Mapping the Maze - Research at the Heart of Storytelling
Industries worldwide are working overtime, churning out content non-stop like rabbits having a field day in a bid to outdo each other. Minds have become ‘comfortably numb’, overdosing on all the confusion and constant stream of information... or is that too cynical a view?
Should content be reflective of the disarray that is our reality, as opposed to creating a delusion of smooth sailing? We are constantly trying to make sense of what is happening around us. Can content today at least begin with addressing the elephant in the room? Asking the right questions (if not giving the answers) that will lead to social engagement and participation, and to the building of relationships that will further innovations?
The public is wising up to the same old gimmicks of the industry. There is a need in the market for fresh, relevant content. How do we make this possible? What is the backbone of any well-made piece of content? Is it the format of storytelling? Is it the attention to detail? The answer lies in a permutation of all of these and more - in research.
Research and entertainment are two seemingly antagonistic forces. But a clash of both these worlds can create an impact that holds insurmountable promise. It goes both ways - research can be told better with a story, and stories are told better when backed by research. Both combined have something invaluable to offer - insight.
Research by itself sounds passé, but if you consider it truly it can do a lot - it documents and learns from what has been, it presents hard facts and finds ways to subvert the facts that need to change; it makes the process of ideation more complex and topical. Ideation cannot be a single-pronged strategy but requires the participation of several minds and perspectives, a fleshing-out, a layered understanding of the whys and hows of what works and what doesn’t. It becomes important to note here that research is not simply a bookish interpretation of texts and contexts but is also based on experiential knowledge and calls for a more hands-on approach on the part of all involved to probe further (research brings these findings together into a coherent, referential structure). There is also a need for scholarly research to become more accessible to the public; to become more than just academic jargon and over-intellectualisation of issues to the non-experts. Media - and more specifically, entertainment - hold the key to this.
Stories or stereotypes?
India’s obsession with international rankings and quantity over quality has paved the way for the kind of development (even within the media industry) that occurs at the cost of the dignity of most, especially the underprivileged. Cultural and historical misrepresentations in content has led to the crystallisation of harmful stereotypes and systemic inequalities.
No, we are not simply a country of laddu-gulping, Ganesha-worshipping, call-centre going individuals. We are not all cow-worshipping vegetarians, we don’t greet each other with 'namaste' every time we meet, we are not all poor and we are not all rich. Dev Patel is only one of the MANY faces from this country, bigots as well as non-conformists are aplenty and Hindi is not our national language. We are a nation of diverse and even opposing cultures, ideologies, religions and economic standings. And this diversity is underrepresented if not misrepresented in popular media.
Indian media houses tend to align ‘quality’ with the west - as is evident from the instances of blatant plagiarising… read Chachi 420 (Mrs Doubtfire), Kaante (Reservoir Dogs) and more recently, Barfi (which takes bits from not one but several movies). The potentiality and diversity of homegrown stories has gone unaccounted for, or misrepresented. With research, we can attempt to give context to the 'farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies' (as politician Shashi Tharoor tweeted, confounding a vast majority of Indians) that popular media is ablaze with.
Instinct isn’t always insight
If we consider the example of any other industry - be it literature or fashion, furniture-making or food - nothing is formulated without bearing certain objectives in mind. Creativity does not take place in isolation. Social backgrounds and personal inspirations aside, it is compounded with constant experimentation, a cross-examination of people’s needs, conveniences and their aesthetic sensibilities; systems of trial and error, revisiting of past phenomena, consideration of current trends and patterns; a full, research-intensive process takes place before arriving at the end product. The entertainment industry, on the other hand, resembles a circus, where anything goes.
We live in a time when content and the way we consume it is constantly changing - visually and thematically. The idea here should not be ‘more entertainment’ but ‘more entertaining’ - to rediscover and reinvent storytelling.
With the plenitude of content today, it is inevitable that ideas will clash, repeat or might even be the same. With research however, two similar ideas within the same genre or even the same subject matter can tell new, different stories. The treatment of the content becomes more authentic when we step out of our comfort zones and take the pains to produce more than a superficial, homogenised outlook that has become the norm.
India does not necessarily need to ‘catch up’ with international standards of production and storytelling, but we, here, have a lot to see and unsee, to learn and unlearn in order to be able to bring the local to the global. In other words, the popular formula of ‘eat [jalebis and laddus], pray [to Ganesha], love [bin tere]’ needs to be done away with to make way for more original, crisp and topical content.
To get down to the nitty-gritty of it all, there is a demand for quality entertainment and research can help ‘turn up’ the quality. A transformation within the industry dynamic through incorporating research as an indispensable component can help us achieve this. The scope for fallibility will lessen - our agendas will become clearer, our ideas more fine-tuned and focused, there will be fewer loopholes and the impact, long-lasting. Creative expression clubbed with research make for a powerful combination that has the wherewithal to take storytelling to new heights.
Nayoneka Shankar is associate producer at Nomad Films