Tania Lewis, a Chief Investigator on the ARC discovery project ‘The role of lifestyle television in transforming culture, citizenship and selfhood: China, Taiwan, Singapore and India’ recently returned from Mumbai, the home of Bollywood and a major entertainment TV hub, where she has been conducting household interviews with research associate Kiran Mulenhalli, extending on previous interviews she has done with lifestyle and reality TV producers in Delhi and Mumbai. In November and December 2011, Kiran and Tania conducted 18 audience interviews, primarily with households but also with individuals, from a broad range of economic, occupational, ethnic, religious and class backgrounds (though mainly ‘middle class’), and including a wide range of ages (family interviews often included children and also grandparents).
In the household interviews we often spent two or three hours in the homes of the participating families, watching and talking about television together, sharing a meal with the families and discussing their lifestyles and consumer practices. We were interested in seeing how television viewing (particular of reality and lifestyle formats) fitted in with, reflected and influenced their broader lifestyles and their values. Most families watched a range of reality and lifestyle advice shows from Big Boss (the Indian version of Big Brother) to spiritual advice shows (eg yoga gurus on morning television). Some of the more popular shows currently on in India (and that we discussed with the families) include the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which was widely praised by informants for its educational dimensions and for its positive portrayal of ‘the poor’ (Sushil Kumar, a recent winner on the show, for instance, was from a poor family from Bihar and has since gone on to be an ambassador for a Government programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which aims to support poor rural families in the north). We also, somewhat ironically, watched MasterChef Australia on the large digital flat screen TV of one wealthy Muslim family who described it as one of their favourite shows, pointing to the growing popularity of cosmopolitan tastes around food and fashion more broadly among the Indian middle class.
Such trends might suggest a globalization and homogenization of Indian lifestyles and consumption, and certainly many of the families spoke of the rapidly growing consumer culture that had engulfed India over the past decade and the growing role of western/global brands in people’s everyday lives from the ubiquitous (and very cheap) Maggi noodles, consumed it seems by everyone, to Nivea face whitening products, used widely by both men and women. While these kinds of consumption practices can, on the surface be seen as ‘western’ they are also Indianised in all kinds of ways and our informants often discussed their lifestyles and consumption as being influenced by a mix of Indian and ‘western’ traditions. And indeed the settings in which we conducted the interviews often reflected this, with television sets placed next to religious shrines and furnishings displaying a hybrid mix of global and local styles. And while reality TV is very popular in Mumbai, one of the most popular shows, that many families mentioned (and that we watched with a few families in situ), was a down home variety-style/ advice show starring a Gujarati actor/TV personality, probably little known outside of north-west India—reflecting the ongoing potency of highly localized televisual and lifestyle cultures even in cosmopolitan Mumbai.