New Delhi : That’s the other K-channel on Indian TV, where theatrical babas and washed-up actors sell viewers elaborate amulets and a few false hopes
“Are people falling ill around you? Does no prospective groom like your daughter? Is your field yielding a poor harvest? Think it’s all just written in your fate?” asks a forgotten soap opera matriarch, clad in a saffron sari. As a plaintive flute soundtrack suddenly gives way to clashing thunderous noises, she appears on a split-screen next to a scrawny man leaping over a fire, dangling a live chicken by the wing, and says, “It’s the impact of shaitani taaqat and kaala jadoo!” But there is a solution, she assures you, as thunder gives way to auspicious chanting. The “solution” is a combo-pack of amulets and charms, the combined efforts of four varieties of godmen, whose beards range from black to the full silvery Tolkien. All yours for a special price: sirf Rs 2,375!
If you’ve ever flipped through general entertainment channels late at night, you’re probably familiar with the strange worlds of “spiritual” teleshopping products, inhabited by babas with photoshopped halos, who hawk gemstones in front of montages of slowly spinning planets, and Lakshmis whose palms spill digital gold. You’d also have seen the Nazar Suraksha Kawach, the evil eye amulet offered by all popular teleshopping brands, including Divyarishi, AAA, and GTM Teleshopping. The kawach, as you’d have seen, is intended to repulse the envious glares of neighbours — depicted dramatically as laser beams that ricochet off the amulet.
Over the past decade, as these twilight zones have proliferated across cable TV channels, Narendra Dabholkar has come to know and deplore these “fraud advertisements”. Based in Satara, Dabholkar, an activist of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ANS), a movement that has denounced “blind faith” for 22 years, wants to get the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ban them under the Cable and TV Network Act of 1994, for which he and his fellow rationalists in the ANS led a dharna at Azad Maidan, Mumbai, earlier this week. “Due to many socio-economic factors, day-to-day life has become insecure,” says Dabholkar, “so people go for baba-bua-kawach. This indicates that the psyche of common people has become weak, and these advertisements make it even weaker,” he says.
Dabholkar’s legal advisor Nirmalkumar Suryavamshi said he has advised ANS on the preliminary legal foundations of the case, and is in the process of compiling a series of clips of superstitious advertisements to discuss their case before Prasar Bharati next month. Should these clips fail to convince, he’ll prepare a petition for the ANS to take to court.
For the moment, most television channels are content with running a scrolling line across these ads, which typically reads, “This is paid advertisement. Viewer discretion is advised”.
Despite our efforts, teleshopping brands like AAA, GTM and Telemart did not respond to our emails and phone calls. One company, Home Shop 18, when contacted, emphasised that it was a “home” shopping channel, not a teleshopping company selling dubious unknown brands. When asked about the yantras they sold on their website, they pointed out that these were significantly cheaper than those offered by other companies, and that they choose not to draw attention to them on their 24-hour shopping channel.
Teleshopping companies effectively combine the mystical with the methodical, and cleverly deploy a “scientific” lexicon to peddle their products. “Can achieve 100 per cent results”, promises the Maha Dhan Laxmi Yantra, offered by AAA Teleshopping, a device that claims to attract immense wealth for the buyer.
The website goes on to note that the “pack” contains “products which are energised by renowned astrologer (sic) by following a proper procedure”. Add a bit of “blind faith”, and a lot of desperation, and this yantra is just as credible as the “Height Increaser”, a pair of blue slippers advertised on the same teleshopping company’s website, which it describes as a “magical device” that helps you grow taller without “going for growth hormone injection, limb-lengthening operation or any type of pills”.
S Govardhan, a BSNL employee in Bangalore, had the requisite admixture of faith and desperation a year ago, when he bought a Dhanalakshmi Yantra for Rs 3,400 from the Indore-based Telemart Shopping Network, which had run an advertisement on Kasturi, a 24-hour Kannada TV channel, promising that it could effortlessly attract wealth. He thought it might help him out of the financial trouble he was in — a botched investment attempt a few years earlier had left him with mounting debts. “But no improvement is seen,” he says gloomily. “They are exploiting people’s problems to make money out of them.”
When he tried to return the product, as the advertisement told him he could do if he wasn’t satisfied with it after 15 days, the company refused to give him his money back. “The man who delivered it to me in Bangalore escaped,” says Govardhan bitterly. “He told us to call another branch, and that branch told us to call another branch. It was torture.” The experience has, however, left his fatalism intact. “They’re bluffing, by offering us these yantras. We just buy them for our mental satisfaction,” he says. “But we can’t prevent the doshas that we’re born with. We can’t stop these planets’ influence. Their timing and rotation have to complete. Until then, we can’t overcome (our problems). We have to suffer.”
Bal Kishan Soni, the owner of an electronics shop in Jaipur, thinks differently. A year ago, he bought the Nazar Suraksha Kawach from GTM Teleshopping for Rs 2,500 after watching an ad for it on a Hindi entertainment channel, thinking it would help improve his business. After 20 days, he concluded that it was useless. “Bilkul kaam ka nahi hai,” he says. “Bewakoof banane-wale cheez hai.” Now, whenever the teleshopping ads come on TV, his wife and two children demand that he change the channel.
That’s what Umesh Raul, a computer engineer with an MNC in Mumbai, wishes he’d done when his mother asked him to get a Hanuman Raksha Kavach she spotted on a Marathi-language entertainment channel, during an ad break between two soap operas. “They said, basically, that all evil things will not touch you,” he says. But when he paid the company Rs 3,600, what finally got to him was a Shiv Kavach, in damaged packaging. “I called the call centre many times, and nobody picked up,” recalls Raul, “until finally, an extra-smart lady came on the line and told me, ‘What happens, god is god only!’ When I insisted that I wanted the Hanuman amulet, and the three gifts which were promised to me in the advertisement, she said I could go collect them from Bhubhaneshwar. We should beware. These companies are not genuine in the name of god.”
“Sirf kaanch ka tukda”, is how Lokendra Singh Yadav, an insurance salesperson in Gwalior, describes the Nazar Suraksha Kavach to be after he bought it a year ago. The advertisements might proclaim it a “chamatkari upaai” (miraculous solution) but he’s convinced it is a “sabse third-class product”, though he concedes that the advertisements themselves are “psychologically effective”, especially when they promise you a solution to prevent your business from deteriorating. Ask Yadav how his business is going now, and he responds, with a laugh: “Badiya chal raha hai. Jis din se woh kawach phaink diya, main safal ho raha hoon.” (It’s doing well. From the day I threw the amulet away, I have been successful.)”