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Madhukar Sabnavis: Where is Indian society headed?

Madhukar Sabnavis  |  New Delhi 

Events of 2005 give some interesting indicators
Are events that occur a reflection of the state of society? Or do events shape the way society looks at life? Are media editorials a mirror of the taste of its viewers and readers? Or does a media editorial shape the taste? It's much like the chicken and egg question. They can be argued either way. The truth is perhaps somewhere in between. While a large number of events and media editorials is a reflection of society and people therein, there are always a few events that change the way society views life and a few media editorials that attempt to drive the way people see life and live it. So it's always an interesting idea to look back on a year of events and happenings and reflect on what they say about the way society is going.
If one was to isolate an event that could be called a defining one of 2005, I'd choose the whistle blowing and thereafter murder of Manjunath, the young IIM graduate working for an oil company. It could be the tip of a wave likely to hit us in the future. The first three decades post independence were the period of idealism. This was followed by period of anger and cynicism. This gave way, through the 1990s, to a more realistic, almost practical generation that believed that you don't have to fight a system but work around it to get your way. For the last two decades, the focus has been primarily on oneself and self-aggrandisement""caring little for society. Manjunath, to me, represents the return of "idealism"""an interesting cyclical turn of a trend that society perhaps gave up in the face of survival and growth since the late 1970s.
If Manjunath was the real hero of 2005, then Sania Mirza was clearly the media-created hero of the year. "Sania Mania" is an interesting phenomenon. Her rise from rank over 100 to 32 in women's tennis catapulted her to a status accorded, till now, to only cricketers. She represents the perfect marriage of tradition and modernity""a Muslim girl who does namaz five times a day yet confidently strides the court in short dresses. She is an icon that girls admire and wish to emulate and boys adore. She also represents the coming of age of "small town" India. Yet dig deeper and she represents perhaps a disturbing social trend of "style over substance". Harsh as it may sound, her on-court achievements are fairly limited and she is more "hype" than performance.
"Style over substance" is what perhaps the two big reality talent shows that hit the tube are all about, too. Talent searches and shows are not new to Indian television. However, Fame Gurukul and Indian Idol have taken it to the masses and made them part of Indian social fabric. The interactivity offered by modern technology gave the viewers an opportunity to judge the contestants, giving a new dimension to talent recognition. There is no doubt these shows have democratised the arts and given the masses a platform to display talents. However, at the same time it has trivialised the arts and made people believe that "singing"""a skill developed by artistes in the past through years of riyaz""can now be accomplished with a few weeks of training. There is no doubt that all new art develops from rewriting the paradigms of the past, but in a format where most artistes just mouth and emulate songs of the past, it doesn't give me confidence that this is the start of a new school of music. It's just a case of stage presence passing off as music performance and transferring specialised skills""singing judging""to illiterates.
Cricket is a good barometer of social trends in India. The big event of last year was off the field than on it""an event that raised the issue of protocol versus performance. After the leaks and the counter-leaks, the board's finally decided to go with Chappell over Ganguly. Interestingly, Chappell had as many supporters as Ganguly; many Indian cricket fans believed that the process might have been wrong, but there was a need to get rid of a non-performing player and captain. This is a clear signal of the opening of the Indian mind against "white prejudice" and a clear victory of performance over protocol. Unfortunately, the later turn of events, with the re-instatement of Sourav Ganguly, reveals that a third P still rules Indian cricket""Politics!
Hindi films are a reflection of society and also a driver of change in society because of their star power. There were the usual hits and misses, the good and the bad, the experimentative and the mainstream stuff. However, what stands out is a proliferation of "male bonding and infidelity films". What started with one hit in 2004""Masti""spawned many others during 2005""No Entry, Shaadi No 1, and Garam Masala""to name a few. Male bonding is not new to Hindi movies, but taking a peek into boy's locker rooms and bringing their "dirty linen" out in the open is a reflection of growing transparency in society and its willing to more maturely accept reality as it is and not brush things under the carpet.
If growing transparency is a healthy trend, then intrusion into private spaces and the disappearance of privacy are a growing menace in society. The growth of technology, which allows for quiet intrusion and the proliferation of media with a desperate need for software to generate TRPs and readership, has spawned a phenomenon of people intruding in the name of public good. Whether it is hidden cameras to establish the existence of the casting couch or the "pornographic" MMS circulated for the vicarious pleasure of a few, they reflect the growing intrusion of private lives. And this is likely to spawn a feeling of distrust in society""which works at cross-purposes with the otherwise "confident" new generation.
We live clearly in complex times""in a society where paradoxes co-exist and where trends and counter-trends operate simultaneously. If brands are about satisfying human inadequacies""physical and mental""opportunities exist to explore and manage these contradictions.
Something worth thinking about.
Madhukar Sabnavis is Board Partner-Discovery and Strategy, Ogilvy and Mather, India. The views expressed are his own.

First Published: Fri, February 03 2006. 00:00 IST