Cracker Trail Gone Damp

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Anil Kapoor’s 24 is a hot show on TV that is leaving viewers cold

Despite the less-than-complimentary epithets used to describe Indian television, it has been plodding along. The saas-bahu sagas delivered drama in the form of bejewelled warring families. Shrill women, clumsy dwarves and cross-dressing comics, the staple of sitcoms, gave audiences their laughs. Kings and gods unleashed arrows and sermons in the unlikely environs of photoshopped mountain ranges and lavish palaces in mythological serials. Once in a while, film stars deigned to descend upon the small screen to act as quizmasters, judges or anchors on reality shows.

Critics carped about lack of creativity. But no one was listening. Audiences were transfixed. The channels knew not to mess with what was working, no matter how mediocre or tacky it was. Then along came Anil Kapoor, fresh from such triumphs as Slumdog Millionaire, bought the Indian rights to 24, a popular American show on terror in which he’d played a Middle Eastern president in the show’s eighth season, and strode confidently into Indian homes with his version.

In the desi version that began airing on Colors in early October, Kapoor plays the lead role of Jai Singh Rathod, a counter-terrorism expert, himself. The show, however, barely managed to limp onto the TV ratings chart. Its debut week scored an average TRP of 1.5 and it has been downhill since.

One could argue that 24 has all the right ingredients. Kapoor, a widely recognised film star, as its lead. Abhinay Deo, who helmed 2011’s sleeper hit Delhi Belly, as its director. Rensil D’Silva, who directed Kurbaan, and Bhavani Iyer, who wrote Black, on the show’s scripting team.

And a broad cast of actors and actresses that combines the best of film, theatre and television.

The eight episodes aired so far retain the soul of the American show while infusing it with an Indian spirit. Substituting the US President with someone who looks like a Gandhi family member, complete with an errant brother-in-law, may not be such an original move, but it does make the characters identifiable. Murder, mid-air mayhem, office romance and rivalry—that’s what one expects here, and they are all there. It is hard to detect any flaws. The plot unfolds in real time (hence ‘24’), one of the show’s unique selling points, and this seems pacy and precise. Deo has paid special attention to details. “One of the challenges of setting the story in Bombay,” he says, “was the time it takes to get from one location to another, especially in daytime, and we have kept traffic in mind while creating the timeline.” This chronographic realism has garnered praise from critics as well as rivals. The moody Mumbai night lurks around every corner, and the brooding presence of Anil Kapoor works well in place of Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Jack Bauer in the original. Viewership numbers, however, remain elusive.

Insiders in the TV industry are watching 24 with interest. Though rivals refuse to comment on record, their consensus is that it is a well-made show, the best on the small screen so far. Both the budget and scale of production are unprecedented. Manisha Sharma, head of weekend programming at Colors, does not disclose the exact budget, but says, “This is without doubt the most expensive fiction show ever in India. Each hour long episode has been shot over 11 days.” The average episode of an Indian TV show is shot in four days (a soap opera in less), and at a fraction of this cost.

Yet, not everyone is impressed by 24. Abhigyan Jha, CEO of Undercover Productions and a TV industry veteran, wonders who the show is meant for. “If you are aiming at the intelligent audience, it is just not believable that a terror outfit in India will employ two women on bikes in tight-leather outfits,” he says, “As soon as you show this, the intelligent audience is gone. Which theatre in India is open at 2 am to buy tickets as Anil [Kapoor’s character] does? If you want an intelligent audience, you have to go the intelligent route.”

So, who is expected to watch 24? The masses fed on soap operas and simplistic crime shows seem to have rejected it outright. Its first-week TRP is an industry low for a show launched with a major publicity blitzkrieg and toplined by a Bollywood star. Even Kaun Banega Crorepati, now in its seventh season and losing steam, did better that week (TRP of 1.7). A show on a rival channel in the same 10 pm time-slot, CID, airing for 16 years without a break, scored more than twice as high (TRP of 3.5).

“We knew it would be urban skewed and take time with the masses, and the ratings are reflecting that,” says Sharma of Colors, “But the show has created tremendous buzz for the channel, online and offline.”

Social media preferences, though, do not reflect popular culture in India. Those who tweet applause for the show are mostly aficionados of pirated American shows and live in an almost parallel universe. They began watching 24 eight seasons ago in its original avatar, via the internet, and are unlikely to wait with bated breath for Anil Kapoor’s. Moreover, most have moved on to shows like Sleeper Cell and Homeland, which are crafted with even more subtlety and nuance than 24.

The larger audience—of those who watch TV while it is actually broadcast —is a tough one to crack. No one knows what catches their fancy. Deo himself is not part of this audience and confesses as much. “It is not that I don’t know this audience or respect where they are coming from,” he says in his defence, “My mother is [part of] this audience and she watches these soaps, but I myself do not like any fiction on Indian television.”

Deo is confident, however, that like the new wave of cinegoers who patronise well-made films, there exists an audience for edgier TV shows. Writer Bhavani Iyer is also hopeful of an audience out there for 24. “Indian TV shows seem to cater to just one particular audience,” she says, “There are just a handful of crime shows or thrillers as compared to soaps. I do think there is an audience wanting more.”

The art of filmmaking and the craft of a TV series, however, involve two different processes. A film director has to draw an audience in just once, and s/he has in her or his arsenal a darkened auditorium and captive viewers once that is done. In contrast, a TV show demands a strategy that takes into account viewers armed with a potent weapon—the remote handset. These are watchers who are not only ready to switch channels on impulse, they are subject to household distractions as well.

“Even a bad show works if aimed at the right audience,” as Jha says, “But the makers of 24 are clueless; they have neither strategy nor understanding of the audience. Watching the original 24 is no qualification for making it.” Deo readily admits that his team does not have TV experience, but he does not see this as a disqualifier. To him, the medium in itself is incidental, for he himself has graduated from 60-second adfilms to the two-hour feature format and now has 18 hours—the length of the first season minus breaks—to tell his story. He believes there are people interested in what he has to say. “I am hopeful of the audience.

It just needs hand-holding and some time,” he says. “Why would cinema change if not for the audience?”

Maybe throwing money and star power at the audience was a bad move, but it has worked before and the makers of 24 took a path they considered safe. When KBC was launched with Amitabh Bachchan, it was a gamble with a fading superstar and format that lacked pace. It went on to become a game changer on Indian television. It anchored a whole bunch of saas-bahu sagas that followed it and wired viewers for a daily fix of their favourite shows.

How 24 fits in with the channel’s schedule strategy is unclear. In an industry whose mainstay is the daily soap, and where thrillers run entire stories in a single episode, this is a show that disappears for seven days after delivering two hours of real-time action over Friday and Saturday. To win viewers back after that gap, it needs a hook that Kapoor and Deo do not seem to have.

That would require a grasp of TV mindsets, according to Jha. “Sure, our audiences have a long way to go,” he says, “but to be fair, the golden age of American television too is a recent one, not more than 15 years old. Our audiences have not yet been exposed to enough genres to see nuances. It will take them a while to accept concurrent scenarios. Where are our X Files and CSI kind of shows that led to the evolution of American television? In a country that has seen no thriller other than CID before, isn’t it a bit premature to dump 24 on inexperienced viewers?”

Deo should not to be too surprised with the show’s disconnect with viewers at large. As he himself admits, “I do not relate to the [existent] audience.” The director’s stated aim may be to find an entirely new set of viewers, but even on this, he may need to rethink 24’s approach.

Says Jha, “The Indian audience is a plot-driven one and 24 is all slickness with the screenplay going all over the place. The audience is very smart. Give them what they want and they will come back.”

If that means resorting to a bit of what critics call ‘escapist’, ‘tacky’ and ‘regressive’, it would not be such a horror. Labelling mass entertainment ‘escapist’ presupposes that most viewers are deluded and foolish in opting for TV and cinema fare that does not mirror the real world. But they may have genuine reason to watch what looks like nothing but fantasy.

As for the lack of gloss on traditional shows in India, that’s just a function of money spent and could change accordingly. And ‘regressive’ is just a judgmental difference that depends on the level of evolution of the audience and could mean different things to different people in a country said to live in several centuries at the same time.

Our stories will, as always, feed off our culture, customs and prejudices. Observers agree that TV audiences are set for evolution, but it will take time. The breathless timer that appears on the screen of 24, however, is running too fast for its own good. Unfortunately for the show, the time is not right and neither is the content.