Audience Hazir Ho

Soumabrata Chatterjee interrogates the relationship between law and popular culture with reference to India’s popular television show – ‘Aap Ki Adalat’.

In his Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies, David Morley tries to look at television not as a model of infotainment but the act of viewing it. What he attempts to underline is that while every kind of televisual practice invokes certain cultural codes, which are accessible and attractive to specific groups, and this is further dictated by class, gender or any other social category, there is an everyday practice of viewing television, which is about re-appropriating that space which is not available to a certain group. What Morley tries to do is move out of a more individual centric approach and attempt to make the family or household the primary unit of understanding television culture. Such a study would show us that the switching on of television does not mean the content being watched all the time. This eroded the view of a free, rational individual choosing to see what they want without any kind of hindrance. It can be quite gendered like if the father controls the remote most of the time or it can be a different kind of hegemony with parents dictating when their children should ideally watch television.

As an avid television viewer myself, I can share certain notions that Morley comes up with in his analysis of the impact the idiot box has on our lives. From growing up on cartoons and most definitely Shaktimaan, to Ekta Kapoor serials and finally the MTV generation, my life has been interspersed with televisual practices to a great extent. In fact, the reason behind my saying that television forms a part of our lives is that I can very easily chart the growth of television along with my preferences in the visual medium. I am the generation which was exposed to the Doordarshan phenomenon, with DD-1 and DD-2 being the only channels you could see at that time. Then came cable television, but one that had paid and free channels and it was not easily available for the lower middle class people to afford that. I didn’t have a cable television till I was in my first year of college. And now is the age of satellite television where you can watch American TV shows premiere on the same date they are doing in their own countries. Our televisual content is being catered out to their television as well.

While every other medium of communication, be it press, or single screen movies have suffered at the hands of the rise of the Internet, television has held its place. And it has nothing to do with the content at hand. Rather, it has incorporated itself into the shared imagination of the viewer, and stopped promoting itself as a luxury product.

While going to the movies is still a ritualistic endeavor with “having fun with friends and family” being the ideological motto behind it, television is an integral part of our everyday lives and it is not just its easy accessibility but also its mass appeal to different existing trends in the country.

Another issue should also be highlighted here. Along with the televisual practices being sometimes dictated by questions of Indian-ness there is also the question of a certain ‘language hegemony’ in place. Television has been, historically, the major tool through which Hindi has been made into being the most popular language in terms of its consumption and its production of knowledge structures. Let me try to give an example. The predominantly English-language TV channels like HBO, or Star World or Movies Now probably do not cater to a lion’s share of our population who are not well-versed in that language. Yet there have been channels now, which has taken up English films and dubbed them for the benefit of the Hindi speaking audience. In fact, Cartoon Network in the early 2000s was not a Hindi language channel but there do, of course, exist versions, which refute that fact now. What is happening here is that the content of such TV shows or films have been marketed to the Indian mass providing a much needed break from the formulaic Ekta Kapoor serials which dominated the major part of the decade.

The TV viewing culture is in a symbiotic relationship with the Indian public and while it is inspired by what content analysis dictates to be its ideal form and content, it also constructs an Indian identity which highlights certain aspects of Indianness.

All these questions become extremely important factors when we are trying to question this interpersonal relationship between law, legality and popular culture.

The representation of law, legal procedures and ‘legality’ in Indian television and films has mostly been dictated by a popular sense of civic code and public opinion. The most obvious example can be that of ACP Pradyuman who seems to have made a career out of allowing Daya to break down doors and the finally charging the criminal with a death penalty at the end of the episode. It does not matter that he is just a police officer and has no say in such juridical matters. The public seems to love it, and the ACP performs what they desire the most. The general perception about police officers being late to the event and being generally unreliable folks seem to be undercut by these honest officers who are die-hard fans of their boss. What occurs on screen is a mythologisation of what the police should stand for: tech savvy, smart patriots who can do anything to save their country.

The police are stripped from their basic politico-legal status of being the sworn guardians of law as a written ‘text’ and urged to conform to what the popular cultural practices dictate them to do. In a way, they stop being emblematic of the repressive state apparatuses that Althusser talked about and become icons of moral and ethical superiority.

It is their potency as political agents that make them so desirable in the public eye. Their popularity has soared to such heights that they even host CID Veerta awards (formerly known as CID Gallantry Awards) annually to reward those ordinary people who have risked their lives to save somebody or fought a social cause.

This alternative vision of legality exists simply as a supplementary framework. This framework allows the citizen in a modern polity to identify with certain symbols of governmental apparatuses. The similitude is so strong that these actors (at least the three main actors) do not get any substantial parts in films. The recent example of that is when Dayanand Shetty was cast as a police officer in Singham Returns. But what keeps this show running and popular for over 18 years now? It is definitely not the plot structure, the narrative quality, or the directorial innovations. Maybe because it provides an alternative reality which affords the public to expect some thrills and rudimentary parlor tricks and also satiate them with a happy ending.

The relationship between law and popular culture then has to be located in the domain of desire.

Popular culture seems to be entwined quite inseparably with an ‘aesthetics’ of desire which not only reorients our sense of reality but offers a supplementary, more fulfilling alternate version of the same.

The political life of these shows is posited on the possibility of being otherwise, of imagining a better world in the constructed space of the televisual screen. However, time, space and a certain sense of the political are not abandoned for a transtemporal and transhistorical view of what ideal public life, civic code and nationalism should be. Instead shows with ‘legal cultures’ in it seem to make it a point about their rootedness and their national allegiance. Shows like Adaalat, or Crime Patrol are examples of just that.

When it comes to Aap ki Adalat however, it is a slightly different story. Rajat Sharma is as much a popular icon as the show itself. In some ways, if Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan come to celebrate the 21 years of a show, it is in some ways more special than others. And the reason behind mentioning these stars is because they sort of signify a certain popular cultural obsession with celebrity fetishism and superstardom in India. It would make my case even stronger if it is noted that among other guests, the current Prime Minister and President of India were also present. This show, for me, is not just another show with certain embedded notions of legality in it. In fact, this show employs certain tools to portray the oft-blurred lines between journalism and entertainment, between law and citizen, between popular conscience and ethicality, between structures of power and their representatives, between theory and practice. In doing so, I wish to show that this show stands for that unpredictable element of everyday life that often traditional political theory dismisses from its radar but which slowly and surely foregrounds a different version of what the political can be.

But some terminologies need to be clarified first. By law I do not only mean the written social contract (in the form of the constitution) which exists between the citizens and the state. I would also like to signify certain cultural practices which have acquired a hegemonic status over the years. These cultural practices, be it casteism, or racism or communalism form the implicit codes of conduct when we act and react towards each other as fellow citizens. By ‘legality’ I generally mean a certain transfiguration of law and power as it appears in a social context. It is not random but not completely constructed as well. It is about certain autonomous agents who come together to enact a portion of legal procedure in a fictional space.

The show is not only popular for its content and unique style of narration but also for its host, Rajat Sharma. His story from rags to riches is the perfect symbol for the public to identify with and make him one of the household names. He stands for a certain classic neoliberal dream of the subaltern making big in the quasi-capitalist economy of India.

This is one of the reasons why he has been grouped with the biggest names in political journalism right now – be it Rajdeep Sardesai, or Tavleen Singh, or Ravish Kumar. Always armed with a wily smile, his sharp wit, his point blank questions, his notions of secularism and ethicality which he keeps referring to in multiple interviews – he represents the middle class dream of occupying a space where he is not usually allowed. He relates this story in multiple interviews which encompasses whatever constitutes his public image. The story goes something like this: he used to go to a house in the neighborhood to watch a TV show. One day, the occupants didn’t allow him to watch it at their home. The door was closed. So Sharma apparently came home crying and witnessing that his father told, “ Doosre ke ghar mein kisi teesre ko dekhne jaate ho. Agar dum hai to khub ko uss mukaam par pahaunchao” (You go to the house of a second person to watch a third person. If you have guts, then try to achieve that platform). According to me, this story forms the kernel of what popular culture is. It is not always transgressive nor does it always talk back to an elitist notion of culture which always excludes the ‘other’ from its purview. Rather, the location of popular culture is in the everyday culture and habits of ordinary people and how they employ certain strategies of spending their time.

In fact, time has to be a key factor here. In fact, Edward T Hall made this distinction between monochromatic and polychromatic time. Monochromatic time is that which requires serious planning and execution and it is about doing one thing at the same time. On the other hand, polychromatic time values human interaction and proximity to be one of its major driving forces. One is quantitative and the other is qualitative. In another sense, one is quite calculable, programmable and can be located from its starting to its end point. Polychromatic time is about enjoying the time itself. It values the process more than the product itself. In a way, a TV show like Aap Ki Adalat employs both of these categories of time and it is in this zone of interaction that it flourishes a different aesthetics of watchability. So of course the show has some elements which are preconceived. The way the star will enter, the questions themselves, the interactive process which is almost a perfect dramatisation of genuflection in most instances, and of course the time itself. There is a larger finesse attached to the product which is the final output and how it is saleable to an audience which is behind the camera. But there is also a well-thought notion in masala films and reality shows alike about having a good time. It is that qualitative aspect of it which underlines the polychromatic time. It is about togetherness, about viewing celebrities as nothing except normal people, and their superstardom being a manifestation of what the public thinks about them. But it is also from that stage where the legitimisation arises for a show like Aap Ki Adalat. It is the ultimate judgment day and everything you might have done in your real life can be forgiven if you just get over with your fans.

A show which is scripted like Aap Ki Adalat employs certain tools of recognition to further this simulative framework of a courthouse. But there are certain nuances which undercut such a simulation. In doing so, it does not make the show seem like a phony but the artificiality of the whole process makes it appear more real. The architectural framework of the show is quite interesting and can be read as a text itself. The set models itself on a real courthouse; there is the central elevated podium where the judge sits. There is the typist who records the proceedings of the show. And then is of course the celebrity who is charged with those accusations, which he then tries to refute through admission of guilt or through rational statements. But there is a slight difference here. While the way the court starts is quite traditional, with the judge allowing the proceedings to begin, the stances of all the people involved are a mix of repetitiveness, of absolute immobility, and excitement. The judge, who is a celebrity himself, feels obligated to say something nice about the participant at the end of the show. And it becomes extremely tongue-in-cheek when the judge praises Raj Thackeray after he has blasted the idea of secularism throughout the show. While there is this pretence of the show imitating a real courthouse which stands for the constitution and its principles, it is these statements of religious intolerance and regionalism and physical violence that gets cheered on by the present public and the extended public outside the TV show.

The show is quite self-reflexive in a way that it opens up the popular question whether the legal and political procedures in India are really open-ended after all or are they destined for a pre-designed end.

In a way, televisual culture designates this abstract kind of popular imagination which comprises of the partaking of different ideas, and opinions and inside jokes. The show, if viewed by a person who is not a cultural insider, wouldn’t understand the nuanced nature of representation in this show. The accused is supposed to defend himself and is in a position which should have a vertical relation with the so-called government lawyer and the judge. Yet it is he who sits comfortably in a chair, and scoffs at the journalist asking him questions. There is a definite ideological stand of Rajat Sharma who says he stands for jaanta ki awaaz (the voice and concerns of the audience). It is in this way he makes a conscious distinction between his assumed role as a lawyer who represents law as an institutional practice and somebody who stands as the representative of public opinion. His role as a journalist and a lawyer is legitimised by this constructed consensus, which in fact, creates the category of the viewer. The viewer is always intended, hinted at and even referred to on multiple occasions as voters or fans. The viewer is never individuated except if somebody from the present audience asks a question or compliments the celebrity. It is this kind of partaking, for the viewer as a public, in influencing the questions and being influenced by it, that prompts the show to become such a favorite over the years.

Aap Ki Adalat thus underlines the performative aspect of journalism which is slowly being talked about now. The content of such a show is pre-decided except for some instances where the already constructed texture falls through and a new kind of textuality emerges. Even the audience is, as in most reality shows, an artificially created motley of people rather than a spontaneous agglomeration. So as per expectations, they clap to whatever the celebrities say.

This is not journalism. This is entertainment in the disguise of journalism. It always has been so.

What is even more interesting is the coincidental relationship between Rajat Sharma (as a boy) and the television set and how it played a role in the formation of his dreams. This just pronounces the oft-repeated idea that television, going beyond its ideological limits, has become a form of identification. Coming back to India TV, it was launched with a support system that boasted of Tarun Tejpal (of Tehelka fame and now a sex scandal), Madhu Kishwar and Maneka Gandhi. In an article, the Hindu reports that it had world class facilities and news rooms designed for audience-based TV shows. The ‘public’ was always a part of the larger marketing imagination of the Rajat Sharma. Therefore an understanding of the public is very important for us to delineate Sharma. Another TV show, in the same channel, Aaj Ki Baat however takes on the identity of austere journalism with Rajat Sharma as its host. This show attempts not to be entertainment-driven but cater to the average viewer who turns on the TV every night to keep in touch with the political upheavals in the country.

Television has become an indispensable part of our private lives and our public identity. We mention saas bahu serials as it features in our staple conversations, and we chat about news which are weird but funny about politicians watching porn films in the Parliament and we gossip about our film stars and their alleged link-ups.

Political motifs get defined around press, as and when we understand that a certain channel espouses a certain well-defined partisanship with a political party. Politics here becomes both a question of representation and of becoming and of self-fashioning but also of the institutional form of electoral politics.

Aap Ki Adalat, in all of this, occupies a curious space of intervention or of collage. It does not transgress but it is not like anything else either. In its putting together of different genres, and styles of political journalism and entertainment, it proves beyond doubt, that mass culture does not always deal in commodities or cultural fetishism, but also in innovation and experimental techniques to “be more fun”. It is this category of “fun”, with all its ideological baggage that keeps on coming to the fore in many television networks in neo-capitalist postcolonial societies. It is the show’s legitimisation to carry on a more muddled form of journalism that cannot be kept in airtight categories. It is the politics of overspilling into the other, of ‘over-familiarisation’ and of intimate engagement.

Soumabrata is a research scholar in English Studies at JNU.

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