Do you know Bo, Masau, Nene and Kazama? They are friends of Shin Chan Nohara. If any member of your family is between two and ten, you would instantly recognize the name of the Japanese boy whose shenanigans on Hungama TV are prime time viewing for children. Shin Chan is a precocious five-year-old who gets into trouble, gets out of it smartly, drives his parents up the wall, says the wrong things at the wrong time but is also fairly cute. A few years ago some parents protested that Shin Chan was too naughty and disobedient and hence a bad role model so Shin Chan was banned in 2008, but has since returned.

Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

However, Doraemon and Shin Chan both have real-life counterparts identifiable in any culture—the bully, his sidekick, the loser, the clever kid who knows how to make slugs crawl up your arm or the hysterical teacher. In the backdrop, there is a family track—parents balance budgets, have job issues, fight fat and are always dealing with the ups and downs of life. Adults are often deeply flawed and not always rational. It makes kids glimpse life in all its muddle of happiness, disappointment, winning and losing.

In contrast, the most popular cartoon of Indian origin is Chotta Bheem, whose central character is a smug village boy in the fictitious kingdom of Dholakpur, who has incredible superpowers. Bheem never loses. Not even to Chengiz Khan in one absurd episode. Not even in an informal laddu eating competition with his bête noire, Kalia. There’s never a moment of self-doubt, the writers never make a concession to anyone else’s skills in any field. The king of Dholakpur is an inept and cowardly person (shades of reality?) who depends on nine-year-old Bheem to fight every attack on Dholakpur and of course he returns victorious from all such expeditions. How can life be so straightforward? Even kids know it can’t because they see it every day in school and in the playground. An insightful eight-year-old told me that she finds Chotta Bheem annoying because he’s such a know-all. “How can he always be right?" scoffed her 10-year-old friend.

The other aspect that I find insidious in both Doraemon and Chotta Bheem is the portrayal of their little female friends. Shizuka is a treacly, wide-eyed, utterly feminine classmate of Nobita who is always baking cookies for her friends. She never throws a punch, is never rude or mean or naughty, while the little boys display all of these traits regularly. I understand Japanese society is traditional and this cartoon was created in the 1970s so maybe it is reflective of a certain time and place, but why are we seeing it in 21st century India?

Chutki in Chotta Bheem is the other female portrayal I find unreal. She reminds me of the characters played by Bollywood actors Asha Parekh and Mumtaz in 1970s movies. Rosy-cheeked, giggly girls who sole purpose was to support the hero. Chutki is always cheering Bheem from the sidelines, not ever contributing in any significant way to his victory except sighing and twiddling her thumbs, worrying for him. Or giving him her mother’s home-made laddus, to complete the old Hindi movie similarity.

We don’t want our little boys to think that their female classmates ought to be like Shizuka or Chutki. There’s a good chance they will because the mix of mass media and an impressionable mind is a potent cocktail. It will show up in small ways now like telling girls to take a supporting part in a game. It can show up in more serious ways when they grow up. Somehow all the shows where the girls displayed some attitude—Power Puff Girls, Dora the Explorer, Kim Possible or Lilo and Stitch—are off the air or relegated to graveyard timings.

Why are our children’s viewing choices so restricted? The interesting cartoons like Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Laboratory are aired at 2.30am on Cartoon Network. There are some more dubbed Japanese imports, like Gon, the Stone Age Boy which are truly awful. There is the French cartoon Oggy and the Cockroaches, which was relaunched on Cartoon Network with much fanfare last month. The original is mostly silent and the humour is all visual. The dubbed Hindi one which is currently on air has Oggy talking like actor Shah Rukh Khan and the cockroaches speak like character actors of 1980s Bollywood (Shakti Kapoor etc). These references are completely lost on the target audience who have no clue about these actors of a previous generation. Or there are repeat episodes of Tom and Jerry or Mr Bean which have been seen so many times that even the kids reach for the remote.

TV critics have long been lamenting that the saas bahu serials on the Hindi entertainment channels are regressive and not remotely reflective of reality in speech, costume, story and settings. It is time somebody used some imagination in children’s programming. The channels may be getting the television rating points now because the poor kids don’t have much choice, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve better.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read |Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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