by Bhakti Bapat Mathew
It is 8 o’clock at night. A family of six – a mother, father, three teenage daughters and a young son – are all avidly watching the same TV show. Surprising? Not in India, and not when it is the high-octane melodrama of today’s TV serials, as soap operas are called in India. A new wave of TV serials in Hindi – the most widely spoken language in the country – is using television to reach out with social messages. Set in rural Indian regions and small towns like Pushkar and Bundelkhand, these soap operas are taking up feminist causes like education for women (Diya Aur Baati Hum), child brides (Baalika Vadhu), unfair male feudal traditions (Phir Subah Hogi), remarriage for women (Punarvivah, Baalika Vadhu) and sexual harassment (Kali: Ek Agnipariksha).
Arif Zakaria, a veteran of the Indian film industry and a part of the soap on sexual harassment, Kali: Ek Agnipariksha, says “TV in India is still a mass entertainment platform that relies on commercial sponsors, who invariably demand a little bit of masala (spice). But, by and large, TV has since the last few years, played an important part in arousing the consciousness of people towards various societal issues. In the soap Kali…, the subject of sexual harassment was addressed in a way that created mass awareness while also engaging the audience through the dramatic arc of the story: we had the family’s response, a citizen’s awareness response and the anger of today’s youth against the system."
Embracing the tradition of the Bollywood movies of yesteryear that sought to educate and also entertain, as well as the trend of more recent Bollywood movies like the Munna Bhai series and 3 Idiots, more and more soap operas today have embedded social messages.
The soap Baalika Vadhu (“Child Bride”) depicts the story of Anandi, a young girl who was brought to the house of her in-laws as a child bride for Jagdish, a boy a couple of years older than her. After they grow up, Jagdish, who goes to the city to become a doctor, falls in love and marries a girl from his hospital who is training to be a doctor too. Baalika Vadhu depicts the aftermath of Jagdish’s marriage in moving detail – Anandi’s pain and humiliation and her precarious new position in the house of her in-laws. In a progressive step, Anandi’s in-laws are shown standing in solidarity with Anandi. They eventually marry her off to a good, educated man and disown their own son for bringing dishonor to his family.
In a male-dominated society like India, the idea of disowning a son might have been summarily rejected by audiences. But the genius of soaps like Baalika Vadhu is that they create extremely lovable and identifiable female characters like Anandi. Anandi is like many other young girls, vivacious and capricious by turns, but always respectful of elders, including father figures. But mostly, Anandi is shown to be so pure, giving, and goodhearted that any character bringing sorrow to her is easily rejected in the minds of the audience, even if he happens to be the son of the family.
Like Baalika Vadhu, at the heart of many shows is a female protagonist with “good values,” one who is brave but suitably docile in front of elders. The others needed for the story are worked in around this essential building block. These other characters usually include members of a joint family – nuclear families are still a minority in India, although this is changing very fast – the protagonist’s close friends, the macho male protagonist, who is really a sweet guy at heart, and his joint family. The families stay in huge, palatial homes, irrespective of their financial means. The sets are lavish and the clothes are colorful and attractive.According to actress Shraddha Kaul, who has acted in movies like Pinjar and Mohandas, “The vibe of the [woman-centric] show is always feel-good and the heroine is usually beset by seemingly unconquerable problems. So, when she eventually does overcome all odds and emerges victorious, audiences can’t help but cheer for her.”
Hindi TV serials are mostly watched by family audiences, including mothers, fathers, and children, and although the soaps are watched as avidly in cities as in villages, one could argue that the impact may be higher in the latter. Indian villages still severely restrict the freedom of women. Few women are allowed to venture out of the house unescorted, especially once the sun sets. With less access to resources and even less exposure to developmental measures, rural women have TV to thank for news and views of the world outside their village, as well as issues in their own homes.
I was able to see the effects of these soaps firsthand during my time in Dewas, a small town in central India, where my father was posted. My parents are big fans, and in the months I spent at their home after my daughter was born, I realized how much Hindi TV has changed. Definitely influenced by these serials, three young girls in the family living across from my parents planned careers, studied for entrance exams for government jobs, and made the decision to continue working after marriage – things not very common in really small towns. Inspired by the brave heroines of the TV dramas they avidly watched every day, the eldest of the three even broke off her wedding engagement when she felt the prospective groom would not be comfortable with a working wife. The other heartening part of the incident was that her parents accepted her decision without a fuss.
From this experience I realize that these soaps are effective because they are entertaining enough to be viewed by men and women alike. Decision-makers in households are gently educated in a way that speaks to them, without being preachy or judgmental. In a country where many women in villages are still oppressed, progressive soap operas may be just the kind of catalyst needed for social change.
About the Author: Bhakti Bapat Mathew is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore, India. Bhakti holds a postgraduate degree in management studies from the University of Mumbai. She currently writes for Indian and international publications such as Business Standard, The Hindu, Good Housekeeping, Mint, Deccan Herald, New Indian Express, The National (UAE), and Hortibiz (The Netherlands).