Prime time TV: The nation wants to play

When spokespersons of various parties slug it out against each other, the common man is amused.

It's not such a bad thing to admit one was wrong. I was.  I admit; I was seriously wrong. Till the other day I was annoyed, nay indignant, at the way discussions were conducted on TV ‘news hour’ programmes. I was annoyed that news hour gave me views and no news. That the views given were along predictable lines. That these views were bellowed out, several people shouting at once and over each other which, usually, meant bad manners. And so on.

There was a second thing that used to annoy me. These programmes were hugely popular. In fact, the more a prime time news hour programme abounded in the ‘blemishes’ listed above, the more popular it was. I remember discussing this strange thing with my students in a citizenship course in Delhi. A bit of plain speaking by a lady scholar made the scales fall off my eyes.

“I don’t agree,” she protested. “After a hard day’s work, I long to relax. I look forward to the prime time news hour.” This, I had never thought of!

All along, I was looking at it through the coloured glasses of ‘work’ and ‘gain’. I was far too opinionated to entertain a different and relevant perspective: that of play. All work and no play makes Jack and Valson dull and dogmatic. Of course, the nation wants to know. But, even more pressingly, the nation wants to play. Truth to tell, these are times when the need to play outstrips the need to know.

I have read many descriptions of heaven. Work did not figure in any of them. So, heaven does not work. Heaven plays. When the Divine incarnated in the form of Krishna, it was leela, or play. There is a touch of heaven about us. “Trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home” wrote Word-sworth. The need to play is basic to us; for heaven is all play.

But we have become far too serious! We get serious even with play. So, we fight off-field when cricketers play and lose on-field. We fight and kill even over amusement. So, the entertainment industry too has its martyrs.

Think of Lalu Prasad’s popularity. What do you think its secret is? Ancient wisdom? Modern statecraft? Literary finesse? No! It is his rustic playfulness. Lalu makes you laugh, relax. When Lalu speaks, he plays. And he plays most when he flays. It is when Lalu plays that he is closest to the common man. It is when he is closest to the common man that Lalu is farthest from the rest of the political class. He is lighthearted about lantern and alliterative about aloo.

Most people do not know that news channels comprise less than 10% of our TV networks. The rest are mostly devoted to entertainment, which includes religion. And if you think that news channels can survive without any entertainment value, you are no better than me, who does not know Adams from Madams.

We are living in a world of murky competition. Business admits no leisure. People work themselves to death or into psychiatry wards. Work places are impersonal or hostile. Social intercourses are stiff. It’s as though we are walking through a mine-field all the time. Such a world excludes leisure and friendship. Play combines both. This was exactly what the lady scholar was insisting on. I caught it in a flash!

No serious matter

How do news hour programmes of aggressive views on dilatory news promote play?
When spokespersons of various parties slug it out against each other, like mixed martial arts combatants, the common man, for whose benefit the show is undertaken, is amused. But for these furiously comic, free-for-all encounters, he would have thought that politics – including governance – was a serious and mysterious matter.

There is no other opportunity for him to see for himself that politics too is play. He knows that these choreographed scenes of ideological browbeating are mere pantomimes for his entertainment. He knows only too well that the political class hangs together. That, behind the iron curtains of verbal acrimony, these talking, brawling thespians enjoy an enduring bonhomie. From TV studios they go home, laughing all the way.

But for this saving knowledge, these programmes that play-act hostility would have hacked on our nerves. Had we believed these to be real-life scenes of political blood-letting, we would have switched off, our nerves rattled. 

Party spokespersons can fight no-holds-barred in full public view, and not put us off, because we know – and they know that we know – they mean no harm and are only jousting with each other in jest. They are playing with us too. Just that we may relax. And they do such a good job of it!

But, my point here pertains to my lamentable prejudice. What a world of difference it makes when we see issues in the right perspective! In one magic moment, I was liberated from resentment and led to a benign view on an invaluable facility for the poor, harrowed common man. The nation wants to play!

(The writer was  Principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi)

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