films, mimicry etc.
The crime scene in Kerala provides the Malayalam channels a surfeit of crime stories. Heinous crimes, attempted crimes, crimes involving celebrities have all been pushed to the background the killing fields of Kannur. Tune into any Malayalam news channel any time of the day or nights, there will be juicy stories involving members of the film fraternity. The story of an assault on a popular actor has given enough fodder to the ever alert channels. Every step taken by the police or judicial process is followed and covered with graphic details. ‘Investigative stories’, interviews with police officers and lawyers are aplenty. Crime stories seem to be lapped up by viewers for whom they are a thrilling pastime if not a pet obsession.
Of course Malayalam channels act as catalysts in development and take up public causes. Programmes on agriculture, public health etc. are given prominence by them. In fact barring probably the Public Service Broadcaster Doordarshan not many private television channels in the country serve the cause of the ordinary people like them. There is tremendous people’s participation in various talk shows, discussions and public interest programmes . Political parties do own and run channels here and viewership is largely influenced by party affiliations of the viewers. Objectivity and such other cardinal principles could be a casualty but yet beyond party affiliations there appears to be a semblance of balancing. There is a promo by a leading news channel which is worth mentioning. All the leading political parties accuse the channel of partisanship and threaten boycott.
Serials are much sought after. They are the staple for busy working housewives. Serials are bone of contention at homes with domestic disputes over possession of the remote, home-work and academic performance of children, neglect of domestic chores etc. However a large chunk of the audience is almost glued to serials. Interestingly a majority of serials are not about happy homes. They deal with domestic disputes, marital discords, greed for wealth and property, jealousies, threats and murders and a host of such issues.
Last week there was a delightful programme [Kairali] featuring a youthful M L A and a versatile I A S officer, the sub collector of Thiruananthapuram who got married very recently. This has been an event followed by lakhs of Malayalees. The anchor John Brittas proved to be a match for the legislator and an effervescent I A S officer. For an audience, fed on marital problems this may be a refreshing deviation!
For the sports loving Malayalee the news channels do the maximum by way of coverage. Besides all the international fixtures ample coverage is given to local events and of course for the performance of the Malayalee athletes nationally and internationally.
How can you keep the Almighty away in God’s own country? Judging from the number of programmes and channels dedicated to almost every religion and denominations an outwardly communist Kerala seems serious about God! Some of the channels are marked by their technical excellence. Many have moved to social action and developmental issues.
Prof.T K Thomas is a broadcaster, columnist and academic. Left A I R as station director in 1987 and his last assignment was with the Sikkim Central University as visiting Fellow.