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Issue 10

Atypical

Atypical is a show on Netflix about 18-year-old Sam, a boy on the autism spectrum, navigating his way through life and becoming more independent. Well, yeah, the show is brilliant, the writing is immaculate, the actors are phenomenal and the story is gripping, but, what stands out is the way all the characters have their own stories and struggles, yet their lives are completely intertwined. Not once do Sam’s struggles overshadow the other characters’ in the show and that’s what makes Atypical so captivating. 

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Issue 7

Someone Great

Directed by Jennifer Robinson and starring Jane The Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, Someone Great is a 2019 film that at once encompasses humour, friendship and love in a breezy 90-minute movie. It is set in New York City, the home of three girlfriends in their late-20s, navigating their careers and loves, all the while holding on to their cherished friendship. The movie revolves around the protagonist Jenny Young’s (Gina Rodriguez) recent breakup with her long-term boyfriend. While at first sight, the movie might seem like another light break-up watch filled with peppy songs and quippy one-liners, it touches upon the less-talked-about aspects of heartbreak and moving on.

Instead of going the conventional way by focusing solely on the protagonist’s broken heart, it attempts to explain the nuances of a complicated long-term relationship, the troubles of emotional attachment and the pain of moving on. Through the film, the protagonist is shown as actively coming to terms with the break-up, moving from blaming her boyfriend to admitting her own faults. It ends on a bittersweet note, with Jenny realising that while her time in the relationship was beautiful, the ending was also justified and all she can do is look forward and wish her ex-boyfriend future happiness. This attempt at understanding and achieving closure is perhaps the highlight of the film

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis)..

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Issue 7

The White Tiger: Poverty Porn or Gritty Realism?

Balram Halwai, the protagonist of The White Tiger, would have you believe that before any other label engulfs him, he is an Indian entrepreneur. The label of a murderer, a man emerged from ‘the darkness,’ or that of an ex-driver for the son of a wealthy and influential landlord is secondary. 

The White Tiger, released early this year, is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel by the same name. The movie provides an incisive narrative of the glaring class divide in India—and it does this humorously. The truth of the class divide is rather simple, as explained by Balram: the ones who live in ‘the darkness,’ who come from the castes of the narrow bellied and tuberculosis stricken; the ones from drought-struck villages, who make up 90% of India’s population are caught in a chicken coop. They see their fate played out in front of them through others caught in the same coop and they see their kind slaughtered right in front of them, yet they do not try to escape. That is their fate. 

“the trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy” 

This is how Balram ends his philosophy with a macabre finality. As he says this, the movie displays montages of tired men cycling in rags, carrying furniture worth several lakhs, and being paid less than a hundred rupees for it. The dialogue ends with such a man bowing down to a woman in front of a mansion, displaying his thanks for being paid a meagre amount for his service—the people caught in the chicken coop do not try to escape. This is their fate. 

The film takes this simple philosophy, as thought of by Balram, and expands it into a carefully embroidered, gritty and rusted story that climaxes with a murder. Not once does the film slack in its depiction of the class divide—cities, when they belong to the caste of the big-bellied are grand, boasting of malls, clubs, people who converse seamlessly in English and wear short clothes. The same cities, when they belong to their populous, but largely overlooked counterparts are crowded, immobile, and reek with the stench of hate, crime, resentment, and, of course, open defecation. Throughout the movie, we see shots of crowded cities choked with poor people, and in the very next shot, open tennis courts, big residences occupied by not more than two people. We are very clearly shown how the rich (take, for example, the landowner) are unafraid of claiming the poor and treat the land and lives of the poor as if they already belong to them—like when Balram offers money to a crippled beggar, but receives scalding scorn from his ‘masters’; they treat his money as if it is theirs.  

Although this grisly, gritty depiction of urban and rural spaces contributes to how we view the limited accessibility of both public and private spaces, I thought this resolute ugliness veered towards the lauded portrayal of Indian poverty by Hollywood—think slumdog millionaire. This ugliness often felt like an attempt to translate Indian poverty, class and caste to a public who is far too separated from this problem to view it as anything more than entertainment. My saying that the portrayal of poverty often exists as a translation is also a privileged stance—after all, I am also writing this as a big-bellied person who has never had to step inside The White Tiger’s portrayal of ‘darkness.’ But the film often also presents poverty as a thesis; something to be dissected, explained and proved. We see this in the caricatural depictions of the wealthy high-class landlords, the bitter, soulless and money-hungry joint family back in the village and the typical rich, kind of nice, “caste-doesn’t-exist-anymore-papa” Americanized son. 

The characters, to prove a point of poverty, lack complexity and emotional depth. They are cruel just because they are. Their actions as a function of their class, caste and religion are one dimensional, and, frankly, a little boring. I mean, what’s new about a wealthy politically-inclined family that’s Islamophobic, casteist and misogynistic? In attempting to present and translate the ‘truth’ about Indian class, the movie misses out on a lot of character depth, choosing, instead, to employ stereotypes. The only redemption to this is a depth of contempt that runs through every character, despite their differences: nobody is happy, everyone wants to be somewhere they are not. The othering is mutual—the poor do not see the rich as one of their own, and of course, neither do the rich. 

The only character to break out of the stereotype, though, is the protagonist Balram Halwai, played phenomenally by Adarsh Gourav. If nothing else, I would recommend this film for its exceptional fresh-faced talent. Balram Halwai is probably the only intricately crafted character in the movie. He displays deep concern for his brother, which is laced with equal amounts of contempt. He cares for his ‘master’ (the landlord’s son) like one would care for a brother or a best friend, is hurt by his lack of consideration for him, but still does not hesitate for a second in believing that he has been greatly wronged by this supposedly nice man. 

The character of Balram Halwai is also charming and humorous. This humour seeps into the movie, and takes a dense and gritty topic accessible and interesting. We find ourselves agreeing with Balram, even when he is clearly in the moral wrong—we also see how our moral compass is deeply stricken by privilege. While watching the movie, I shamefully recognized some of my behaviours in the behaviour of the privileged. This is exactly where the film gets it right—although the characters portrayed as caricatural, their actions are mundane. They do what we all have done at some point in our lives. To be shown the wrongness of our beliefs and our actions is inherently shocking, and The White Tiger does a phenomenal job of that—shocking us by making our ‘mundane’ classism so lucid, so perceptible. 

Shivani Deshmukh is a second year undergraduate at Ashoka University. She studies Sociology and Anthropology.

Picture Credits: Netflix India

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 7

Bridgerton: A Regency Tale of Surveillance and Information Control

In February 2021, the Netflix show, Bridgerton, (based on the books by Julia Quinn) became the most streamed show on their platform after being viewed by 83 million households. But while we were busy fawning over the lavish balls and romantic storylines, did we happen to overlook a critical theme about the nexus of the media and mass surveillance? What is this nexus, what are its implications, and how has Republic TV emerged as India’s very own Lady Whistledown?

Bridgerton revolves around the lives of the influential families in 1813, Regency London. The show is rife with scandals and secrecy, all promised to be revealed by Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of the town’s latest gossip column or scandal sheet.

The show begins by Lady Whistledown declaring that she knows everyone who is reading her paper, a way of subtly signalling that they are all being closely observed. She derives her information from a combination of surveillance or observation and leaked information through various networks (for example, gossiping maids who hear everything about the lives of their employers). 

As Whistledown starts revealing secrets and exposing the scandals of the high-society families, it becomes evident that through her society papers she can not only influence and manipulate the public opinion but also bring dishonour to certain families and impact the existing social hierarchies. 

Soon people start factoring in her presence in their social behaviour. Knowing that she’s lurking around, waiting to expose their secrets, the people of the town start to self-censor themselves. This is a common behavioural phenomenon which occurs when people know that they are under surveillance, and it serves as an excellent tool to exercise control over a population. In London during the 1800s, there existed a myriad of social rules and norms that were imposed on the people by society. For example, if a woman were to be seen alone with a man, then it would be assumed that her honour had been compromised. The society also frowned upon the free expression of one’s sexuality and enforced very strict gender roles. Any divergence from such norms would have potentially led to a scandal. 

Whistledown’s society papers display how if one person had a combined monopoly over surveillance and the media then they could significantly shape the society and make it conform to certain standards that they deemed fit. This kind of control could also be harnessed and exploited by those in power for their personal gains.

What’s even more alarming is that Whistledown’s readers accept whatever she writes with the utmost trust. Her word is seen to be “as good as gospel”. This is because news about influential people or celebrities automatically becomes sensational and thus even a small, probably fake rumour can also spread rapidly, with little attention paid to the credibility of the source. Unfortunately, this practice of ‘sensationalizing’ the news has found its way into the world of TV Journalism as well, an area where credibility should ideally matter the most. 

This is because as people’s attention spans decrease, they feel the need to be constantly entertained. Thus, news channels have begun to employ various theatrical elements to supplement their reports. This is because unlike Lady Whistledown, news channels are faced with immense competition and they must resort to these theatrics in order to increase their TRPs. 

A survey conducted in 2020 by CVoter with a sample size of 4500 people across the country found that 73.9 per cent of the people surveyed feel that news channels in India “are more of entertainment than real news”. And 76.7 per cent said that TV News channels and TV serials both “sensationalise and scandalise everything”. This only goes to show that the credibility of TV journalism has declined. Now that they are functioning primarily for entertainment, these channels aren’t that different from Lady Whistledown’s society papers, as they are both used for societal control. 

Consider the Republic TV. After observing 1779 prime-time debates the Caravan found that Republic TV was consistently biased towards the Modi government, it’s policies and ideology. In addition to this, the channel is also said to have focused less on pressing issues such as the state of the economy, education or health and more on drawing attention away from these issues. Their analysis also revealed that the channel has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. 

Caravan’s analysis also revealed that Republic TV has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. News channels have the power to shape public opinion and it’s obvious that this space can be exploited to put forward certain political agendas.

In addition to this, the government of India has amped up its mass surveillance on its citizens in recent years. And has specially cracked-down on various social media platforms. By surveying our social media activity, the government has been able to silence countless journalists, artists, etc. In addition to this, the Uttarakhand police recently declared that the police can now deny a citizen the clearance required for obtaining a passport if they post ‘anti-national’ posts on social media. By creating such laws and going after individuals who question the current regime, the government has set the precedent for what counts as acceptable behaviour on these online platforms. All this stands to be the government’s not-so-subtle cue for the public to begin self-censoring themselves on social media. 

But so far this has not worked. Protests and political dissent transitioned to social media platforms in the wake of the lockdown. And now these virtual spaces have evolved to be conducive to political dissent. And as for Lady Whistledown, she may be in control of the society at the moment, but any day now, the people of the town could discover better things (provided by unbiased and more credible information sources) to dwell on and her scandal sheets will become irrelevant.

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 4

OTT Platforms: What controls the content we watch?

You sit in your bed, scrolling through the internet, looking for the next series to binge-watch. You switch tabs from Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to Disney+ then to Hotstar. You’re probably still confused about what you want to watch. The entire time, however, your choices feel seemingly limitless. You acknowledge tacitly that this was not the case a couple of years back. 

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have expanded over the past 8 years. From only two platforms in 2012, India now has over 30 streaming service providers. Increasingly, television broadcast service providers have started giving customers the option to watch live TV online. A 2018 report by The Boston Consulting Group based its analysis off a consumer survey and predicted the Indian OTT market to reach $5 billion by 2023.

The reach of such platforms has been exacerbated by the pandemic as movies that would have otherwise released in theatres have now debuted on online platforms. An instance of the same is the somewhat controversial film Laxmii which is set to release on Hotstar later this month. While this doesn’t mean that theatres will shut for good, with different states opening up film theatres as early as November 2020, this does speak of the trend that the biggest platforms are racing to create libraries of content. This is indicative of an imagination where the OTT isn’t an adversary to film, rather a much-needed ally.

In this vast plethora of content, some questions remain. Do you choose what you are going to watch? Can someone influence your content choices? Netflix confirmed that it was testing a ‘shuffle play’ option for its users where the platform can suggest a title for you to watch based on your viewing preferences. One can, in light of this, think of online content as a basket of goods. While your screen time and interests may determine the exact good you choose from the basket, the entire basket differs from country to country. You’re provided with the content that will sell in your specific context as companies curate the content that you are likely to watch. 

Although companies are curating content for you, these are in themselves diverse. The bottom line is this– the singular power has gone out of the hands of big film studios’ now. At the box office, timings and screens are dependent on financial capacity. This problem shrinks in the online space. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in an interview with the Hindu, spoke of his experience of not being strapped for money and concerns of audience reaction to the work he was doing. At the same time, the online space, like everything, isn’t free of problems. 

Even though the power to determine content isn’t concentrated in a few hands, the potency of the question stands, perhaps more as a ‘what’ question– what determines the content you consume? The answer is binge-worthiness which in part, determines the type of content that is created by production houses. That is why crime and horror are popular genres. Entire seasons are released in a single go contributing to the binge-watching trend. The goal for these platforms seems to be achieving the ‘endless scroll’, a constant updating of content. Coupled with the endless scroll, it is also important to acknowledge that the goal of binge-worthiness can go hand in hand with increased freedom to the creator.

This is true not just for the multinational names like Netflix, Amazon’s and Disney. Indian platforms like ALTBalaji, Voot and ZEE5 operate according to the same logic where the quest is to find content that appeals to the largest possible audience. These are also more pocket-friendly for different demographics. For instance, the Basic subscription for Netflix for a month is Rs. 499 as compared to ALTBalaji which costs Rs. 300 for a year.

Whatever be the cost, OTTs are often seen as competitors or add ons to film and television. There is a distinction in the entertainment content they provide. This difference or rather diversity of perspectives is perhaps seen most vividly in the comparison between one subsidiary of a TV company and the network itself– Balaji Telefilms. The ALT or alternative seems to have become a recourse from the regurgitated material we see on TV. A prime (pun intended) example of this is Balaji and ALTBalaji. While the former, meant for TV reproduces stereotypes; the latter, a mobile app and website sets out to challenge them. It pushes boundaries in showing queer romance, and central woman characters among others. While it does have its limitations, this content is far from Indian TV soaps, as mentioned by the Chief Marketing Officer himself.

A factor contributing to the success of ALTBalaji is its employment of erotic content. OTTs are free from the Central Board of Film Certification and hence several censorship rules. However, the formation of an adjudicatory body, the Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC) was announced in February this year. This is coupled with a push for self-regulation. This is a salient distinction as it comes hand in hand with the individuation of the viewer experience. Some scholars see censorship as the adoption of a patronising attitude by the state. Online viewing is highly individualised with its focus on the smartphone and hence the assumption is of maturity on the part of the viewer, provided that details around appropriateness are provided. So the effect doesn’t start and end at erotic content but in general more freedom to the creator, as mentioned earlier. According to Kashyap, the topics “that matter to me: sexuality, religion and politics. These are the three big nos for the cinema experience. But Netflix doesn’t shy away from that.”

It would seem that the OTT platform provides more space for experimentation–both to the content creator and the receiver. That being said, it might not be the time to junk the TV completely, or at least junk it with the understanding that consumption of online content comes, at least in the Indian subcontinent, with a class dimension. While the idea of ‘selling content’ may work for entertainment channels, it is somewhat tricky territory when considering another category of content such as news which in itself is a public good. The question to ask then is who has the resources to invest in what essential are additional sources of entertainment? While data is a cheap commodity, with companies like Jio entering the market with highly affordable plans, viewing online content comes with the ability to pay for a subscription as well as pay for an uninterrupted internet experience. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).