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
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss