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Tracing the history of a nation through the television

Rihan Najib | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

New order: Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated 'Doordarshan' in New Delhi on April 01, 1976. The television set-up was separated from All India Radio on that day   -  PIB

Journalist Amrita Shah discusses her new book, ‘Telly-Guillotined: How Television Changed India’, that tells the story of how post-1991 India was unmade and remade by the television set

Well before political fortunes were made and lost on social media, it was former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who held an embattled nation in thrall through a medium that was still enthralling. For the late editor Vinod Mehta, Gandhi was a “TV natural”. The state-owned Doordarshan channel had “an obsession with the prime minister” to such an extent that one critic was provoked to describe the news as an endless chiming of just two words: “Rajiv Gandhi”.

It is a telling anecdote from journalist and writer Amrita Shah’s latest book Telly-Guillotined: How Television Changed India. A similar spectacle unfolded following the revoking of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir in early August. Encomiums and paeans for Prime Minister Narendra Modi flowed in full measure from many mainstream and regional national news channels, including Doordarshan.

Author Amrita Shah   -  CLARE ARNI

 

Shah shakes her head at the utter absurdity that television journalism reduced itself to in response to the contentious political move. “You know, journalists of my generation may have failed to live up to the ideals of accuracy and objectivity, but we at least knew what the ideal was,” she says. “This is not journalism. This is simply tailoring a narrative to fit a position.”

BLink met Shah (56) in a cafe in New Delhi. Based in Bengaluru, she is a visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies in the Indian Institute of Science. She is a keen observer of media and its interface with politics and culture. She has worked with Time magazine and has been a contributing editor with The Indian Express.

“Television fascinates me — all communication technology does,” she says, explaining why she chose to tell the story of an evolving nation and its galloping aspirations through the medium of television. “Television was a prime driver in opening up the economy in the late decades of the 20th century,” she writes in the preface to the book.

Telly-Guillotined: How Television changed India; Amrita Shah; Yoda Press; Non-fiction; ₹595

 

Telly-Guillotined takes up from where her 1997 book Hype, Hypocrisy & Television in Urban India ends. The first book was a deep dive into how a nation was fashioning itself in the expanding media universe. The breadth of what she had set out to do wasn’t immediately evident to her.

“I didn’t know any better at the time,” Shah laughs. “ I was influenced by non-fiction writers such as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese. I wanted to write literary non-fiction. But in the ’90s, there was no real work — scholarly or otherwise — done on television and how Indian culture was changing, so I found that my canvas was ever-widening.”

Returning to the subject after a span of two decades, Telly-Guillotined traces how television evolved as India moved from a socialist economy to a consumption-driven one. “The value of having an older book is that it reminds you that none of the things we’re witnessing now started yesterday,” she says. “It has been going on for a while, even if at a smaller scale.”

The liberalisation of the economy had wide-ranging impacts, particularly evident in the “complete capitulation of the media to corporate interests”, according to Shah.

“For instance, why are senior editors constantly peddling the idea that there is no money to go out and cover important stories from the field?” she asks. “Sending a crew out to the field is no less expensive than hiring a studio and five or six experts on a panel. It’s just that with the studio debate, the viewer doesn’t see any unhappy visuals, nothing to make you feel guilty.” The fear of losing advertising money is what makes ground reporting purportedly so expensive, says Shah. The book explores the effect of drip-feeding the public news that is “excised of entire marginalised populations, focusing instead on glamour and fashion”, and how it undermines democracy.

Telly-Guillotined is Shah’s fourth book. Her previous books include the biography Vikram Sarabhai: A Life (2007) and Ahmedabad: A City in the World (2015), lauded for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of the city.

“Each led to the other,” she says of the seemingly disparate subjects. “When I was working on Hype, I came across how Vikram Sarabhai [who was born in Ahmedabad] was instrumental in the setting up of television broadcast technology. Then I was in Ahmedabad, and I wrote about what was around me.”

She is already working on her next book, which is about the British empire in the Indian Ocean. “The British colonialist took indentured labour to plantations in places such as South Africa. Following them were traders, who — with the exception of some Chettiyar Tamilians — were mostly Gujarati Muslims. Now, following them were educated Gujarati Hindus. My great-grandfather went to South Africa when Gandhi was there, and I’ve been spending time in the archives to find out why he was there,” she says. “I’ve got a great story,” she concludes with a smile.

Published on September 06, 2019
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