Does watching ‘phoren’ serials instead of desi ones make you feel superior?

Bollywood and Hinglish advertising booming is all very well as is the pride and assertion of your national language and mother tongue, but somewhere, the ‘angrezchhaap’ still does hold its own

Screen grab of a popular show in the 2000s ‘Friends’ (Photo courtesy: IMDb/Warner Bros
Screen grab of a popular show in the 2000s ‘Friends’ (Photo courtesy: IMDb/Warner Bros
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Monojit Lahiri

Angrez gaye lekin lakhon chamche chodh gaye!” lamented a colleague’s wife recently. When pressed to elaborate on this broadside, she responded with disturbing enthusiasm. “Bhai, aisahai, despite the Brits leaving India over six decades ago, uska imperial and feudal impact abtak raha. Fair n’ lovely rules through the assertion of the angrezi language in business, industry, trade and commerce and Corporate India, and the fascination for phoren/phirang models is clearly visible in every area of influence. We can keep yelling about how the ‘phir bhi dil hai Hindustani’ template has never been stronger, but fact is, in places where it counts, English and the phoreninfluence definitely counts.

Ek (how do I explain) subliminal, unspoken but easily transmitted signal of superiority is flashed”. Our blank faces prompted her to focus on the specific reference to context. “Take TV serials. Today the Hindi serials – Woh Un Dino Ki Baat Hai, Ladies Special, Kumkum Bhagya, Indian Idol, Tarak Mehta Ka UltaChashma, etc. are hugely popular across all strata of viewers, especially womenfolk. However, there remains a distinct group of people – my college going kids included – who may not blatantly laugh or mock this content, but definitely consider it vernac, low-brow, populist and un-cool. ‘Oh god, Mom, how can you bear this crap, with its corny, gharelu melodramatic twists and turns and those over-dressed behenji-types going on and on and on’ is what my daughter - once in half amused/exasperated tones – blurted out. I had no answer but to weakly smile… and continue watching.”

The lady’s comment touched a chord and struck a spark. Wasn’t this true of everything connected with one class of people in India? Bollywood and Hinglish advertising booming is all very well as is the pride and assertion of your national language and mother tongue, but somewhere, the angrezchhaap still does hold its own, six decades after the phirangs were handed their hats and walking sticks and shown the door, right? “Absolutely true!I completely understand the lady’s predicament simply because my nephews and nieces are always making fun of me watching those ghatia Hindi and Bengali serials”, admits 40-year-old, Kolkata-based housewife Alpana Sen.

Sen goes on to say that since she lives in a joint family in North Kolkata, she vastly enjoys the world that these serials flesh out in the company of her mom-in-law, army of sisters-in-law and servants. The timings of these serials – in terms of day and schedule – are sacrosanct and nothing and nobody can come between her and those characters during those magic hours! “My nephews and nieces watch those weird English programmes like Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, Dexter, House of Cards, How I Met Your Mother, American Idol, The Big Bang Theory… and beg me to join them. I tried but, frankly, couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying while these kids were doubling up with laughter! Am I a desi ganwaar or are these kids totally westernised and disconnected from basic Indian reality?”

20-year-old Varun Khanna, however, doesn’t agree. The Mumbai-based college kid reckons it’s a clear question of choices. “I come from a middle class Punjabi home. My dad works in a multi-national bank while my mom is a housewife. My paternal grandparents stay with us, so we are pretty grounded and traditional … and hey, despite being a Mumbaikar, my Punjabi is not bad. However, these TV serials really get me! I don’t know what my mom and grandmom (poor Dadaji is also often forced to join them) see in those crazy programmes. So corny, unreal and regressive! The ones my pals and I love, like Friends and Two And A Half Men are really ‘wow’!” Varun is quite cool (although not overtly crazy) about Bollywood stuff, but prefers angrezifare any day. “It’s not about snobbery or feeling superior, but tastes and liking, I guess. I can’t bear to sit through that stuff that mom and dadi so thoroughly enjoy for more than, like, two minutes.”

Fact is, it’s not value-judgment, but many things that are at play here. For one segment, the angrezichhaap does spell superiority, whether you like it or not. Be honest… in a social gathering, office meeting, club, party or even your home, doesn’t a firang’s presence make a difference? When he/she places a hand on your shoulders, converses with warmth and interest, embraces or shakes your hand before leaving (or is muaah!) with promises of meeting again – doesn’t it make you feel real good and special? Also (touch your heart before admitting), doesn’t it psychologically make you feel superior and don’t your friends suddenly look at you with envy and admiration? Chill, because it’s natural. To most middle-aged (forty plus) middle-class Indians, this social intercourse will be special because of the neo-colonial mindset and conditioning as also the rarity of these interactions. After all it’s not like meeting a Chaddha, Singh, Subramanian, Chatterjee, Khan, Kapoor, Khanna, Saxena or Mahapatra, is it?

To women, it’s likely to have a greater impact. “My NGO activities connect me with lots of foreigners, many of whom come across for a meal or coffee. My kitty party friends can’t make up their minds between being bitchy and catty or doubly cute to grab an opportunity of an intro to them. Complex to hundred percent hai! explains Delhi-based ParulAgnihotri, aged 42. For the Friends/Raymond new-age gen, children of a globalised, liberated and consumer-driven India, however, there is little awe but lots of immediate and appreciative connect. They embrace this new age with no baggage and hence are free from the shackles of complex, intimidation or pressure. Siliguri or Sydney, Jamshedpur or Joburg, Madurai or Manhattan, Lucknow or London, kids appear to be more open and cool to a globalised space and subsequently less hung-up or obsessed with things desi.

A direct result of this is their close connect with things phoren and distancing from the world of Indian TV serials. Explains Social Commentator Deep Sanghvi with superb analytical insight, “It’s not about for or against a certain kind of content and nor is it about superiority and inferiority. It’s simply a generational thing, born out of the milieu and environment one grew up in. Research has indicated that the remote of the TV in Indian households is invariably glued to the hands of the (housewife, ma-in-law, aunt) women.

Now, since most need to chill once the chores are done, what better than enter the world of the multi-layered serial, which is cleverly and strategically programmed to play to the gallery. Do they give a damn about the snooty brown saabs who pooh-poohs their programmes? Not one bit because zillions (in whichever part of the world these serials play) wait with breathless expectations each day/night as the amazing, viewer-friendly stories, characters and situations unfold as only they can! As for the other lot – the vocal, anglicised minority – two things happen. For the older lot, it is usually an affectation, a fake posturing to indicate their affinity to the West, be indulgent and patronizing to local stuff and hope that this projects them in a slightly different or hatke superior way than the hoi polloi.

Mostly it falls flat because phonies are usually caught out soon enough! The Gen Next have never expressed their superiority angle while staying away from their mom’s beloved weepies. They have only indicated – with varying degrees of emphasis – their complete disconnect of the material. That’s it!”

Sanghvi is right. Sure, lots of kids may enjoy some of the TV serials and some parents do watch – with dazed looks – the likes of Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, but by and large, even if the dumb superiority angle creeps in, ignore it. Chill, be comfy in your skin. Live and let live ... and oh, do get back to me, break ke baad!

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