Invisible Indians: the cultural upper class

Whether its cinema, television, radio, or print media, there is next to nothing for those in search of high culture


A still from Ram Reddy’s ‘Thithi’ that released nationally in theatres on 3 June.
A still from Ram Reddy’s ‘Thithi’ that released nationally in theatres on 3 June.

The Kannada movie Thithi, released recently, is unusual. It is entertaining and unsentimental. The characters and the writing are set in their original surroundings, so it runs almost like a documentary. The film contains ethnographic material about two castes, the Vokkaliga peasant (also called Gowda) and the shepherd caste of Kurubas, the community to which the scholar Kancha Ilaiah and Karnataka’s chief minister Siddaramaiah belong.

Despite its apparent bucolic content, and because of its didactic nature, it is actually high culture entertainment. This is what makes Thithi unusual. It may not be aimed at them, but it appeals to a group for whom almost no Indian cinema is made: the upper class.

George Orwell opens The Road To Wigan Pier with his observations on class difference in southern England (where London is) and the north, where the mines were. Visitors from India will notice the London working class, most often in their fluorescent green safety vests and hard hats. Their class is distinct, identifiable (those who work with their hands), with a certain uniformity of taste.

The media in that country has long classified itself by its average (or perhaps its median) reader. The working class titles are called the red tops, the tabloids that are so called because of the colour of their mastheads. The Sun, the Daily Star and The Daily Mirror and so on. Then there are the papers that are mid-market, like The Daily Mail and The Daily Express. Then the papers higher up which are defined by their ideology, such as The Guardian and The Independent on the left, the establishment the Times, and the conservative the Daily Telegraph on the right.

The first set of papers is more sporty, but interested mainly in football and very little in cricket. One will find listings and reviews concerning art and ballet and opera and theatre in The Guardian and The Times, though they are ideologically opposed. One cannot find such things in The Sun because its readers cannot afford, and are not interested in, such things.

Of course there are exceptions. The writer Jeffrey Bernard had no formal education, and made a living through hard labour. But he hung out with Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas in Soho and wrote about it later.

The spectrum of British radio stations also follows this pattern of content aimed at neatly defined segments of the population by class. The BBC stations include Radio 1 (popular music), Radio 2 (adult contemporary), Radio 3 (classical music and culture) and Radio 4 (news, science, history and drama).

I have no interest in pop music and I enjoy both classical music and shows on science and history. It is not unusual for me to have these two stations, Radio 3 and Radio 4, streaming over the Internet.

The UK is of course a small place and the population of London, which is the main consumer of upper class content particularly for the live material, like art and concerts and theatre and so on, is only 8.5 million.

India is an enormous place, with many large cities. Yet it doesn’t have enough upper-class people to comprise a viable audience. That is my point. It is invisible. If one scans the media here, this is immediately apparent.

In Europe, the upper class is inseparable economically and culturally. In India, that is not possible because we have never historically had an economic upper class. Perhaps that is one reason it is missing also in the audience.

Even so, however, it seems remarkable to me that a population of such size has such homogeneity and lower-class sameness.

In the US, television is divided between the content consumed by the working class (sitcoms like Two And A Half Men) and that by the urban elite (Frasier, Seinfeld). TV drama is also separated by lowbrow stuff like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Baywatch on one side, and things like Mad Men and the imported Downton Abbey on the other.

What about here? There is no separation of content because there is no separation of audience. When Star TV stormed India with its saas-bahu serials, the ratings were found to be exactly the same in urban areas as in the semi-urban ones. Meaning, their popularity was the same in Mumbai, Surat and Jhansi. This eliminated the need for TV stations to offer segregated content, which they would have had to do if the segment attractive to advertisers was missing. It was and is not.

There is no cultural upper class in India of any relevant size. The readers of newspapers and magazines are separated economically to some extent by language. English readers being on average better off and more likely to be urban than the subscribers to vernacular papers. There is regional variance also and some languages produce more developed material than the rest.

But it all merges culturally when it comes to cinema, television and radio.

Movies like Thithi are like rain on parched earth for the small section of Indians who are tolerant of the popular material but not enamoured of it.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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