Big Gora

Big Gora

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A New Direction and a New Favorite TV Show

I'm happy to announce that I'm taking this blog in a different, more inclusive direction. Up to now, I've focused quite specifically on language-learning issues. But the more time I spend learning Hindi and enjoying Indian culture, the more I realize how deeply intertwined they are. For example, my wife and I are now watching the late-80s TV serial production of the Mahabharat; as each episode progresses, I gain a little more mental fluency with Hindi, a little more skill recognizing individual words, phrases, and grammatical word order. I refresh my memory of all the different, often formal/Sanskritic ways to say the same thing: किंतु (kintu) and परंतु (parantu), rather than the more modern पर (par) or लेकिन (lekin), all meaning essentially "but." So it makes sense to me to include my responses to Indian culture in this space. Frankly, I'm hoping this change will also noodge me to post more often and reach more readers.
For this first "cultural" post, I want to tell you about my new favorite Indian TV show. As I discussed in an earlier post, I followed Pavitra Rishta for some time, but now it's gone off the air. I enjoy Neeli Chatri Waale even more!

Here is how Zee TV describes the show on its official web page:

"1.2 billion People pray to 330 million Gods every day, reason being people generally thank or blame God for whatever happens in their lives. There is a perennial search for God. We have all wondered at one point or another, what will happen if we come face to face with God one day? What will we ask of him? And one day, you actually meet God on earth. What if there are no miracles? What if God does not look the way you always imagined him to be? Rather than giving you answers, what if he has more questions for you? Questions that make you introspect and listen to your own inner voice. How will your life change? These are just some of the questions faced by Bhagwan Das, the protagonist of Zee TV's weekend fiction show 'Neeli Chhatri Waale powered by Vinod Appliances who has the privilege of meeting and befriending God. The show explores a unique relationship between man and God as his friend. Based on the philosophy of 'God is within us', 'Neeli Chhatri Waale powered by Vinod Appliances is a light-hearted drama highlighting Bhagwan Das and his relationship with Lord Shivaye who emerges in front of him - not as the hallowed, much revered avatar but as a young, smart, contemporary youth wielding a blue umbrella. Catch Bhagwan Das on a journey of listening to his inner voice through conversations with God."

This is a wonderfully profound and unexpected question to focus a soap opera upon! But pardon me, please, while I disagree a bit with Zee TV's description. To describe the show as being "based on the philosophy of 'God is within us'" is to suggest that the fundamental premise of the show is different from what it is. This sounds like our humble hero Bhagwan Das is thinking deeply, meditating off by himself, "listening to his inner voice" only, not anyone else's. His first name, meaning "God," supports that interpretation. But the whole point of the show is that Shiva truly does exist, truly is Bhagwan-sahib's friend, and truly does talk with Bhagwan about his ordinary human problems. Shiva even tells Bhagwan regularly, in kindness, "You are my most beautiful creation."
This point is all-important: Bhagwan Das hears, sees, and talks with Shiva; that is the given circumstance upon which the whole show rests. Other people don't see or hear Shiva, but Bhagwan emphatically does. He's not an extraordinarily pious/religious man, and he's not delusional. Nor does the show ever explore these possibilities. God is not only within Mr. Das, who (actually) sees Shiva as a "young, smart, contemporary youth" wearing modern clothing, like so.

(Note how this quotation, too, is misleading in the same way described above. So is the hashtag phrase "#DilKiAwaaz": "voice of the heart" or "inner voice.")
Once in a while we see Shiva in his classical form, as on the left below. But most often, he appears as on the right.

Now, ponder this for a moment: imagine Shiva is your friend, and you see him all the time. You can ask him anything. Would you not listen? This is the source of most of the show's humor: Bhagwan Das rarely listens before (comic, minor, temporary) damage is done. Then he'll sadly nod his head and take Shiva's advice, sure, but not until.
Bhagwan is thoroughly an आम आदमी (aam admi), "ordinary man." He invites light-hearted derision, with roughly an equal amount of sympathy. Look at him more closely with his family (and Shiva). He's chubby and not particularly handsome. His son--no pageant winner himself--openly displays disrespect. His father is exasperated with him. His wife looks aggravated enough to bounce the rolling pin in her left hand off his skull.

The atmosphere in his office, not pictured here, is no calmer: he has the moderately embarrassing job (for a proper middle-class urban Indian) of marketing and selling...underwear. His boss yells at him and/or threatens to fire him constantly. No wonder Bhagwan himself quite understandably looks heavenward for assistance with all this. Surely most viewers can relate to some of these circumstances.
So, Bhagwan Das, an ordinary man, miraculously has Shiva as a close friend. Who can say why? (It's not explained, just given.) He has an ordinary hectic life and an ordinary bickering family. He experiences ordinary troubles. In one short story arc, Bhagwan and his wife Bobby become irritated with each other. The husband is convinced that the wife must lounge around the house all day and waste money on luxury items; the wife is convinced that office life is nothing but chatting and coffee-drinking, followed by coming home to criticize her. Piqued, they vow to trade places for a month; the expected amusing blunders then follow--he can't manage the housework or make the money stretch far enough, while she can't stand the pressure at the office. In another story arc, Dad has a heart attack and lingers near death for several days in the hospital, while Bhagwan begs Shiva to spare him a few years more. These very common troubles keep the show relevant and relatable for its target middle-class audience.
Bhagwan has Shiva's ear and assistance, yet he continually disregards Shiva's wisdom. Bhagwan must ignore Shiva's advice if this show is to work as an entertaining comedy. This is true for two reasons. First, if Bhagwan faithfully and humbly followed his divine friend's advice, the show would be essentially religious instruction. The clear message would be, in every moment of the show: "Like this most sensible man, follow Shiva's advice. This is how you do it. You may not be so fortunate as to have Mahadev in your presence, but you have the next best thing--this show. So listen and obey." Indian television already abounds in straightforward religious instruction. There are many "God-man" shows on the air, in addition to the numerous classical/mythological representations of the gods. For example, at Christmas 2012 I took this short film of a TV show (called just Ganesh, I think?) that mostly showed religiously themed conversations between Shiva and his son Ganesh.

Neeli Chatri Waale airs among soap operas and other light entertainment. It markets itself to ordinary middle-class viewers. It's entertainment, not religion. It's purely entertaining (as opposed to instructive) only so long as Bhagwan ignores Shiva's necessarily wise advice.
Second, the show's funniness depends upon Bhagwan's foolishness. You really have to see the show to believe how it milks every little moment for its humor. (You can find Hindi-language episodes, unsubtitled, on YouTube and here at the show's official website under "Episodes.") Every line receives a double-take or funny look; every second line is accompanied by a "humorous" sound effect (exaggerated laughter, the "wah-wah" trombone sound that means "oops," etc.). Bhagwan invites mild, humorous derision nearly every moment by not listening to Shiva. Again, any of us would surely listen to Him if He were right there in front of us; so, when Bhagwan doesn't have enough common sense to do so, we can't help but join Shiva in laughing at him, shaking our head in amused disbelief: "Can you believe this silly human?"
If you've clicked the link to the official Neeli Chatri Waale website already, you may have noticed the "Ask Shivaye" tab. Zee TV offers you the chance to have your own questions/problems addressed by Shiva! I tried it.

I selected "I hate my job" for my example, though that's not true. It didn't seem realistic for me, at age 50, to choose the last possibility--"My parents are forcing me to pick a career of their choice"!

Shiva finally offered a solution--well, a nonspecific, impressionistic solution.

"Apne dil ki awaaz suno, dheere dheere sab kuch samajh aa jayenga," computer-generated Shiva tells me: "Listen to your inner voice, [and] slowly you will understand everything."

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