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Misery needs industry

Updated August 04, 2013

An acquaintance of mine recently called to ask how one manages to hold a truly objective interview with the figurative man on the street.

She was going around with a video camera and a microphone trying to talk to people on the streets to gather their views on corruption, terrorism and the energy crisis for a research paper she was working on.

I asked her what problem she was facing and this is what the hapless researcher said: ‘They all sound like the people we see on TV channels!’

She added that every time a man or a woman that she tried to interview saw the microphone and the camera, they would go off like angry robots using almost exactly the kind of monotonous rhetoric about corruption, crime and inflation that one hears on TV talk shows.

Her bout of frustration in this regard peaked while interviewing some rather healthy looking middle-aged aunties at a shopping mall. Some burqa-clad, some not, but all carrying huge shopping bags containing outfits, perfumes, shoes, etc., that they had bought at the mall, began bitterly complaining about inflation and how it was becoming almost impossible for poor folks (like them!) to eke out a living.

‘Almost everyone I interviewed on the streets, shops and malls, working class people, middle-class aunties … they all seemed to have a top-of-the-head revolutionary spiel ready,’ she complained.

‘The moment they saw the camera, off they went like radical Maoists of yore!’ She laughed.

I told her that I knew someone else who too had faced the same problem until he finally decided to do the interviews without a camera or a microphone.

‘That’s exactly what I ended up doing,’ she replied. ‘And though it became tougher for me to attract the interest of people to talk to me without my camera, I finally did manage to get a few interviews that sounded a lot more genuine than the speeches my camera was drawing.’

I remember how an old journalist colleague (a Marxist) used to cringe whenever he saw toothpaste or a cooking oil ad using the word revolution or revolutionary: ‘This damn word (revolution) has completely lost its meaning,’ he used to complain.

I’m sure by now the poor chap has lost all his hair considering how these days everyone, from a well-paid TV anchor to a middle-class aunty to a televangelist, the moment they come in front of a TV camera, explode into angry spiels about the ‘ghareeb awam’ (poor masses) and the evils of feudalism, capitalism and western imperialism, all the while being direct recipients of the juicy benefits of all that they were cursing.

I’m sure the ghareeb awam is not amused.

Last year this newspaper ran a series of photographs that showed a reporter and cameraman of a local TV channel getting hold of a perfectly normal looking working-class woman and child. They handed them Rs100 each and asked them to pose as hapless, miserable and broken mother and child who had been roaming the streets without any work or roof over their heads.

I’m sure the aim of the resultant news story had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the channel’s projected concern about the poverty-stricken and the homeless.

It was a sheer cynical move to cash-in on the fact that things like misery and faith draw enthusiastic viewership and thus ratings.

From women constantly shedding tears in soap operas and news reports (with sad violins wailing in the background), to men lashing out like annoyed nihilists, and TV anchors raising and waving their fists at Amreeki Samraj (American imperialism) and sarmayadar (evil capitalists) — all the while being on the payroll of shrewd seths — makes an engrossing and ratings-friendly viewing.

It is a cynical, choreographed gesture that is as real as a well-paid televangelist or a cellular service or a cooking oil TV ad offering spiritual salvation in which faith becomes a product and the faithful become mere consumers.

A very good friend of mine and a journalist, amused and at times repulsed by all the angry red hot noise that continues to emit from TV channels, noticed how even those discussing a cricket game on TV also end up sounding like misery-struck, fist-waving angry Trotskyites!

'Why is everyone always shouting on TV?' He laughed.

He then went on to give the example of a TV ad campaign of a telecom company in which it asks young Pakistanis to boycott silence (Khamoshi ka boycott).

‘That’s all we need,’ said my friend, sarcastically. ‘Angrier, incoherent chatter, when the need of the hour is for Pakistanis to keep quiet for a while and reflect.’

‘Everyone just seems to be talking. No one’s thinking,’ he lamented. ‘But then thinking doesn’t sell. Babbling does.’