by Abhijit Dasgupta,
Paperback: 514 pages,
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (23 February 2016)
ISBN-10: 1530201764, ISBN-13: 978-1530201761
Abhijit Dasgupta's Candid Canvas is a must read for all who are keen on an insider's view of the Indian media. A thick volume of 502 pages, it pinches the pocket at 24 US dollars or its rupee equivalent. But it will interest anyone interested in the evolution of the Indian television media . Not merely because Dasgupta reveals much and his canvas spreads over his long career of several decades, but also because he extensively deals with several crucial issues relating to media ethics like 'paid news'. Experience is the best teacher and Dasgupta makes his points on major issues in contemporary Indian media with a huge range of 'case studies' drawn from his long career, during which he earned the reputation of a Dronacharya or a 'great teacher'.
Candid Canvas is a memoir , surely written like one , beginning with Dasgupta's childhood, as he learns how to swim in Calcutta's iconic (but now overcrowded) Anderson Club on the Rabindra Sarobar lake . The swimming skills would prove rather useful for survival in Doordarshan, where Dasgupta worked much of his professional career. The bureaucracy-meritocracy divide comes alive , as Dasgupta seeks to bare all he knows.
Candid Canvas is rich in original documentation like DD memos ( including some during and after Emergency) , one of which from an Engineering chief asks colleagues to destroy all material shot and used during the Emergency. The memo no P-11/78 dated 2nd January 1978 from P T Srinivasan, Engineer-in-charge of Doordarshan Calcutta says : " As per Directorate's instructions, News Editor, all Assistant Station Directors, Programme Executives, Producers including News Producers and Production Assistant are hereby informed that all programme materials projecting emergency themes and emergency personalities must be weeded out from the existing TV programmes. No films and videos containing these themes already mentioned above should go on air. These instructions should be strictly complied with."
The events he describes are equally interesting -- a DD journalist getting hauled up for failing to show the 'crowds' because he focused his camera only on Sanjay Gandhi at a Calcutta Maidan rally. Here is a lesson for those planning to join the media now because the Sanjay Gandhi phenomenon is threatening to return again . Indian television is now much more diverse but sycophancy is still seen in it as a virtue and not a vice , as the men in power are as publicity crazy as Sanjay Gandhi was and producers and journalists unwilling to run their last word risk so much than only a few would decide to stand up for ethics and professionalism. History, surely in India, has a dangerous tendency to repeat itself.
One could say the accounts in Candid Canvas are often far too detailed and some of it could have been edited out or tightened. The book could have been more interesting with some real tight editing . Some of the DD memos about foreign trips also appear needless . But for someone with Dasgupta's experience, and writing the memoir as he does after such a long career, it is not easy to decide what to leave out and what to include.
The details provided sometimes are fascinating -- like the candid narration about the sweat and fears' that went into the making of his award winning documentary "Khairi" about a tiger. Dasgupta is a terrific documentary film maker , one of the best in the country. The easy flow one gets to experience in his documentaries is somewhat missing in 'Candid Canvas'. He is obviously the master of the film language, not so much the written word.
The author raises the important issue of archiving -- precious material lost to posterity by callous, negligent maintenance of material that is perhaps uniquely Indian. Our way of recording material is essentially oral and even as post-colonial India emerged into a modern nation (have we !) , our institutions and people who ran it never understood the value of archiving. Dasgupta narrates how Doordarshan lost a programme of the well known film critic Amita Malik's interview of Jogn Grierson, the father of modern documentary making. So when Malik got a request from the National Film Board of Canada for material to make a documentary on Grierson, she could not find her televised interview with the all-time great in the DD archives. A callous DD boss told Malik -- Well ji, we were short of casettes here , so we wiped out that interview ."
The other big point that Dasgupta makes is about programming on Indian TV. What he says is so important -- " TV in India follows the West. They take a license and do Indian versions of popular programmes. And pay royalty in dollars. I wonder why they can't create their original programmes depicting our culture and yet be commercially successful . They go by TRPs. None dares back a new horse." So true. Perhaps the lack of desire to create original programmes is manifest in how Indian channels spend so much time in panel discussions -- even 3-4 episodes by the same anchor . A few talking heads don't cost the channel much , a few thousand rupees each with some more expense on transport. Also , as Dasgupta says, channels like to 'play safe' -- so a controversial documentary on a controversial subject with a controversial treatment is better avoided.
Dasgupta brings up another important point of the need for competition. He quotes former (late) information minister Ajit Panja as saying :" If we don't open up , we are doomed. A day will come when nobody will switch in to Doordarshan." Panja went on to say that private channels are India's only hope, they are good for democracy and that Doordarshan has got enough protection.
Yet Dasgupta, quite rightly, emphasizes the role of public service broadcaster . " The role of the public service broadcaster in a country like ours is vital. There are remote corners where people can only afford to watch Doordarshan. Our languages are so diverse. Our cultures are so different. Doordarshan , in general, is fund starved. But now DD staffers are reasonably well paid."
And then comes the observation : The solution is not in selling transmission time. The solution is in providing better content of social relevance . All you need are average standard programmes with only two channel drivers to keep the channel afloat." This public service broadcaster versus private channels and whether government should allow a level playing field or pamper the public service broadcaster has a larger resonance elsewhere in the world ( the BBC versus private channels debate in UK), but it has a totally different dimension in India for several reasons. Dasgupta contributes to this debate rather effectively, bringing up his grassroot experience of coverage and on the question of social relevance.
So even as one wishes Candid Canvas was better edited, it is undeniable that Dasgupta does provide much for anyone interested in the evolution of the Indian television media and about the interesting times in which he lived and worked.
Subir Bhaumik, a veteran BBC journalist and commentator on media issues, and is author of Counter-Gaze: Media, Migrants, Minorities.