Some eat to live, some live to eat. But everyone loves food. A good meal at the end of a long, hard day can make it all seem worth it. From wedding banquets to celebrations to business deals, food is always around to make its presence felt. Except on Indian television!
A few years ago, ahead of the launch of his channel, leading chef Sanjeev Kapoor had mentioned to us on why he thought a food channel should be in the top 5 channels in India, if not better. He quoted several examples from across the world, of food shows and channels that have surpassed the best of the drama series and reality shows to become the most popular shows in their countries.
Recently, I read this on the Wiki page of MasterChef Australia: The finale of the first season of the show surpassed the previous high for a non-sporting event in Australia since 2001, beating Australian Idol’s 2004 finale. It is currently the fourth highest rated program in Australia ever. It was also the most watched TV show in Australia in 2009.
Food television has made its mark at the global stage, especially when the content has lived up to the standards set by mainstream television. In India, though, food television remains peripheral, almost inconsequential. Food channels and food shows are one of the several genres that fall into a huge bucket called “niche television”. They only get audience big enough to barely keep them going. Not too many of us will notice if they stopped being there on television altogether from tomorrow morning.
We have a fairly strongly food culture as a nation. Our food has managed to make its mark around the world (often in versions that Indians will abhor and disown). Indian food has the variety, the spunk and the uniqueness that makes it stand out. Why, then, does it not work on our own television?
Some argue that our broadcasters haven’t given the genre a fair chance yet. Star Plus came out with two seasons of MasterChef India. They met with moderate success. The second season was eminently watchable and got good audience response. But when you compare its performance to mainstream non-fiction like Dance India Dance, it begins to look “niche” anyway. A third season has not been announced yet. After all, there may not be much room for “niche” content on the prime time of the leading GEC of the country.
In my opinion, there are three complexities that make food television a daunting programming genre in India. The first one is our cultural diversity itself. While our rich food heritage should be a positive, it creates a divide as well. You can’t get an average Indian to appreciate food beyond what he or she enjoys eating. Try selling the idea of good Gujarati food to a Punjabi, and you are almost certain to run into a cultural wall. We may be food-loving, but we are not a food-appreciating nation.
This lack of appreciation creates a challenge for food programmers. How do you create content that pleases a Maharashtrian, a Tamilian, a Punjabi and a Bengali equally? There is no lowest common denominator to address here. The segments are mutually exclusive!
The second challenge comes in the form of the aversion to non-vegetarian food in our mass audiences. A large (estimated 40%+) section of India’s population is vegetarian. Even KFC has started an oxymoronic vegetarian menu in this country. Non-vegetarian food is a taboo for many, and hence, a television show that captures any form of meat being cooked or shown (like in the food travel shows a la The Foodie) loses half its audience base instantly. The research response to such shows can often be: “Usmein non-veg dikhaate hain, yeh hamare culture mein nahin hai.”
Having programming purely on vegetarian food is not a solution either. For one, the top chefs don’t like the idea. It defeats the entire purpose of showcasing variety and spreading food awareness. Also, the sizeable non-vegetarian population wants to see chicken and lamb being cooked to perfection on screen. No compromises there either. Yet another case of two mutually-exclusive, hard-to-please audience segments.
But the third reason is the most interesting one. It is rooted in the socio-cultural reality of our country. A reality that dictates that women in our country spend a large amount of their daily time in the kitchen, preparing three meals and the in-between courses for their families, all alone, without any real help. Remember, we are talking of kitchens that are essentially devoid of equipment that saves manual work or time. It’s a grind, literally.
As a result, most Indian women begin to dislike (“hate” may be too strong a word) cooking very early in their lives. They take great pride in their food, because a well-cooked dish at the in-laws is a triumphant moment. But that’s a triumph that’s more to do with the delicate nature of the saas-bahu relationship, and less to do with food.
After exhausting herself in an unfriendly kitchen, the woman doesn’t want to see a glamourised kitchen with fancy ingredients on the TV screen. That’s a world she will never inhabit. A world she is not even remotely familiar with. A world she envies to the extent that she looks down upon it.
Now, how will this change? Social-cultural reality does not change. It only evolves, bit by bit, at its own pace. The challenge for broadcasters in India is to adapt their food content to the realities of the Indian woman. The chefs in plush five-stars may do well with a visit to an average middle-class family kitchen in Kolhapur or Kanpur. That’s the reality of food in India. That has to be the starting point of truly mass food television in this country. It can be glamourised and made aspirational, but only to the point of not being irrelevant.
Food can never be a “niche” genre on television. Anywhere. It is more central to our lives than almost everything else besides relationships. Any country whose television treats food as “niche” has an opportunity waiting to be tapped, however challenging the opportunity may be.
Some food for thought there?
This post first appeared on mxmindia.com, on my weekly column ‘TV Trail’