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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee