Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reality Shows

I was reading a news item from the Times, London published in one of our newspapers about a question in this year's SAT that puzzled students in America aspiring to enter the Ivy league institutions, Harvard and Yale. As SAT questions usually centre around grammar, algebra and problem solving, the students who prepared for them assiduously, as they do in this country, were quite unprepared for  writing an essay on  " Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality or are such forms of entertainment harmful ?"
There were certain aspects in the details given in this news which are quite revealing to me. I have watched some movies on American campus life and the students in them seemed more interested in fun and their prom than in their studies but this column made me realise that the students there and their parents too, are as serious about tests and exams as their counterparts in our country. They spend considerable sums of money on private tuition to prepare for the SAT exam as a good score in it is essential for getting entry into any University . One father who was quoted as saying that his son worked too hard to watch TV ( how could he, therefore, answer such a question on reality shows ? ) could be anyone from this country too.
The question itself is not easy to answer. And since I have not watched most of the reality shows and none consistently, I know I am not the right person to do so. Still I thought I will make some observation particularly in the light of a film I happened to watch.
Reality shows are coming up in different formats all over the world and newer ones are being added now and then. These shows include ordinary people, and not professional actors, in various settings. It may be a quiz contest like the 'Kon Banega Croropati' or a singing contest like the Indian Idol modelled after the American shows 'who wants to be Millionaire' and the 'American Idol' respectively. It may be a show like the 'Big Brother' and its Indian counterpart the 'Big Boss' in which a group of contestants are required to live in a house isolated from the outside world and interact with one another over a period of time under the watchful eyes of a camera all along. It could be a show in which the participants are required to overcome various challenges and perform some daring acts (with proper safeguards provided to prevent mishaps ). In one of the shows, Survivor , the participants are required to live in the wilderness and perform various acts to test their endurance and resourcefulness  with the camera recording their activities. The list  goes on.
The element of competition is there in each of these shows ( huge cash prizes are involved ) and that does provide varying degrees of thrill which attract all types of viewers but otherwise the audience for each type of show is obviously different.
A show like the 'Indian Idol'  surely attracts more of the musically inclined. Talking of this show a few episodes of which I did watch, I felt that it provided a platform for many a talented singer to show their talents not only in front of the judges or the studio audience but in front of a much larger national audience. This is an opportunity the contestants would not have got otherwise - an opportunity which may have helped quite a few of them, not only the winner of the show - in launching a career in music or show business instead of remaining a local sensation amongst friends,colleagues and relatives.I have however some reservations about the children's show like 'Sa Re Ga Ma Pa' (song) and ''Dance Bangla Dance' (dance ). I am impressed by the performances  of the children some of whom are amazingly gifted. These shows are so popular that I think a second or third series is now going on.The parents must be very keen to see their children getting into the shows and performing. I feel though that these children are too young to be brought into such public competition. Some may find it difficult to cope with failure emotionally and as for those who are being lauded and praised sky high for genuinely good performances, the celebrity status at such a young and tender age may be counterproductive.
The dangerous potential of a reality show was however revealed to me when I watched the movie 'Condemned' in one of the movie channels on my TV. The film tells the story of a multi-millionaire TV producer who gets ten convicts sentenced to death for various crimes of extremely violent nature released from prison and releases them in an island in a secret location on condition that they will have to kill one another in a 30- hour period and the sole survivor will get his freedom and a huge prize money. None of them can attempt to flee as an anklet is fitted to each of their ankles with a powerful explosive timed to detonate after thirty hours or before if anyone tries to remove them. The convicts have no option but to do his bidding. The man has arranged for a multitude of TV cameras fitted at strategic points all over the island to be able to record the movements of each and every one of these convicts and the violent actions to follow. He has a control room with computer and electronic experts to record all their actions and upload them in real time to the internet to their website for people to watch in streaming videos after paying a fee for registering to the site. The payments are directly routed to his bank account.
He also arranges ads to inform prospective viewers about the reality show and in fact gives an interview brazenly to a TV channel with the same object confident that he will have finished his project and made his money by the time the authorities discover the island's location.
The film thereafter rolls on with gruesome killings being enacted on the island as each one of the convicts tries to track and kill another, all being fed in real time to all the computers which log on to their site in the internet.Their console records more than a million hits in no time and the man makes some millions in that time. 
I do not want to go into further details. It is a film depicting violence, though it ends with the indirect message that crime does not pay ( which most of such films does ), it feeds on people's voyeuristic tendencies and their desire to experience vicarious thrills. These are the same traits that the protagonist in the film banks on in his project to make money. Though it is fiction, can one rule out the possibility of someone getting such a grotesque idea and exploit this human weakness- is it the male psyche only ? - to make money ? After all, pornographic sites which panders to such base instincts dominated the internet in its early stages and possibly does so even now.
The internet is a powerful tool. It is a tool that can be used as a source of information and knowledge, for education and entertainment, for communication and networking, for running the economy and business and myriad other useful purposes, but it can also spread garbage and filth or stir up dark embers lying dormant in many of us as shown in the above example. One can always argue it is the viewers' choice, it is up to him to watch or not, but that argument is more like the drug traffickers'  who would like to pass the buck on to the addicts who sustain a demand. But the young addict who tries a drug for fun or a kick mostly under peer pressure or sometimes being duped by someone else, gets unwittingly hooked and addicted. It is only possible because the supply is there and readily available. Even Adam could not resist the temptation of the fruit firstly because it was there and  secondly, it was too tempting and forbidden.
Contents shown on the TV can be and are sometimes controlled on the basis of a social consensus. It is not that easy to monitor and control the contents in a vast network like the internet, but there should be continuing efforts to do so.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dog beneath the Skin

The expression ' the Dog beneath the skin' which I used in my post 'Women : on the march' was borrowed from the name of a play written by the poets Auden and Isherwood though I gave it a meaning  all my own. In the play it was a dog's skin that was used by a missing baronet Sir Francis Crewe as a disguise to move around as a dog and watch the people whom he found out to be mean, hypocritical and vulgar creatures - under their apparently sophisticated skins.The dog I was referring to is an animal and as dogs are, may be quite lovable and loyal and in fact a thoroughbred, but not being much of a dog lover myself, I was restricting it to its other characteristics which Pavlov so successfully used in his 'conditioned reflex' experiment. It is a creature of habit. And if one has been conditioned for ages into such a habit - in fact from the beginning of agricultural society- it may not be easy to grow out of the same inspite of all the refinement that even a liberal education  provides.
So the idea of the second sex and male prominence continue to persist even in these days of gender equality which is pronounced from all public platforms. At home, in the workplace and on the streets.
At home, it can and does often lead to marital friction. It would not be fair to put all the blame on the male attitude though on the increasing instances of marital discord or divorces that are taking place these days ; women marching ahead are sometimes marching too much ahead.  After all as someone remarked  on my last post  " it's the dog in question,who runs the risk of being starved to death these days. " She has a point. A woman too, financially independent and her own 'woman' so to say, is often too assertive about her own demand and  personal freedom to allow the necessary space for adjustment  which is essential in any relationship, more so an intimate one.
It is possibly the pompous male ego which led to the term ' male chauvinistic pig ' to  describe the attitude of some males of our species. It would be most unfortunate if there is a role reversal and the female equivalents go on increasing in this feminist era.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The real and the unreal

My son Anindya wrote this comment on my last post 'Japan Earthquake' :
'Same reaction with gargi :), we were telling her lets see the news , there is a big earthquake, but she was least interested. For her these scenes are common in movies and so she was not much interested. Nowadays such a small kid is exposed to so many unreal things that they miss the reality.'
(Gargi is my granddaughter, not yet 5 years old )
I was in fact pondering over this as I wrote the piece and had continued, but I  decided to keep the extended portion for another post. This is what I had penned :
'I remember about forty or forty five years back, a film called King Kong ( the original one ) was released in Calcutta and when King Kong appeared on the scene, I am told, some people fainted. I am sure even a child today would not do so now as he is growing immune to such shocks with the continued exposure to giant and monster films that are so common today.
The films will be there because we want them. People love to watch violence, they also love to watch the macabre and the weird. They thronged the Colosseum in ancient Rome to watch the gladiators fight to the finish. They love to watch bullfights in Spain and cockfights in rural India. If two bulls start fighting on a Kolkata street, a crowd will immediately form to watch the fight and some would start cheering one or the other. Public execution was quite common in America at one time. Though the authorities thought they were setting an example for would-be criminals to be afraid of, people actually gathered to watch the show for entertainment only.
There is something about violence, even in nature's fury, which makes the adrenaline flow when we watch. From a distance, personally unaffected. In the civilised world we no longer have the gladiator fights ( except in some moderated form in boxing or freestyle wrestling ), we have shifted to other forms of competitive sports  which provide similar tensions and thrills to watch. The evolution of cricket from its 5 day test matches to a faster ODIs and then to its present T 20 form is an example, it fulfils  our craze for the 'fast and the furious', but all these still do not fully satisfy the primitive human desire which drew us to the gladiator's arena. The modern films pander to this desire.They know that is where the business is.
We  watch them, so do the young children. It is for us to make sure they retain their sanity and remain sensitive to the real world and its joys and sorrows.'
It is however easier said than done.
There is one consolation though. Even before the TV invaded our homes with an extension of the visual world with various doses of unreality, children all over the world were being fed with stories of fantasy, of giants and dwarfs, of the lands beyond the seven seas, and of the imprisoned princess and the prince charming who fights the demons of all shapes and sizes to rescue her from a  distant castle or a cave. And later, with comic book stories of super heroes or of Tintin in his various adventure trails. It allowed their imagination a free run, but they learnt to tune in with reality as they grew up. So will the children of today given the right direction.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan Earthquake

The dividing line between the real and the unreal is getting increasingly blurred in today's world.
I was watching  BBC World News when they came up with the story of the Japan earthquake. At 8.9 in the Reichter scale it is one of the most severe earthquake to have occurred in recent times and it has caused an unprecedented devastation in a country which is quake prone and known to be well prepared to meet such an eventuality.
As I sat watching the TV, they showed live video footages of the earthquake as it was taking place. An office room was shown shaking with papers flying around, a retail store could be seen with all the racks of canned goods rattling, the cans falling off and people with perplexed faces moving around. They showed the Tsunami wave triggered by the earthquake which struck the shores and swept away a township crumbling all the houses like so many match boxes and then rumbling water everywhere with cars and vans and rooftops floating here and there.
I sat there watching, transfixed, heard the voices in the TV talking about the number of people who have died or are missing, and the number of homes destroyed. I suddenly realised to my horror that I was not being moved emotionally. My head was registering all the news and its seriousness but my heart was not reaching out in sympathy to all these people, thousands of them, who have lost their lives or their friends and relatives or their homes.
Because it seemed so unreal, like in a film. I watch films often in the TV, in Star Movies or HBO or such other channels and most of them depict violence, disasters, destruction or devastation in graphic details. Today's technology allows them to be so realistic that you feel it is really happening. What have I not seen ? What have you not seen ? Violence, brutality, people being shot at and killed or blown off, cars blown to smithereens, towering infernos, nature's fury - you name it, it is there. You retain your sanity because you know, deep in your heart, it is only a film you are watching, not something real but your senses get numbed, the shock factor wears off, you are rendered insensitive.  Even if something similar is happening in the real world, you refuse to believe it is your world.
That is what I suppose was my first reaction, as I watched the live TV coverage. Was it really happening or was it just another series of scenes from a movie ? I had to stir myself as if from a stupor and wake up to the enormity of the tragedy that struck some parts of Japan that day.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Women : On the march

I was in my second year in Presidency college in 1959 when Prof. Kajal Sengupta was appointed as a teacher in the English department. Presidency being a  co-educational college, there was no dearth of female faces in the campus and addition of a new one would not have aroused much of an interest  except for the fact that Prof. Sengupta was the first woman teacher to be appointed in the college. We used to look at her with a bit of awe as she walked briskly past us along the corridor and up the wide stairs to take up her classes. Being the only woman among the teaching fraternity could not have been easy for her. That too in a college which took great pride in maintaining its tradition of excellence . She must have been conscious of the responsibility that she had taken as a lone representative of her sex to prove herself equal to the task. That probably explains the reserve and aura she maintained at all times. It could be a defensive shield also in a predominantly male preserve. At that time some of us youngsters who never knew her or attended her classes, did not realise it though . We mistook it for a superior air which we thought she had imbibed from Oxford.
Girls were going to schools and colleges in quite large numbers by then but not many could be found going to work.Women were already in some professions like the medical or teaching professions but those were still in the nature of exceptions. This reminds me of the first working woman I came across few  years before. It was in the mid fifties when I was possibly in class eight. I would often meet this young lady on my way to school.  Dressed in a starched and pressed cotton saree, she would be crossing the wooden bridge connecting Kalighat and Chetla  on her way to catch a bus at the Rashbehari crossing. I could guess she was going to the office like all the men rushing  from the Chetla side of the bridge at that hour.
As time passed, more and more women were joining the workforce in various fields. Economic compulsions brought middle class women out of their homes to look for and join work - in the telephone department, in post offices and other organisations. Slowly and imperceptibly social mores were changing, though it was not easy for the Bengali middle class to accept and adjust to them.
Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar captures this period of transition. The film was released in 1963 and narrates the story of a traditional family in which the housewife is compelled to join work as a door to door sales person to supplement her husband's income and make both ends meet. There are  tensions in the family as a result which form the theme of the movie.The husband's parents do not approve of her going out to work and the husband himself starts developing a complex when he finds his wife become the major breadwinner of the family.
The film records the hesitant and tentative steps a middle class woman was taking as she stepped out of home and into the outer world and the stresses she had to go through, both in the family as well as in the workplace, as she proceeded to gain confidence and achieve a sense of independence.
The period of transition is still not over. Women are in large numbers at the workplaces today, they are in almost every profession, in every sphere of economic activity. They have proved themselves equal to men and many have excelled in their chosen fields. Society has grudgingly accepted the emergence of the new woman but has not yet been able to shake off its ambivalent attitude towards her. Habits die hard, social attitudes die harder. The dog beneath the skin -  it lurks beneath many a liberal skin - longing for the stereotype of the demure, submissive woman who should better be at home tending to her folks, bares its fangs only too often.