How MTV India clipped the wings of a ‘girl power’ TV show

Amid the fight for women's rights in India, MTV India's Angels of Rock tries to combine reality TV with a social message, but falls down through a contrived, patronising narrative and production.

Singer Jasmine Sandlas tries cooking at a female-run dhaba, in Angels of Rock. Courtesy MTV India.
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The summer of 2016 is over and a new season on Indian television begins, which means being subjected to a new wave of reality programmes. There are so many such shows on Indian stations now that reproduce the same tired old format, it’s hard to tell one from the other.

This year, the smart people at MTV India decided to add a social activism twist to the formula. MTV's Angels of Rock features four rising female Indian singers – Shalmali Kholgade, Anusha Mani, Akasa Singh and Jasmine Sandlas – travelling across the country to find "inspiring stories of real women" and turns their experiences into new, collaboratively-created songs. And they do it riding Enfield Bullets.

Women’s rights are a hugely contested issue in Indian public discourse right now. While the New Delhi gang rape in December 2012 led to a spate of discussions about the toxic levels of patriarchy and sexism in Indian society, recent years have seen a backlash as anti-feminist voices loudly defend male privilege. With the Indian film and TV industry publicly divided on the issue – many Bollywood celebrities have come out to say they support women but not feminism, whatever that means – this could have been an important television show.

Alas, the producers have chosen to go with the fluffy, non-threatening, Girls’ Day Out form of female empowerment that a fairly sexist industry loves to roll out anytime its social credentials are challenged. They’ve even got an all-female crew for extra Brownie points.

Still, the basic idea behind the show – a mixture of feel-good girl power, travel, music with a dash of social consciousness – isn’t all that terrible. It ticks all the obvious interest areas for Indian youth. Despite the buzzword salad of “sisterhood” and “celebrating womanhood” that accompanied its launch in partnership with Unilever shampoo brand Sunsilk – always a warning sign – you can’t really go wrong, right?

Wrong. The show’s pilot, which premiered on July 31, veers somewhere between a self-congratulatory branding exercise and a grad school film project. It starts off with a cheesy montage introducing the four Angels before bringing them into the MTV office to give them a chance to express their delight and gratitude to MTV. The rest of the episode covers the four women getting to know each other, learning to ride motorbikes and smiling as if their lives depended on it.

The Big Brother-style cutaway interviews add almost nothing to the narrative, with the "women riding bikes lol" trope doing all the heavy lifting. The interviews with family and friends that are supposed to give us insights into the people these four musicians really are end up being nothing more than hagiographic vignettes about how "adorably crazy" these women are.

I lost count of the number of times “really beautiful” was uttered. The icing on the cake was a launch concert where the live sound of the artists is replaced by studio recordings. Very rock.

The second episode, released last Sunday, is marginally better as the action shifts from the four stars to the actual stories they’re supposed to cover. The gang ride their bikes to Ahmedabad at 20 kilometres per hour. On the way, as if by coincidence, they stumble across a dhaba run only by women; dance with a dandiya crew; and have a long conversation with women who set up their own community radio station, Rudi no Radio.

Unfortunately, any depth this story might have provided the show is alleviated by cutaways that focus purely on the Angels and their inability to deal with strong, successful women who “don’t look like them”. They may be well-intentioned, but all the gushing about how rural women can also be empowered comes across as entitled and patronising rather than expressing any real sense of sisterhood. The buzzword soup continues, as the Angels say all the right things about empowerment but then make foot in mouth comments like, “How do they know so much?”.

Angels of Rock tries to be a lot of things and remarkably, fails on all fronts. The music element is tacked on, with the songs composed and performed in every episode sounding like filler tracks that you forget even before they end. There is none of the information about local life and culture that you'd expect from a travel show, and even the "fun, successful young women hanging out" camaraderie seems contrived and performative.

Please MTV producers, give teenage girls some credit. You could have made a great show that was both fun and engaging and which hit home with a social message to boot. Instead, you brought us Angels of Rock.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes about music, protest culture and politics.