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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

India loses champion of irreverence: the demise of Channel V television

The warmth and wit in the TV station’s mix of music and skits will be missed, as it becomes a casualty of YouTube, writes Samanth Subramanian

MUMBAI, INDIA - JANUARY 13, 2007: Indian VJ Munish Makhija alias Udham Singh. (Photo by Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - JANUARY 13, 2007: Indian VJ Munish Makhija alias Udham Singh. (Photo by Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

For urban Indians of a certain age, the news that the music television station Channel V shut up shop last week triggered deep dismay, but it was trumped by the discovery that V would be replaced, on the Star platform, by a Kannada sports channel. How could the once-spectacular V’s ratings have dropped so low that even the prospects of yet another sports channel, in a language spoken by a mere 60 million people, seem more robust?

Logic, of course, tells us that the fate of music-video channels was sealed by YouTube. When you can call up the particular music and videos you want, any time you want them, why would you sit around watching television, hoping for your favourite artists or a serendipitous discovery? But V’s death isn’t just about the extinguishing of another music-video channel. It’s about the death of a tone and a spirit that India discovered in the 1990s, and that seems not to exist anymore.

Channel V India came on air in March 1994. There were other Vs on Star’s platforms in Australasia – in Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, China – but V India felt Indian, home-grown. It launched two-and-a-half years before MTV arrived in the country but V never felt like a poor man’s replacement, like an ersatz MTV while we waited for the real thing.

The music videos were utterly novel, of course. Suddenly we were watching videos just as they released in the United States or Europe, and V gave them all hefty airtime, taking care that they weren’t swamped by videos out of Bollywood. But the genius of V lay between its music videos. Its hosts were young and irreverent, many of them inventing personas – like Lola Kutty, the Malayali belle, or Udham Singh, the rustic from Haryana – to present their shows. They wisecracked, they made fun of Indian politicians and celebrities, and their English was determinedly inflected with Indian slang.

Their promotional mascots, like the Tamil cowboy Quick Gun Murugan, earned a blaze of fame; Murugan even got his own film, in 2009. Like him, other characters appeared in short skits: two Punjabi truck drivers roving through space in Claymation; Aunty 303, a middle-age woman who fought crime by night; Jawalkar, a parody of a banana republic dictator, who destroyed anything that resembled a V.

It’s impossible to overstate how new this all felt. Just five years before V launched, when cable television had not yet come to India, all we had to watch were channels of the state-owned network. They induce their own kind of nostalgia these days, for the simplicity of their programming, but they were dour and straight-faced. No presenter made jokes at the expense of the establishment; no one was anything but earnest; no one was below the age of 45. Television was used to benefit the people; entertainment, as an objective, ran a distant second.

Oddly, even as cable TV has proliferated in India, V’s brand of humour and irreverence have melted away once again. Bollywood, reality shows and news programmes have swamped most of the channels; many of the others are devoted to 24-hour broadcasts of Hindu spiritual advice. Few channels in English even create original content, preferring to import it from the US. Making fun of anyone – politicians, celebrities, regional stereotypes – risks inviting the kind of organised mob wrath that is currently engaged in blocking the Bollywood film Padmavati from cinemas. There is no sense of joy or creativity in television at all, merely a constant grind to gain ratings, eyeballs and advertising money.

I wasn’t in India when Channel V shut up shop last week. If I was, I might have watched it for a while on its final day, for nostalgia’s sake – but truth to tell, I wouldn’t have even known which number to hit in order to tune into the channel.

The death of music television was inevitable, of course, given the rise of the internet. But it’s also true that cable TV itself has turned into a vast wasteland, no channel particularly distinguishable from any other. All the news shows feature shouting panelists; all the sports channels try to squeeze cricket and football in between advertisements; all the sitcom channels play The Big Bang Theory on loop. I could have found V, I suppose, by starting at the top of the dial and proceeding mechanically, station by station, through the cable channels. But I’m certain that, on my way there, I wouldn’t have chanced upon a channel with even a 10th of the wit and exuberance that V possessed in its heyday.

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