Indian Mass Media: an on-going paradox

With the controversial story of Salman Rushdie running rampant through Indian and International media, all eyes have turned towards India; the flourishing ‘democracy’ and its apparent commitment to ‘free speech.’ But, as many public forums have pointed out, this is not the first time India has succumbed to the threats of extremism and bigotry. In fact, India has quite an ‘index of intolerance,’ from MF Hussain’s exile to more recently, the objection to Jay Leno’s joke on the Golden Temple.

Amidst this talk about India, censorship, fanaticism, and so forth, I started to think about Indian Mass Media: particularly journalism and television. Who decides the content of this mass media for more than 600 television channels, 100 million pay-television households, 70,000 newspapers and more than 1,000 films annually? Ultimately, how do these forms of mass media play into the creation of an ‘Indian identity?’ What emerges, and is increasingly evident whether on television or in a magazine, is a paradox between an effort to hold onto ‘authentic’ values in the face of growing modernist demands and realities.

There is definitely an ironic ring to the fact that India, the largest democracy in the world, is ranked 131 in the Press Freedom Index*. In this regard, it is safe to suggest Indian journalism is stratified. That is, depending on where and about what, different journalists are granted different degrees of ‘free speech.’ Whilst it is permitted to gossip about Shahrukh Khan’s marriage problems, on-the-ground journalists in Jammu and Kashmir face a more regulated chance at the truth. One such instance was when authorities revoked 30,000 copies of The Economist because of a map that challenged India’s territorial claims.

With India’s media and entertainment industry expected to be in excess of US $25 billion in the next 4 years, one can only imagine the scale of television viewing. As the worlds third largest television market, the rising domestic demand of India’s growing middle class and working population are inciting many investors to enter into this promising market. With what began around the ideals of developmental realism when television was first introduced in India, is now the epitome of this on-going paradox. For the 138 million households there are now new TV serials like Emotional Atyachaar and Date Trap featuring on new channels like UTV Bindass. Such shows like these, based on US serials like Cheaters, touch upon aspects of sex, lust, betrayal and so on that the Censorship board clearly deems perfectly fine – exactly what the audience wants. But, it’s the same audience that even today is not allowed to hold hands while walking in the streets, as any public display of affection is a criminal offense. So why is India projecting such a contradictory message where television has complete ‘free speech’ while society is governed by very different values? Is this simply a battle between the ‘past’ and the ‘future?’ Or is it more than just a generation issue and instead an urban-rural gap?

We as Indians have reached a crossroad, in which what it means to be ‘Indian’ is multifaceted. Our values, ambitions are as diverse as our people within the nation. And this, if we go as far as to call it an ‘identity crisis,’ is clearly reflected in our mass media industry. And what’s next? What does this recent boom of interest in the realm of digital media mean? A further split between ‘authentic’ values and modernist demands? Just a thought for the next time you’re reading a newspaper or flicking through channels.