India's TV craze dishes up soap and suffering: Tim McGirk reports from New Delhi on a deluge of culture shock via satellite

OK, so who's Mason gonna marry? The ex-nun, Mary? Or Julia, the sexy attorney? Or Gina, the scheming villain who tried to unplug Mason's rich, sick father from his life-support machine?

The vicissitudes of Santa Barbara, a shabby American soap opera, may seem at half a planet's remove from India. But even as riots between Muslims and Hindus blazed in Bombay and other Indian cities, the trivial question of Mason's wife-to-be was fiercely debated among the 12 million Indian viewers who watch this serial on satellite television, beamed from Hong Kong.

Any viewer who guesses correctly has a chance to dine with the Santa Barbara stars, an event seen by aspiring middle-class Indians - the bulk of satellite television's Indian viewers - as impossibly glamorous. More than 10,000 have applied for places at the banquets in Bombay and New Delhi.

And which lucky girl would Mason wed? The safe guess was Mary, the ex-nun. But the Lord, according to Santa Barbara's scriptwriters, works in mysterious ways. A huge sign fell on Mary, squashing her flatter than a poppadum.

Santa Barbara was probably chosen as the premier offering for Asia by the Hong Kong-based STAR TV because it was cheap. Rarely does the cast venture outside three or four plasterboard sets that are as tawdry and phoney as the dialogue. And if actors fumble their lines, as they often do, filming forges ahead anyway.

But the serial's racy melodrama and its twisting plots of adultery, blackmail and sleaze (who doctored Santana's allergy pills with cocaine?), proved to be the correct mix for an audience raised on Bombay's films, full of brash, hyperactive villains.

One New Delhi socialite complained to me that she had had to delay the time of her dinner parties until after 9.30pm, when the nightly episode ends. Satellite television, however, has altered more than just the eating habits of the Indian upper-middle classes. It is not all soap. Indian homes, which can hook up to a receiver dish for only 150 rupees ( pounds 3.40) a month, can also tune in to BBC and CNN news programmes, MTV, Hindi films and a sports channel with professional wrestlers who hammer and pounce on each other with such convincing viciousness that genteel Indians need persuading that it is a sham.

This fare may seem fairly harmless by Western standards. But many broadcasters and intellectuals are worried about the impact on an Indian society perhaps unprepared for this blast of consumerism and different moral values. Rarely in Indian cinema have a man and woman kissed, yet any teenager can now tune in to Madonna grinding out her S&M fantasies on MTV. This double standard for sex is less damaging to the Indian psyche, according to a prominent sociologist, Ashish Nandy, than satellite television's message of materialism.

Even in the slums of Bombay and New Delhi, a few enterprising tea-stall owners have tapped into nearby dishes to keep poor clients spellbound with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. India's millions of have-nots are finally learning what they are missing.

As Professor Nandy says: 'It won't be long before satellite television is held culpable for opening up the latent violence in India's cities.' One disturbing indication of this, he claims, is the new trend of looting during India's recent spasm of religious fighting.

'In Ahmedabad, it wasn't just the slum people who were looting. Middle-class kids joined in, too. This has never happened before.' Religion may have ignited India's riots, but the wide economic disparity in society kept it burning most fiercely in the slums.

The Indian media observe a ban on naming which communities are killing each other, although this has never fooled anyone. The state-run television, Doordarshan, also plays down flare-ups of communalism in order, so the argument goes, to protect the New Delhi government from charges of incompetence, and to avoid fanning the violence by showing provocative scenes. One media pundit, Prannoy Roy, was quoted as saying: 'The government is still flogging television as a medium of propaganda, but technology will eventually overtake them.' It already has. Only by switching on the BBC and CNN were Indians able to learn the extent of last month's clashes, and that most of the casualties were Muslims.

Some government officials complain that BBC and CNN broadcasts may have inflamed sectarian strife. After showing images of Muslim mobs in Bangladesh and Pakistan destroying Hindu temples, the BBC and CNN were accused of fuelling a Hindu backlash against Indian Muslims.

Recently, the BBC's India correspondent, Mark Tully, nearly fell victim to television's power to influence events. The BBC was wrongly singled out by Hindu militants as having broadcast a false report during an attack by zealots on a Muslim shrine in Ayodhya. The mobs beat up many foreign journalists in the hope that one of them was Mr Tully. Meanwhile, in New Delhi alone, 5,000 new satellite customers are switching on every day, as much for news of India's tumultuous times as to find out whom Mason ends up marrying in Santa Barbara.

(Photograph omitted)