INFUSING public interest messages into soap operas, television's most popular programmes, requires a delicate balance between entertainment and education. The telenovellas of Mexico's Televisa and Brazil's Globe TV are regarded by communication specialists as models for development-oriented soap operas.
Extending this approach, 3 of Sri Lanka's top cinematic storytellers have produced Manukakapura (The City of Human Crows), a drama series aired by Rupavahini, Sri Lanka's national television, in December last year. Each of its 10 episodes addresses an environmental issue (often a problem and its potential solution) which is presented as part of an interesting story.
Parakram Niriella, TVT's director, says the aim is to shock viewers out of their apathy towards environmental issues, by hitting at the things that directly matter to them. Health is a recurring theme in most episodes. Ordinary people are also shown confronting problems of environmental degradation.
A problem with the series is a tendency towards oversimplification, which sometimes distorts the message. In Thriya (The Boatman), waste oil from a motor vehicle repair garage pollutes a body of water and results in several deaths. The polluter promptly agrees to clean up. In real life, most medium and largescale industries around Colombo have resisted years of protests and official pressure.
Several stories mix well-known folk art and aspects of indigenous culture with contemporary situations of environmental degradation. In some instances, however, the stunning visuals tend to distract from the messages. Vijayoth Ratha is a case in point, where slick computer imagery is mixed with dramatised views of Colombo in the year 2000 to drive home the serious health impacts of vehicle exhaust emissions.
A few scripting weaknesses notwithstanding, Manukakapura proves that environmental concepts can form the basis of good entertainment television.
---Nalaka Gunwardene is an environmental journalist in Sri Lanka.
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