Washing a Laptop and Other Gems on Indian TV: What Are Our Daily Soap Writers Smoking?

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Washing a Laptop and Other Gems on Indian TV: What Are Our Daily Soap Writers Smoking?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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he latest in the line of the great TV moments that broke the internet was a clip that kept popping on my social media feed. It was a masterful work of fiction, the kind only Indian television audience can appreciate. The couple in the clip was falling off a cliff, a straight plunge into a valley that was thousands of feet deep, or so we were told because clearly they did not have the VFX budget to actually create anything beyond what looked like propped-up scenery hand-painted by an amateur. Bad VFX was, however, the least of that viral clip’s remarkable qualities. What was profound was that the couple was having a lovers’ tiff while they were falling down.

It was a paradigm-shifting approach to the very idea of creative licence, and a big fuck you to science. Because seriously, when you are the top-rated show on TV, who cares for physics?

Our falling-and-fighting couple is not even the worst (or the best, depending on who you ask) example of what Indian soap defines as creativity. Last year, there was a clip that went viral from some other “popular” serial, where the protagonist is seen washing a laptop. With soap and water. And then she hangs it on a clothesline to dry for good measure.

Here’s a moment to recover. 

“Who the hell is writing this,” someone on my feed wondered, aptly summarising a whole book’s worth of sentiments in a single sentence. Because seriously, who the hell writes this and gets away with it?

Unfortunately, I have a rather specific answer to that question. In a close encounter with the television kind a couple of years ago at a screenwriters’ conference, I had a brush with the greatness that is the mind of a TV writer. I lived to tell the tale and answer the question that everyone with more than two brain cells has been asking ever since the great Ekta became the goddess of the Indian living room and ushered in a revolution of progressively and systematically dumbing down the masses

Attending any conference is usually a mind-numbing experience. Attending a screenwriter’s conference, if you happen to be a writer, however is an experience that can leave you scarred for life.  

It is about an industry that underpays and overworks its writers, has no intention of nurturing talent, fails to recognise the importance of a good story, and even when it does, almost entirely fails to give credit to the writers behind it.

There were 8,000 people, who identified as writers and hoped to “network” during the event, but instead realised the sheer scale of the challenge they had so romantically undertaken. And unlike the high-profile “let’s discuss this over a drink” kind of things that entrepreneurs’ conferences are all about, this screenwriters’ gathering was a rather depressing reality check – as morose as a funeral, fuelled by broken dreams and unshed tears, and of course stale samosas and thandi chai.

As a writer who did not want to have anything to do with the screen, it was an event that came loaded with epiphanies. The most profound panel, of course, was dedicated to the TV industry. “Quality content” and “socially relevant” ideas were what a corporate honcho who headed a prominent TV channel thought they believed in. His writers, obviously, begged to differ.

A rather intelligent panelist who had clearly chosen the wrong industry asked, “What do you think the future generations are going to think about our decade when they see the current crop of shows?” It was a scary idea. It was also an empty rhetorical question that had no real takers.

“Good girls,” a well-muscled dude in a bright yellow T-shirt with a caption that was cool when Beatles still ruled the charts thundered, “the audience wants to watch the ‘good girls!’”

The booming proclamation was welcomed by an awed silence. The man of the moment clearly knew what he was talking about. He was, they told me, one of the most successful TV writers with several TRP-topping soaps to his credit. That he was also a blatant misogynist and clearly had no respect for the craft of writing.

“Do not insult my audience. They know what they want,” he said, somewhere between a monologue about “good girls” that made me want to stick a finger in my brain and scratch the entire 15 minutes away. Unfortunately, he was right about the audience. And the fact that the industry clearly did not care about what they were serving so long as it was in demand.

Ever since that day, every time I think of a TV writer, I imagine a room full of muscular dudes drinking protein shakes and discussing how women in a household function, taking references from an era that went obsolete in the ’60s. I also realise that it is a generalisation as problematic as the yellow T-shirt guy’s “good girls”. I still cannot help it.

“So, what do you think is going to happen next,” my mother asked me a few days ago as soon as the credits for her favourite daily soap rolled. “You are a writer. You should know.”

It was a perplexing moment for me. On one hand, it was heartening to know that my mother had finally found at least one useful thing about me being a writer. On the other, I did not know how to answer that question without further damaging her rather poor perception of my career. Because really what was I supposed to say? That the poor chap who is writing the next episode had a two-hour deadline? That “writing” is perhaps too generous a term in context of the Indian TV industry? That nobody in the writer’s room is paid enough to give a damn?

It is no wonder that we are stuck in a TV world where women are reduced to garishly made-up caricatures, where science is strangled on a regular basis, and where writing dies a thousand deaths every time a character as much as breathes on screen.

Because ultimately, it is not about those muscular dudes or their convictions or even the audience they claim to be catering to. It is about an industry that underpays and overworks its writers, has no intention of nurturing talent, fails to recognise the importance of a good story, and even when it does, almost entirely fails to give credit to the writers behind it.

It is no wonder that we are stuck in a TV world where women are reduced to garishly made-up caricatures, where science is strangled on a regular basis, and where writing dies a thousand deaths every time a character as much as breathes on screen. It is a world cursed by writers’ discontent. And unless we learn to value writing as the art it is, it is perhaps the world we deserve.  

So what’s the next viral clip going to be? The couple who fell of the cliff make up, start kissing, and ascend the cliff because love has enough power to defy gravity? Or wait, has that already happened?   

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