Covid-19 special

Ramayan returns and so does nostalgia

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on April 10, 2020

Mythic proportions: An estimated 35 million people tuned in on the morning of March 28 to watch Ramayan, while an eye-popping 45 million watched the repeat telecast later that evening   -  PTI

Nostalgia in small doses can be an effective painkiller; when allowed to run amok, it hijacks attention away from current-day issues

As with almost everything on Twitter, the image of information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar watching television triggered a furious debate on social media. It was the morning of March 28, and Javadekar — in the picture — was seen watching, with apparent pleasure, the first episode of a rerun of Ramanand Sagar’s TV series Ramayan.

Limited impact: The Congress party used two of the stars of Ramayan in electoral campaigns, but both the candidates being canvassed for lost   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


The tweet was later removed, possibly because it came less than 24 hours after thousands of migrant workers, stranded by a lockdown abruptly announced by the Centre, were seen walking hundreds of miles back home. “I’m watching Ramayana, are you,” the minister had tweeted. “Let them eat cake,” a netizen had replied.

By April 5, the number of confirmed Covid-19 casualties in India had risen to 83 out of 3,374 cases across 274 districts — an increase of nearly 47 per cent in just two days (there were 2,300-odd cases on April 3). And, by then, the series — first aired from 1987 to 1988 — had been watched by millions.

An estimated 35 million tuned in on the morning of March 28, while an eye-popping 45 million watched the repeat telecast that evening. It garnered the highest-ever viewership for a Hindi GEC (general entertainment channel) show since 2015, the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India reported.

Clearly, nostalgia, when consumed in small doses, can be an effective, if temporary painkiller. But when allowed to run amok, it can — and does — hijack attention away from the current-day issues staring us in the face.

And nostalgia, indeed, is the flavour of the season. Apart from Ramayan and Mahabharat, Doordarshan has brought back audience favourites such as Buniyaad, Shrimaan Shrimati, Byomkesh Bakshi, Chanakya and Alif Laila.

Yesterday once more: Doordarshan has brought back audience favourites such as Buniyaad   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


Amazon Prime Video India jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon with a segment called ‘Throwback TV’ earlier this year, featuring old favourites Malgudi Days (1986), Raja Aur Rancho (1997-98), Shaktimaan (1997-2005), and Zabaan Sambhaalke (1993-94, 1997-98), among others.

Ten years ago, American novelist David Foster Wallace had in an interview famously compared his TV set to a comforting fireplace. The mantra today is simpler: In troubled times, watch a rerun.

A revolution televised

It is commonplace today (especially on social media) to argue that Ramayan and Mahabharat, the twin TV epic shows, indirectly contributed to the rise of Hindutva politics. Many argue that it fuelled te success of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rath yatra, a political religious mobilisation for a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, which in turn led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the meteoric rise of the party, which has been in power since 2014.

But now that these shows are being re-aired at a time when Hindutva politics and the idea of Hindu supremacy are as mainstream as they’ve ever been in India, it’s worth investigating this claim. Did Ramayan really validate the feelings of those men who climbed atop the mosque? Or did it, in fact, capitalise on feelings that were always there in the average Hindu?

The jury is out on the role played by the epics in spawning communal violence. Poet-writer Manjiri Indurkar, 32, is too young to have real memories of the time Ramayan was aired for the first time. Her views on the current re-airing, however, are quite clear, especially about the timing of the decision.

“I am not comfortable with Ramayan being aired on DD right now. The Delhi riots are hardly a month old. Are they airing religious programmes that are not Hindu? It is a Hindu mythological text that has a violent recent history and I am worried about what message it sends across to the minorities of the country, especially Muslims, who have constantly been the victim of the many pogroms that have happened in this country,” she says. There is so much great content they can air. Why Ramayan?”

Director, producer and lyricist Amit Khanna offers a polar opposite view.

“The idea that Ramayan and Mahabharat were Hindutva projects is a simplistic and naïve argument in my view. When this programme was aired for the first time, Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. There was no BJP in sight. These programmes were picked because they were epics... So one can’t really say that there is a straight line between these shows and Hindutva politics, which began four or five years later,” the author of Words Sounds Images (HarperCollins India), a recent history of Indian media and entertainment, says.

Khanna, 69, also maintains that TV channels are not in the “social conditioning” business but in the business of making money. “There is no ad money; there are no people to shoot new stuff with. TV channels have to show something, right?”

The truth possibly lies somewhere between Indurkar and Khanna’s positions. A 1990 essay on the show Ramayan offers some valuable insights in this regard. In Ramayan: The Video (published in the MIT Press journal TDR or The Drama Review), American Indologist Philip Lutgendorf argues that the show did have an occasional subtext of nation-building, with a Hindutva twist.

According to Lutgendorf, who teaches at the University of Iowa and has worked extensively on Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, Sagar “managed to touch on a range of topics dear to middle-class sensibility: the importance of wholesome education and an idealised work ethic, and the lost glory of the imagined Vedic past, one in which rishis (sages) presided over model academies and preached nationalism, egalitarian democracy, and an indigenous discipline of ‘scientific’ mysticism.”

However, he also makes several points that counter the argument that it was a TV-show-as-Sangh-project. It was not just aired during the time of Congress rule, but the party also used two of the show’s stars in electoral campaigns, sometimes making them appear onstage in costume, reciting dialogues from the show (it didn’t work, both the candidates being canvassed for lost).

Lutgendorf collars the urban critic of the Ramayan for overplaying the Hindutva card. He points out that these critics overlook the all-pervasive Hindu religiosity in even urban Indian centres — such as the widespread practice of worshipping a newly purchased vehicle.

Manufacturing memories

The debate over the impact of the two epic shows continues, but what is clear is that there is an audience for old favourites. The sudden rush for reruns has a lot to do with the fact that urban professionals in their 30s and 40s (who can, and do have subscriptions to several streaming services) are one of their biggest markets — and these were the shows that a significant slice of this demographic saw as children.

Internationally, too, this is an exceptionally strong trend. Nobody exemplifies this more than Disney. The Jungle Book, Dumbo, Aladdin and Mulan — in the last three or four years, Disney has stacked the shelves with live-action remakes of its own old animated movies. “We’re leaning into the nostalgia,” Agnes Chu, senior vice-president for content at Disney, told Vanity Fair last year.

Across media giants and streaming platforms, reboots, sequels and remixes are now a commonplace strategy. Full House, Roseanne, Gossip Girl, Murphy Brown and now Lizzie McGuire — these are just some of the shows that were recently rebooted amid much fanfare, or are currently in (re)development.

Lutgendorf had warned us about the perils of “facile criticism” that connected the rise of TV to its “power to lull”, to “deaden and desensitise” viewers to the horrors of the real world. And while his argument may hold true when we’re talking about one show (or even six, or 16), is it too early to suggest that a global tidal wave of ‘nostalgia programming’ may begin to loosen the foundations of his argument? After all, the Covid-19 pandemic has dented capitalism like nothing else in the last 40-50 years.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all being fed carefully monitored doses of the past, just enough to make us ignore or sufficiently downplay the present? As a line from the decidedly nihilistic animated show Rick and Morty goes, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”

Aditya Mani Jha

Published on April 10, 2020

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