- Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India
Purnima Mankekar’s Screening Culture, Viewing Politics draws on the historiography and contemporary refractions of colonialism to produce a richly textured, ethnographically grounded study of television watching in postcolonial India. Mankekar’s ethnography is set in the shadow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s 1980s multifaceted modernization project: “The agenda was clear: on the economic front, a shift from capital goods investment to a consumer economy; on the cultural front, a concerted effort to focus on the aspirations and anxieties of the dramatically expanding middle classes” (p. 46). Mankekar frames her ethnography by showing that television presented a vehicle both for the realization of Gandhi’s modernizing project and the portrayal of the dilemmas and desires of the middle classes that the modernizing project helped to expand. She notes, for example, the dramatic increase in infrastructure and sets; whereas there were twenty-six television transmitters in 1982, the government added 497 by 1991, and whereas Indians bought 5,000,000 sets in 1985, they bought 35,000,000 in 1990.
Mankekar’s focus, however, is on the ways that people watch television, and, thus, the refractions of producers’ programming decisions through the lives of her subjects, lower-middle-class residents of Delhi. In order to approach the bewilderingly complex interplay of programming, genre, storyline, viewer reception, and viewers’ lives, Mankekar draws liberally from ideas of scholars interested in the dynamics of discourse. Mankekar foregrounds the fluid nature of television watching by utilizing the idea that no text’s meaning is ever fixed or final. She conceptualizes television storylines to gain meaning and salience through receptions and uses that presuppose situated experience. Much of Mankekar’s book chronicles conversations between her subjects and herself in which praise, blame, desire, and jealousy emerge in the activity of watching or remembering television programs. Mankekar demonstrates that the emotional stance of the viewer, and how that stance might shift, are informed by the viewer’s own historically changing positions popularly described in terms of class, gender, caste, nation, and even violence.
At the same time, Mankekar shows that television programs that create the space for emotion, reflection, and new class and gender expressions attempt increasingly to connect with viewer’s histories, and their television producers desire to utilize collective histories to shape narratives and construct plots with mass appeal. For example, Mankekar identifies a cluster of teleserials including Hum Log, Rajani, and Buniyaad that revolve around women’s lives. These serials share concerns with changing family arrangements on the one hand, and experiences outside of the family—ranging from the violence and terror of partition to growing class insecurities and increasingly inchoate measures of success in contemporary society—on the other. Concerns about changes in the relationship between the two domains are typical of a stock character of the late 1980s to the early 1990s identified by Mankekar and others as the “New Indian Woman.” Mankekar explains how two causes, nationalism and Hindu fundamentalism, have increasingly utilized the image of the “New Indian Woman” for their own purposes. It is no surprise that Mankekar has worked and lived primarily with lower-middle-class urbanites for they are precisely the group whose insecurities and challenges the discourse of the “New Indian Woman” purports to describe.
Mankekar’s ethnography is theoretically sophisticated, tightly written, and rich with the interpreting voices of her subjects. She makes convincing use of postcolonial theory and cultural studies without falling into the traps of excessive textualism. Perhaps Mankekar’s most profound achievement is her ability to explore the interstices of image creation by television shows’ producers and the lived contexts that enable viewers to create, often together but never identically, versions of what they watch. Mankekar never lets the reader forget that such interstices are necessarily negotiated and never solely in the control of producers or watchers; projects such as nationalism, gendered citizens, communalism, or modernization require vehicles and reflecting subjects.