As I sit writing this piece against the backdrop of a year that has just begun, what comes to mind is the immense change taking place all around us. Everyone in the country has a mobile phone. India has more than a billion phones, second only to China. Almost 240 million people have television sets in their homes. However erratic the supply maybe, almost the entire country has electricity. The country has already overtaken Britain to be the world's sixth-largest economy.
The country has largely eliminated problems such as famines and pandemics. True, India still figures way down on the UN Human Development Index, but I am confident the country will climb the ladder over the next five years. Actually, India's growth story started in 1991 during Narsimha Rao's government and has continued without hindrance from then except for a five-year hiatus seen during Manmohan Singh's second term. Growth will soon return fuelled by a billion-plus aspirations.
Today, we see a vibrant India on the move on two-wheelers, in cars or in large cities in large metros. Yes there are environmental concerns, traffic jams and other snafus but the elephant has not only woken up but also begun to amble. There are malls, multiplexes and amusement parks. With over 500 channels to choose from, Indians are watching more than two-and-half-hours of TV every day. There are several FM stations to enjoy music around the country and we are making more feature films than ever.
Sources of entertainment
Thematically there is no substantial change. TV is now the medium of the masses. Eighty per cent of an estimated 600 million TV audience watch entertainment shows. The plots are age-old family melodramas with an occasional attempt to be progressive. The acting has improved but production design and looks are still fake. There is a lot of stand-up comedy and several talent-hunt programmes based largely on international formats. The bane of Indian TV is lack of innovation.
Whenever there is an attempt to be different like the recent Ted Talks on Star Plus, (why this Sanskritised Hindi, which all participants and Shah Rukh Khan speak) or some programmes on Epic, History and National Geographic channels, it gets marred by infantile scripting or use of bad language among other things.
About 20 years ago a pressure-cooker was the only gadget you could find in Indian homes. Now besides gas stoves (piped gas in many cities), mixies, microwaves and even washing machines are common. The wealth distribution may still be skewed but incomes and spending power are rising across board. Unfortunately, we still have starvation deaths and malnutrition and even an occasional epidemic but by and large, Indians are healthier and living longer.
Rarely do I see a labourer moving barefoot in town. There may be long lines in public hospitals but at least some form of medical help is now definitely within reach for most Indians.
Education and health, however, still remain sectors in need of attention. We also need to re-skill a whole generation of digitally ignorant people for the new economy. Who would have thought media, communications, hospitality, organised retail and information technology would become the first choice for generation Z (millennials)? When I started India's first integrated media and entertainment company in the early 1990s with 50 per cent staff as women, it was seen as an anomaly. Today you can walk into any media office and see smart women calling the shots. In banking and finance, Indian women have been among the first in the world to break the glass ceiling.
Today, you have a large number of women not just in civil services but also as engineers, doctors, accountants and scientists. Even police, Army and now Navy and Air Force have several women. Yet sadly, misogyny continues.
The classic Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) or the traditional joint family is also changing. There are more nuclear families than ever before, but in most cases the traditional Indian family across social and economic strata remains closely knit. Festivals like Diwali, Pongal, Onam, Durga Puja, Eid and Christmas are still celebrated together.
Double income, no kids (DINKS) couples are no longer limited to foreign countries, they are here in India too. Investment options like mutual funds are gaining traction. (Indian investors have pumped in $50 billion so far. Despite a high interest rate regime, everything from college education to mobile phones is available on Equated Monthly Instalments - EMIs.)
About 30 million Indians use credit cards and over 80 million debit cards for transactions. Over 100 million use mobile wallets to pay for many of their purchases. I have no doubt that within a few years, most Indians would be using cashless transaction in their day-to-day life. Malls and multiplexes and restaurants are symbolic of the Indian consumer culture. Frugality has given way to profligacy but India's propensity to save remains intact.
Popular culture is the best yardstick for the health of a nation. Indian culture in undergoing a cataclysmic change where tradition and modernity are like two giant subterranean plates rubbing against each other causing turbulence.
Patriarch and misogyny are being challenged but are such deep-rooted evils that it's taking a lot of time to move the cheese. Our TV serials, giving a glimpse of regressive values, continue to raise their ugly heads. Fortunately, films are presenting a more progressive picture. Indian literature and folk art are in revival mode, albeit slowly. There are more Indians learning classical music and dance than ever before and the concert circuit is thriving. Indian advertising is finally discovering the power of communicating in regional languages and Indian ethos.
Indian sports, including the national obsession, cricket, are now on a high growth trajectory despite political and bureaucratic bungling. TV has suddenly highlighted neglected sports such as kabbadi and badminton, with the help of the performance of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and K Srikanth. Wrestling, soccer and hockey too have been helped. More youngsters, even from poorer sections of the society and smaller towns, are taking up sports as a career.
Films remain the glamour quotient of the nation. Bollywood continues to wholeheartedly love the Khans, who still dominate the industry. Ranveer Singh and Varun Dhawan are the new favourites and Tiger Shroff is the new kid on the block. Akshay Kumar has the hits. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan are the acting stars. Tabu, Vidya Balan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Radhika Apte and Richa Chadda are the go-to actresses for offbeat films. Shabana Azmi continues to be the grand dame of acting and Great Bachchan the star of all seasons. Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt, Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif are the reigning queens with Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut being the outliers.
Despite lower traction, some brave films such as Lipstick Under My Burkha, A Death in the Gunj, and Newton do get made. Tumhari Sulu, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Bahubali 2, Tiger Zinda Hai, Golmaal Again, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Fukrey remain hits.
Rise of nationalism
The rise of nationalism around the world is another imponderable. I may be part of the small minority who feels that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Many incidents of terror, ethnic and communal clashes are being reported but overall there is far less turbulence than 100 years ago. Yes vigilantism is on the rise and must be stopped and ethnic and communal divide must be curbed. The Left domination of intellectualism in the last 100 years has left very little for alternate thinking on politics and economics. This has caused a lot of social dissonance among the liberal elite of the country.
In these hypermedia times, governments don't have to only govern sensibly but also appear to be doing so. Irresponsible statements over incidents such as lynching and crimes of hatred by politicians have to stop. Divisive politic and rabid nationalism do more harm than good. People must be free to eat, drink, read, write, watch and wear what they want. Indian culture, especially popular culture has thrived in its diversity and plurality. Any attempt to disrupt this will be counterproductive.
Some of our regular peeves will stay. We will continue to break traffic and other rules. We will continue to litter. We will continue to spit and men will continue to urinate against walls.
We will continue to molest and be sexist. We will see hundreds of fake babas con millions of innocent followers. We will continue to be obsessed with the "imported" stuff. We will continue to dance on streets on every festival and play loud music well into the night. We will continue to break queues. We will continue the tryst with dynastic politics and nepotism. We will continue to grumble. We will continue to poke our nose in the affairs of other people. We will keep abusing on social media. We will continue to rename our roads and towns and states. We will remain obsessed with Pakistan. Our biggest passions will remain religion, cinema and cricket.