Tunguru Tamasha 1: Decline Of Our Intellectual Culture

The voyeuristic obsession of a section of Odisha’s media with the Tunguru Bhola story is not just a sign of dipping standards of decency in public discourse in Odisha, it’s symptomatic of a larger malaise afflicting the state: the gradual decline of its once robust intellectual culture. Blame it on the spread of social media, the ready consumer base for cheap content and the general fixation with instant popularity if you want, but the fact remains that the fightback against the trend has been anaemic. Media houses, which should be resisting the trend for the sake of their own credibility and sense of self-respect, appear to have no qualms about joining the popularity bandwagon.

They would make little effort to produce good content to take on bad content. They would allow no editorial judgement on the relevance and appropriateness of the content on hand before it goes public. Worse, it could be a collective call with revenue being the dominant consideration. And they have a standard excuse for the lapse. Good content, they would argue, won’t find takers in Odisha. The consumers love trash, so we deliver trash. It’s business after all; you cannot ignore your consumers. You have to be mindful of competition too.

That, in a way, explains why the Tunguru Bhola episode would find wide circulation. That also explains why most of our television shows and films remain of abysmal quality. Social media have dumbed down the content-consuming population to a great degree and by pandering to the latter content providers have dumbed down too. This downward spiral makes thought-provoking cinema or shows or even journalism difficult to come up and survive.

While on the topic, a rewind of the conversation this writer had with a director of about eight Odia films would be instructive. Questioned why so many Odia films are crude copies of low-grade South Indian movies, he replied: ”The Odia audience has not matured yet to appreciate quality cinema. Experiments are a risky proposition because the chances of failure are high. So producers stick to what has been working for them.” But good cinema creates its own audience besides evolving the old, I said, asking “What comes first, mature audience or mature filmmakers?” I cited examples of South Indian movies low with pan Indian appeal to highlight the point that quality content ought to come first. An audience does not mature on its own.

He nodded reluctantly, before adding “Think of the budget available to them too”. But is budget such an important factor, I wondered. The new wave of Malayalam cinema is finding popular as well as critical acclaim. Low budget yet intelligent movies are finding great appreciation among Tamil, Telugu and Marathi audiences too. Filmmakers are finding new stories and new ways of storytelling to attract the viewing public to theatres. Budget is a minor constraint if the focus is quality and innovation.

“The passion to reinvent and reimagine is missing in general, of course,” said the director, adding “That is one reason I have quit directing”.

The same goes for the media. Most have failed to re-invent themselves in the age of interactive social media, preferring to go with the swing rather than improvising content to offer quality. News websites are mostly photocopies of each other with similar content and similar approach. Newspapers have done little to arrest the slide in their relevance. The intellectual decay is clearly visible on television. While reducing news to entertainment, the players here have devalued journalism too. Someone must convince them and their audience that the job of a journalist is not to entertain but inform and educate. If people continue viewing journalists as street entertainers, and not people with intellectual capacity, then we would soon reach a point where redemption is impossible. So they must treat Tunguru Bhola-type stories with extreme caution.

Now, we come back to the earlier question: Who comes first – a mature audience or a mature content provider? It’s no chicken and egg question unless we try to make silly arguments to make it sound complicated. The onus lies with the latter. Because they are in a position to initiate and build narratives. The media must discover their intellectual mojo.

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