Some evenings I bring my grandmother a cup of tea.
She will be sitting in her chair, with her large, square spectacles reflecting light from the flat screen on the opposite wall. I will place the cup of tea on a side table and leave. She won’t look at me because she’s busy watching Vaanambaadi. I won’t look at her since I’m watching a Netflix show on my phone. I leave the room without a word; my grandmother’s eyes never leave the screen.
Here’s the idea. The concept I’m excited about.
What if me and my grandmother both sat down to watch T.V.?
Now, like most Malayalee youngsters, I have never seen a Malayalam T.V. Serial. There are a lot of reasons why my generation never took up the habit of watching serials. For some, it was because teenage life introduced both the internet and American Situation Comedies like Friends and How I Met Your Mother. For others, availability of social media and YouTube meant they could watch clips online at any time of the day.
And then there is the biggest reason of all.
Malayalam T.V. serials are not made for a young audience.
So far, what I’ve told you is nothing remarkable. It’s a situation common all over the world, or at least in three specific regions: Youngsters in India, Middle East and the West, are not watching T.V.
But here’s where things get interesting.
In the West (by which I’m referring mainly to United States, Canada and U.K. though it might be applicable to other countries in the region as well), there is a phenomenon called cord-cutting. This means people in their 20s and 30s are deciding not to pay for the traditional T.V. viewing experience. Instead all their entertainment is wirelessly streamed to their phones and laptops.
The explosion in popularity of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, combined with easy online piracy of shows from American network and cable television means a lot of youngsters in Kerala are fans of Game of Thrones, Friends, Suits, Narcos and The Flash.
But there’s a crucial difference.
Most of the youngsters in Kerala, unlike their counterparts in North America, are living in houses that have either joint family (grandmother, grandfather and so on) or a T.V. with access to all the main Malayalam channels….or both!
Youngsters in Kerala and the Middle East both don’t watch homegrown television shows. But there’s a key difference between the regions. Unlike the Middle East, Kerala has a robust and dynamic film industry. Especially over the last decade or so, new actors, directors and production crews have produced excellent films that are beloved by the audience. Speaking of which…
For almost a century now, America has exerted soft power all over the world through its films and television programs. However, while superhero movies and fantasy T.V. shows are popular among Malayalees, unlike many other regions, we also have excellent viewership for local films. People, especially youngsters, rush to watch Lucifer just as or perhaps even more eagerly than they would Avengers Endgame.
And now we come to the final ingredient required for a revolution.
The reach of Western entertainment is so great that in many countries the government has tried to place restrictions in order to protect domestic producers. The most famous example of this is China, which has a quota for the number of western movies that can be released in theaters.
But no such threat exists for the producers of Television entertainment in Kerala. By which I mean the people behind Asianet, Mazavil Manorama, Surya and others do not have to compete with streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime when it comes to Malayalam serials. At least…not yet?
Isn’t it the perfect time for a T.V. Revolution? Aren’t we as a State ready for a new wave of programming on traditional channels? The youngsters are familiar with excellent T.V. shows in English but still gravitate towards Malayalam entertainment. Our entertainment industry is skilled at producing commercially and critically successful films. There is a distribution network, advertising model and societal behaviour revolving around T.V. programs every evening.
Then why not craft a T.V. show that brings all these factors together?
Picture a political drama. Every episode is 42 minutes, plus ad breaks. There are multiple characters, many played by established film stars like Fahad Fazil, Dulqar Salman and Jayasurya, while others are T.V. actors making a transition from serials. It’s a yearlong story line revolving around a very relevant political and social issue. Let’s say there are three fictional political parties fighting over the problem of women entering a temple (a fictional temple!). Imagine the possibilities?
With a good script that marries the intrigue and plot twists of current Malayalam serials, with the production value and scope normally seen in Western dramas, you get a cultural moment that brings together all members of the family in front of the T.V. screen.
The benefits would be immense. Think of the ad revenue that would be generated from a younger audience tuning in every week? Think of the budgets that would be at the disposal of television channels? Even more importantly, think of the kinds of stories that could be told? The reason so many A-list Hollywood actors are taking up T.V. roles is because television provides a unique platform of expression. You get to see a story and characters grow over the course of one or more years, rather than within 200 minutes. There are plenty of individuals in Malayalam entertainment industry who would shine on such a platform.
Or maybe I am wrong. Maybe things are fine the way they are. Maybe it’s better that several million youngsters from my state spend their time, money and social influence promoting western shows. Maybe its better that T.V. channels stick to the same limited pool of mothers and grandmothers who have seen most variations of stories presented on screen. Maybe the best directors, scriptwriters and actors should only churn out one-off films rather than build iconic characters that live on TV screens for a decade or so.
Or…maybe someone will pick up my idea and make a weekly show called Son of Iyer starring Dulqar Salman as crime solving, rebellious son of CBI’s Sethurama Iyer?
Only time will tell, I guess…