The Countdown Begins

As the hindi version of the much celebrated series 24 hits the Indian telly, Thomas Crowley ponders over some thorny questions.


As an American living in Delhi, I often bemoan the fact that my country has exported the worst parts of its pop culture to India. Only the most violent, most mindless Hollywood blockbusters get widespread play in India, and only the most vapid pop songs grace the airwaves. Quirky or boundary-pushing genres, sub-cultures and independent productions are pushed aside in favour of bland pieces of mainstream mediocrity.

This trend is particularly pronounced in the world of television, especially when it comes to remakes. In Bollywood, there have been remakes of thought-provoking Hollywood films like Memento. But in the world of television – at least Hindi television – the remakes are concentrated in the horrendous genre of reality TV, with Big Brother and Fear Factor getting the Indian makeover. And, I suppose we should acknowledge that the genre of the soap opera (the current backbone of Hindi fictional television) originated in the United States many decades ago, with the sponsorship of soap manufacturers.

An upcoming remake, though, is hoping to bring something new into Indian television landscape. I speak, of course, of 24, the hit counter-terrorism drama that ran in the U.S. from 2001 to 2010 (and will likely return in truncated form in 2014). 24 has always been a guilty pleasure for me, with its addictive pacing and continual cliffhangers, so I’ve followed this news with interest. Anil Kapoor’s production company acquired the Indian rights to 24, and, in late August, the Colors network released the first trailer for the show, which will premiere in October of this year. While 24 certainly is a departure from saasbahu stories, it has created plenty of drama in its wake.

The American 24 has an ambiguous legacy. One the one hand, it was on the cutting edge of the so-called “second golden age of television” in America, pioneering the use of unconventional narration styles coupled with high production values and movie-stars. The main innovation of the show is that it was presented in real time: each season had 24 episodes, and each episode represented exactly one hour in an improbably action-packed day. No flashbacks; no slow motion; each second of the show corresponded to a “real” second of the day in progress. Other shows had used this gimmick before, but not with the sublime (sometimes bordering on ludicrous) precision of 24; in the show’s dialogues, there were constant references to time, while a ticking clock counted down the seconds at regular intervals. Well-composed split-screens cleverly illustrated the simultaneous plot-lines that were thundering ahead together.

Most controversial, and most reprehensible, was the show’s repeated, intensely graphic endorsement of torture as a valid means of extracting information, often from Muslim terrorists. The show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was, above all, a master torturer, willing to do “whatever it takes” to get what he wanted.

While its technical innovations and clever production techniques were widely praised, the actual content of the show was the subject of considerable controversy. The show’s morals were firmly rooted in the right-wing values of the series’ creator, Joel Surnow. In the show’s universe, militant patriotism and violent retribution always won over civil liberties or peaceful resolutions. Most controversial, and most reprehensible, was the show’s repeated, intensely graphic endorsement of torture as a valid means of extracting information, often from Muslim terrorists. The show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, was, above all, a master torturer, willing to do “whatever it takes” to get what he wanted. This unambiguous support of torture is part of the black-and-white worldview that defines the show; in George W. Bush’s words, you’re either with us or you’re against us.

In this way, 24 departs from the shows typically associated with TV’s new golden age, including The Wire and The Sopranos, which delve into the gray areas and moral complexities of individual characters and larger societies. Both of these shows appeared on HBO, which is not included in basic cable packages in the United States. The channel has used its independence to embrace shows that develop nuanced characters and murky moral terrains. 24, on the other hand, aired on Fox, a network channel that is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. The show has all the subtlety of the hacksaw Jack Bauer once used to sever the head of a scumbag witness he’d just shot. (Yes, take a moment to process that.)

The American 24 is also very much the product of its time. It was a coincidence that the first episode of 24 aired only a few weeks after the September 11 attacks, but the show perfectly captured the fear and anxiety of post-9/11 America, as well as the lashing, violent anger that characterized many responses to the attacks. A New York Times article went so far as calling the show a drama that “that stoked the American public’s fears” in a world dominated by the War on Terror.

It’s unclear how the Indian version of 24 will deal with all that baggage. The initial trailer, as well as interviews with Kapoor, suggests that the first Indian season will hew closely to the corresponding American season of the show, with adjustments made to reflect “the Indian ethos.” Kapoor starred in Season 8 of the American 24, playing the President of the  fictional Islamic Republic of Kamistan, but in the new version, he will play the Jack Bauer-like protagonist, now named Jai Singh Rathod. Like Bauer, Rathod will have to balance threats to national security (assassination attempts on an up-and-coming politician) with threats to his family (a kidnapped wife and daughter). As well as playing the leading role, Kapoor is also hyping the show as a step forward for Indian television, with the introduction of high production values, big-name actors, and new narrative techniques.

Which is all well and good, but what about the content? Unlike later seasons of 24, the first season largely eschews larger geo-political issues to focus on the trials of the protagonist, so the Indian version may be able to dodge some thorny subjects for the moment. But the tone of the first season will still be revealing. Will it wallow in boastful, anti-Pakistan nationalism, like the recent film D-Day? Will it justify “encounters” in the same way the American version justifies torture? Will notes of anti-Muslim paranoia creep in? Or will it strive for a nuance the American show was never able to achieve? Stay tuned. A new guilty pleasure is in the making.

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