You are dreaming!
You are a 40-something successful superstar, struck with middle-age angst, aching to do something different and socially relevant. You flirt with the likes of the Narmada project and Anna Hazare but they turn out to be too controversial.
Then you realize that it’s best to do something within the context of your profession and kill three birds with one stone; do something different, make good money and not waste time learning new “third things” like running or paragliding.
You start brainstorming and come up with the idea of doing a show that highlights socially relevant issues. You start with an episode on female feticide that creates such a storm in the country that a couple of Chief Ministers actually give you an audience. You are thrilled and start believing that you are at the cusp of a new movement.
Other episodes follow in a similar vein. You choose safe one-sided topics that don’t allow counter-arguments. Obviously, female feticide is unacceptable, as are child rape, domestic violence and the practice of dowry. Not having another viewpoint or reasoned debate allows a tightly scripted show, with the right amount of short sound-bytes, keyed down histrionics and misty eyes.
You smartly choose soft targets; people who can’t really fight back or make your life miserable, steering clear of politicians, powerful industrialists and businessmen and people related to the underworld or the different mafias. To back you up, you use a “research” team that keeps passing off small sample dipstick surveys as research or uses material that is already in the public domain.
You are cruising away happily on cloud nine…when suddenly…you stumble. You anchor an episode on the state of healthcare. It is true that commissions, over-prescription of drugs and unnecessary surgeries are all major problems that need to be tackled. But in your newfound glory and power, you forget to double-check your facts and use examples that are ridiculous, wrong or downright untruths. More importantly, the case studies you show have a second side to their stories that don’t get told…you forget that medicine is still a practice of judgment calls that requires both sides to be heard to get to the truth that may still at the end not be clearly obvious. And worse, you actually, unthinkingly, make stupid, flippant statements that create havoc in the minds of patients (for example, those with renal failure) that make most doctors like me cringe.
And soon thereafter, people start tuning out and the TRPs take a tumble. The show, like this article, seems too good to be true. The histrionics…the tears, the raised eyebrows, the tilted head…all become repetitive and predictable. In fact, Jhalak Dikhla Ja and Indian Idol seem to provide more honest entertainment as reality shows go… without all the “socially relevant” baggage. In journalist Sucheta Dalal’s words, “if activism could be reduced to show business, India would not need drastic transformation, 65 years after independence”.
And then you wake up, cold!
You begin to realize that show-business activism is no different from the armchair, one-click activism that has become the norm these days in the era of email, Facebook and Twitter, which, as Mr. Malcolm Gladwell has discussed in one of his long-form articles in The New Yorker, is unlikely to bring in any lasting change in the long term! You also intuitively understand that making a difference in real life means getting your hands dirty in the mud and that reasoned discourse means having to handle a 360 degrees view of the problem with balancing counter-views.
You shake your head. What a dream!