The birth of India as a nation-state abounds in a million stories and more. Take any aspect of that period and one can make riveting television or movies out of it.
As the country has announced yet another national election involving a mammoth electorate of 814 million voters it is just as well that a new television series on the framing of India’ constitution has made its debut. Made for the state-run RSTV or Rajya Sabha TV (Rajya Sabha being the upper house of Indian parliament) by eminent filmmaker Shyam Benegal, ‘Samvidhan’ (Constitution) comes across as seriously watchable television.
The framing of any constitution is a tough subject to make engaging. It is even more so in the case of the Indian constitution given the enormous pulls and strains exerted on its making by India’s complex societal makeup. That’s a good thing because it offers Benegal a goldmine of conflict that can be turned into compelling television.
I watched the first episode “The First Step: Cabinet Mission to Objective Resolution” a couple of times. Anchored with impressive sure-footedness by the young actor Swara Bhaskar the TV series can be a bit heavy viewing for a generation reared on frivolous entertainment. I also grant that this is an acquired taste for most but once you begin watching the extraordinarily enormous social, political and cultural pressures bearing down on the birth of what was even in 1947 the world’s largest would-be democracy it can be a remarkable viewing.
For instance, at a summit led by the British representative Sir Stafford Cripps and fraught with historic consequence in Shimla the presence of a diversity of political, religious and cultural interests was only compounded by the self-serving agenda of the princely India.
The writing by Benegal’s permanent favorite Shama Zaidi and Atul Tiwari is of a consistently high-quality. One can get a clear sense of the deep scholarship and linguistic gifts of all leaders presiding over the framing of the constitution. It is depressing to contrast the caliber of the leaders then with what their campaign has spawned in terms of new leaders decades later. Even the insults were of a higher quality then. In an early scene, where various leaders try to thrash out competing demands for nationhood, Mohammad Ali Jinnah describes Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as “a paid quisling Muslim masquerading” as Muslims’ representative.
It goes without saying that the use of the English language will necessarily whittle down the size of the audience of this series. But I suppose that’s the price one has to pay for accurately reflecting the level of political discourse that attended the making of India’s constitution.
This 10-part series is familiar ground for Benegal in so much as it involves turning history into engaging television. In 1988, Benegal made a 53-episode series called ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ (Discovery of India) based on the book of the same Enlish name by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The series remains a landmark in television in India.
Unfortunately, RSTV is somewhat like CSPAN in that not a lot of people watch it. That’s a pity because a series like ‘Samvidhan’ must find a wider viewership at a time when generations of young Indians below 30 have no concept of what went into turning a colonized landmass of warring ethnicities into a nation-state getting ready to facilitate an electorate of 814 million voters.