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
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn