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January 24, 2001
The dumbing down of life
Have you noticed how your newspaper has changed in recent times? Have you seen how your familiar television channel has dropped its news shows to focus almost entirely on entertainment these days? Have you observed how the portal you most frequently visited to find out about the day's happenings has quietly undergone a complete metamorphosis and looks far snazzier than it ever did?
If you have indeed noticed all this, you would have also noticed how entertainment has almost magically seized the centrestage of our lives today. The news as you see it now is no longer the news as we once knew it. Tough, brittle, uncompromising. Often difficult to live with. Today's news, on the other hand, is packaged and sold in small, easy to swallow capsules. Smartly and brightly put together in a way that makes it far easier to cope with. There is no soul searing stuff, nothing that troubles you or deeply moves you. It is convenient, soft focus coverage that keeps you aware of what is happening around you but leaves you untouched, unscathed.
Why? Is it because, all of a sudden, we have realised how powerful a social force entertainment is or can be in a society where not too many people are literate enough to figure out the importance of news? Or is it because we are a country where two thirds of the people live way below the poverty line and, therefore, escapism for them is an inevitable pastime? It could be both. But the interesting fact to note here is that even in the US, where the population is almost entirely literate and far fewer people struggle below the poverty line, the power of entertainment has grown in almost equal measure.
In other words, people are not switching on to entertainment only because their own lives are so miserable that they need to escape reality. There is something more to entertainment than its power to compel you to suspend disbelief for an hour or two.
What is this power? What is it that has taken us, at times struggling and protesting, into this strange Age of Entertainment where everything is deliberately designed to escape the authenticity of our lives? Our journalism has changed. Our movies have changed. Our television has changed. Even our books are changing to accommodate this obsession to be entertained at any cost. J K Rowling has replaced St Luke in the bestseller shelves. Jay Leno has taken over from Walter Lippman. Jug Suraiya from Praful Bidwai. Even spirituality is being packaged and sold in bright, incandescent colours. With the Oshos and the Deepak Chopras having made spectacular global inroads, the focus has shifted away from Shirdi and Ajmer.
Our role models have changed as well. Fashion designers, models, movie stars, socialite politicians, talk show hosts. These are the staple of media coverage today. No, not fashion magazines and entertainment channels. These are the staple of mainstream media which has actually gone out of its way to devise special product platforms to welcome them in. So you have city supplements where parties are covered far more exhaustively than they would have ever been in, say, a society magazine or a gossip tabloid. There is a deliberate dumbing down of media. A conscious lowering of tone, to co-opt those who would otherwise fled the bad news.
It is time to recognise the simple fact that what we are observing here is not just changing public taste but a makeover of social priorities. This reflects even in our political coverage. Laloo's antics get far more coverage than his achievements. Chandrababu Naidu's IT initiatives, futuristic as they well may be but which barely touch the lives of the ordinary people of Andhra, get far more coverage than suicides by farmers pushed to the brink by his government's apathy and neglect.
Amar Singh, who sits two benches away from me in the Rajya Sabha, gets far more media coverage for kicking a Congress MP in the butt in a cocktail party than the person who sits next to me, the legendary Nanaji Deshmukh who has created this amazing rural university in Chitrakoot, which has been completely ignored by the media.
This is what makes entertainment the most powerful, the most dangerous narcotic of our times. It is not just converting millions among us into couch potatoes and mindless surfers of the net. It is also shifting us away from our cultural priorities, transforming our lives in many ways that will change the world as we know it. I do not know if this is good for India or bad. What I do know, however, is that it gives hype, hysteria and horseshit a thumbs up.
While performance, achievement and real work get the brush off, as Kiran Nagarkar has recently pointed out. It will do to us what religion did to Europe in the medieval ages. It will slow down the growth of true knowledge and manipulate millions of people into remaining slaves of a system that trivialises their every need, their every concern.
This dumbing down of life in the name of entertainment creates a tamasha out of every event that takes place. And, sometimes, out of every non-event that has the remotest potential to be commercially exploited. At this rate, we will soon have sponsors for the war reportage from Kargil and advertisers piling onto every disaster coverage, from railway accidents to caste riots in Bihar. After all, this is what shows like Survivor have taught us. That there is a thin dividing line between fact and fiction, reality and game, truth and perception and even this is fast fading.
So why have separate channels, separate pages, separate portals? Why not just bung in all the stuff together and leave it to viewers, readers and surfers to decide what they want? At least the advertisers will get a richer menu.
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