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Sunday, April 09, 2000

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Good Sahara!

FOR all his travails, Amitabh Bachchan is still India's best loved superstar. So it is a little sad to see him singing for his supper, or more accurately, for his bail out. On Sahara TV's inaugural show he danced his heart out, joined by singing and dancing, uniformed employees of this highly unusual corporate entity. Bachchan flogged the "sundar parivar" concept to death, and spoke emotionally about his "dada" and his "bade bhai".

The reference was to the self-styled patriarch of the Sahara empire, Subroto Roy, who with his wife and countless employees were featured in the extravaganza titled "Bharat Parva". It launched a channel which had enough on offer from day one to become a serious competitor to Zee, Sony and Star Plus. It is backed by the Sahara conglomerate whose considerable financial resources are commonly believed to have been deployed to bail out Bachchan's company Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL).

Subroto Roy is an intriguing mix of power, pelf, paternalism and patriotism. Watching him on Sahara TV in its first few hours of transmission brought back memories of a similar show (far less classily produced) in October 1992 which introduced to the country a new media baron: Subhash Chandra. Few had heard of him then. Roy however launched his channel last fortnight with much evidence to show that he has already made it.

That he is powerful was amply demonstrated by the sort of cheerleading he rustled up for his channel launch: a huge double- page advertisement in the Times Of India and some of the pink papers, crammed with felicitations from the mighty in the land. The Prime Minister recorded a TV message for the occasion, the Home Minister told us on the channel's inaugural show what we could expect to see on it, governors of the Hindi heartland joined chief ministers of the self-same States in congratulating Sahara on the new channel, and so did everybody else in the country who matters from Anil Ambani to Saurav Ganguly.

Subhash Chandra, who ought to see the new entrant as an arch rival in the making, was also mouthing pious sentiments: may God give them success, he said. M. J. Akbar and Khushwant Singh chipped in with their very, very, good wishes. All of these endorsements were interpolated in a stunningly slick inaugural show in which India's top film stars performed for three hours or more.

As became evident in the course of his launch press conference, Roy is somewhat taciturn when it comes to naming figures, so how many crores this extravaganza cost to produce is anybody's guess. When Bachchan teams up with Salman Khan and Sharukh Khan to do a 10-minute star act, it obviously does not come for free. There was a galaxy of more than 25 top stars performing in Lucknow's Sahara City, a venue that last made the news when it hosted the wedding of Mulayam Singh Yadav's son. Sahara is a very powerful group in Lucknow which is now only the Prime Minister's constituency but also the capital of the country's most politically important state.

Roy has the powerful cooing about him, and he has the pelf generated by a vast para-banking operation to bring to his media ventures. Sahara boasts of 2.5 crore depositors or as they like to put it, one of every 40 Indians. Millions of very humble people therefore provide the asset base of Rs. 9,600 crores that underwrites the Roy empire's media ambitions. Though they like to say grandly that this "Pariwar" has no "malik", one man's unusual whims govern the entire operation.

One of those is evident on the new channel: Subroto Roy likes to put everybody into uniforms. Not just the airhostesses of his airline who were reportedly deployed as ushers at his inaugural bash in Delhi but also the employees who were in the audience for "Bharat Parva" and cheering visibly on the camera, the former secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Mahesh Prasad who is the president of Sahara TV, and his newsreaders! They all wear uniforms, the men even sport the Sahara logo.

The organisation has a culture of paternalism. It is a clever way to pre-empt trade unionism. Sahara's publicity material emphasises this: six lakh workers and no trade union. As somebody explains it, if I say I am your dad you won't want to oppose me as much as you would if I said I was your employer. Subroto Roy is tirelessly paternalistic, he strides affably around amid a sea of smiling employees who know better than to be heard. None of those who sat with him on the dais for the inaugural press conference including president Mahesh Prasad opened their mouths. And they all wore the prescribed uniform, black suits with white shirts and black ties.

People who work for Sahara are encouraged to greet each other with Good Sahara! a practice that makes journalists pity their colleagues who work there. Actress Urmila Matondkar however was sufficiently moved by her welcome (and possibly her remuneration) at Sahara City to tell us, in the course of "Bharat Parva", that so impressed was she by all she had seen of the Sahara Pariwar that she wanted to say with full conviction "Good Sahara, Great Sahara, Beautiful Sahara!"

Why does Roy want to confer upon us all yet another general entertainment TV channel? During a numbing one-hour, 15-minute lecture to a captive journalist crowd he boomed into the mike, outlining his reasons. He wants to uplift the quality of available entertainment. "I want to play down negative emotions and give a boost to positive emotions." His channel's USP, he says, will be to be more virtuous than the others around. They provide news and entertainment so that they can make money. He does it for loftier reasons:"to get beautiful good thoughts going in human beings".

No movie trailers on his channel, and no teleshopping. He is forgoing these two assured sources of revenue because he wants to use TV time more purposefully. When Sahara TV does a racy serial, it claims it will do so with a higher purpose. To demonstrate that the channel did a long curtain raiser on its premier political drama "Kshitij". It juxtaposed clips from the serial with interviews with people in the street about their attitude to current politics. Sample questions: Do you trust your political leaders? How should the press be used by leaders? Is politics a business that can be handed from father to son? Is the police department independent of the ruling party and the government? These are the issues that keep arising in "Kshitij".

Unlike Zee TV in its early days, Sahara TV is not a patently low- budget operation. Nor is it in a hurry to garner advertising. It has pegged its initial advertising rates high, preferring to wait for advertisers until its viewership picks up enough to warrant its rates. In fact its news production values are a little sharper than those of Zee News today. The cameramen it is using seem to do a better job than those of Zee News. Roy promises more ethical news: "No slant, no flippancy. If there are mistakes we must apologise instantly". Better watch closely and take him up on that, folks.

Vinod Dua has been persuaded to lend his talents to this stable. He does a daily analysis of newspapers at 8 a.m. called "Pratidin", and has revived the old current affairs show he used to do on Doordarshan called "Parakh". Presumably people like him and Arvind Das who also makes the occasional appearance on "Pratidin", do not have to walk around the studios saying Good Sahara!

Subroto Roy has a record of public posturing as a super patriot. He declared in the aftermath of Kargil that Sahara would adopt the family of every single martyr of the war. He cancelled the Sahara Cup match between India and Pakistan in Toronto. His Sahara City has plaster of Paris statues of Bharat Mata. And now this holier than thou channel. Give me Subhash Chandra any day. He makes me less uncomfortable.

SEVANTI NINAN

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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