Dacoit Gabbar Singh's famous dialogue from the blockbuster movie 'Sholay' is still a favorite party piece for children all over the country. Indulgent parents and friends listen fondly, while toddlers swagger and lisp the screen villain's menacing lines. It is cute and it is definitely entertaining.
But is it harmless? What is the hidden message?
That violence, when shown in a slick, shocking manner becomes acceptable. That villains are people to applaud and emulate. Such parents - and there are many - show a lack of responsibility that they insist others should exercise.
During a seminar conducted by the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) on media violence and its impact on children in New Delhi at the end of March 2002, the participants were vociferous in demanding restraint and discipline from television networks like Zee, Star Plus and SABe. Something they said they themselves were too busy to exercise in their own homes.
That television and the violence, spooks and thrills it depicts have an impact on children is an inescapable fact. In a five-city study conducted by CFAR, it was found through focus group discussions that suspense and violence are the most potent hooks for children in any type of media. There is a vivid recall of horror and violence in television shows, sometimes of episodes seen even three years back. Not surprising, in view of the pervasiveness of violence in program: The study found that between 1998 and 2001, there were four acts of violence per minute ' or one every 15 seconds ' on various television channels.
The study also found that there is a compulsive fascination with the supernatural and violence. "Once in my dream, I went to the toilet which was full of skeletons. I shouted loudly, 'Help me, help me!'" said one of the children interviewed for the study. Nightmares and phobias notwithstanding, serials like 'Aahat' and 'Sssh, Koi Hai?' have high TRPs (television rating points).
In Ahmedabad and Delhi, children displayed avid interest in real life crimes and were found to have a deep knowledge of forensic sciences and how criminals behave, contributing to a skewed set of values. Said one of the children interviewed, "Dawood extracts money from everyone. No one is able to catch him, and he and Chhota Rajan roam around freely. They are able to bribe their way out of jail."
Another finding of the study was that children watch anything between two to 10 hours of television a day, which includes all types of programs, across channels and throughout the day up to 11.30 pm on weekdays and even later on weekends. And increased television time means much less time to go out and play, to read books or to meet friends. Children watch television while doing other things and there are many houses where the television set is on during every waking moment.
In the meeting in New Delhi, the participants ranged from media persons, counselors and parents to even grandparents. Many points were raised, including the fact that even cartoons are violent. A concerned grandfather stood up to say that as parents could not stay with the children all the time, there should be some restraint on what is transmitted on television.
Why are there no meaningful serials aimed at children? And why is the choice restricted only to cartoons, movies or domestic drama, he asked. Another participant said that even video games are hideously violent. Reality-based television too came in for some bashing. Another parent said that serials about ghosts were taking the children back to more superstitious, backward times.
But the real fireworks erupted when questions were addressed to Mukesh Khanna (a.k.a. Shaktimaan in the serial of the same name, and before that, Bheeshma Pitamah in 'Mahabharat'), Proprietor, Bheeshma International. 'Shaktimaan' has come in for a lot of flak because, inspired by the superhero's exploits, children have jumped off buildings ' some to their death. Khanna at first categorically denied such reports but when people stood up and reported first hand experiences, he vowed to repeat the warning transmitted earlier.
Khanna spoke of the many good messages he has transmitted and that he took his responsibility as a children's hero very seriously. Another participant who works in a remand home agreed with Khanna and told the participants how they had found that Shaktimaan had had a positive influence on the inmates because they used the serial's social messages in their discussions.
Markand Adhikari, the Chief Executive Officer of SABe TV raised another important issue by putting the onus of what children watch directly on the parents. Said he, "In my experience, good television programs do not get good TRPs. Parents come to such seminars and meetings where they bemoan the lack of good programs. But they simply do not watch the good programs."
Moreover, as commercial organizations, commercial viability is the yardstick of most television channels. Said Madhavi Mutatkar, President, Zee TV, "I am a mother and also in the media. As a mother I would like good programs and less violence on the screen but as the head of a commercial organization, I have to look at my TRPs."
Despite protests from most of the parents present, Ahmedabad-based psychiatrist Dr Vishwa Mohan Thakur also put the onus of control firmly on the parents. Jobs and busy lives was no excuse, he said. "Parents have to set rules and show by example. With active participation of the caregivers, the negative aspect of media violence can be controlled. Parents must know what programs their children are watching," said Thakur.
At another level, Deepak Sehgal, Creative Director, Star India Limited, was of the view that parents have a problem with television programming because these programs address issues which parents generally do not want to discuss - like babies born to unmarried parents, non-marital relationships and HIV-AIDS.
Another relevant point raised was how much television should be watched. A child who regularly watches eight to 10 hours of television a day will find it hard to separate fantasy from reality, some of the participants observed. For instance, the perception of one child interviewed was: "Ghosts exist. The ghost's spirit enters the body of good people."
If cutting television hours is too harsh a step both for parents and children, there are other ways -- oust the television set from its position as the social centre, replace a big screen television with a small one and set limits to how much television the entire family can watch. Implement these points and then see how much effect it has on the quality of a family's life.