Through a screen, darkly

Pakistani cable operators, following the cyclical escalation of imagined hatreds, discontinued the transmission of Indian satellite channels in 2002. The absence of Indian TV soaps, fodder for an entertainment hungry populace, was widely mourned. Once, not long ago, the axiomatic edge of Pakistan’s TV serials was widely acknowledged both in Pakistan and in India. No longer. This is the age of the market, of selling dreams and drama, of converting the stereotype into a saleable commodity and citing it on the cultural stock exchange.

The popularity of Hindi language soaps is not limited to Pakistan. I have seen squatters in Dhaka’s decrepit Bihari camp, Bangladesh’s largest no man’s land, glued to their colour TV sets. Here, Biharis lack citizenship; they are technically Pakistani, having opted for the Land of the Pure at the cessation of Bangladesh in 1971. But Pakistan doesn’t want them and so they continue to live in limbo. Yet, Star Plus is still beamed 24/7 into their tiny, cramped, leaking shacks. Indian soaps have made inroads even into Afghanistan, that newly liberated project of global corporate interests. They were wildly popular until the Afghan government banned them as inimical to Afghani values.

The soaring audience of Star Plus and Zee TV serials, with their in-your-face parivar mantras, is known all too well. The hype is also a constructed story of success and market acquisition. On the face of it, the commodification of entertainment is a global phenomenon. So what’s the problem, one might ask, given that most of us post-colonial wannabes in South Asia want to integrate into the global economy and its uniform cultural variants? Junk food, designer brands, pop music and the corporate media ethos are all ‘signs of progress’.

The extraordinary story of Ekta Kapoor’s production house, Balaji Productions, which began in her father’s garage behind the family home in Bombay and spawned staggering commercial success and fame, is awe inspiring, an urban model of what self-attainment can mean. Small wonder that Kapoor bagged the Ernst & Young Startup Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2001. Crowned as one of Asia’s most powerful communicators, Kapoor was inducted into the ‘Hall of Fame’ by the Indian Telly awards and was also crowned a Young Global Leader by the Forum of Young Global Leaders in 2006.

Such soaps light up the lives of housewives across South Asia. If we ignore the wild exaggerations of her plots (cinematic license to grab attention, perhaps), women in Ekta Kapoor’s soaps live the lives of ordinary South Asian housewives. The characters are inspired from their conventional lives and transformed into objectified glamour-pusses. This accounts for their phenomenal appeal, apparent viewer loyalty and high ratings.

By engineering an oversupply of regressive domestic dramas and flooding the market – a phenomenon curiously similar to Chinese exports – the demand for soaps is, as Noam Chomsky would say, ‘manufactured’.Thus the middle class demand and supply become self-fulfilling prophecies. Arguably the popularity, appeal or demand – whichever way one looks at this – can be best explained by the embedded societal dysfunctions that the Balaji-Ekta brand of television soaps employ to spin entertainment.

Encasing the decades-long permutations of Bollywood melodrama and catchy themes of love, honour, revenge and family, the K-series, Kyun ke saas bhi kabhi bahu thhee, are distinctly patriarchic. Take, for instance, the hysterical emphasis on women’s roles in the household – especially in the venerated kitchen – as the model of womanhood. Women who rebel from this confining trope are vamps, often dressed up as mini-Draculas, whores compared to the temple-toting homely Sitas.

The trumpeting of right-wing versions of the historical role and persona of the great Sita is an easy sell and an instantly consumable ploy. The various tribulations that female characters face in the name of Agni Pariksha are simply misogynistic. The good old epic Ramayana is twisted and converted into a recurring interpretative context: property (the kingdom), invisible but powerful father (Dashratha – Rama’s father), scheming woman (Kaikeyi, who forces Dashratha to exile her stepson Rama so that her own son can inherit the throne), docile woman (Sita), are the lines that scriptwriters employ with nauseating repetition. Following Goebbels, this particularistic version becomes the over-arching truth promoting patriarchy and validating its passionate guardian, the clergy, in full measure.

Indian feminist writers have strongly critiqued the male-centered interpretation of India’s great epic. The myriad interpretations of Ramayana differ with the linear, uniform vision that portrays Rama as the strong male and Sita, as the subordinate, obedient wife. The cultivation of the masculine and shunning of the sensuous is a political twist rooted in a patriarchal reinvention of India’s militaristic past by Hindu extremists.

In most TV soaps, the treatment of property relations between household characters, men and women, not only serves patriarchal definitions of property but, in a modern sense, legitimises accumulation of capital, vulgar consumerism and a one-dimensional understanding of empowerment. The good women – such as the BJP ticket holder, Tulsi from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (KSBKBT), the gullible Kasturi or other such self-sacrificing species – are almost always pitted against evil and vile women responsible for their plight. The men disappear or are secondary, and the reality-reversal renders the ‘system’ invisible, or at worst benign.

The centrality of the saas-bahu tension in the TV soap world, therefore, is located in the household power matrix where the ma-in-law attains chunky crumbs of patriarchal power and is willing to reap the gains, finally, of her life-long subjugation. Women are dependent on men for financial and emotional security and the over-play of marriage is portrayed as the raison d’etre of the creation of women. Rarely does a woman take control of her life.

As students of history we were told that the British banned customs such as Sati and female infanticide. However, it takes more than rules imposed from above to expunge deep-seated cultural mores; violence against women remains a reality across South Asia. The danger of TV culture is that it can reinforce these embedded trends even when the law does not.

In Karam Apna Apna , the heroine Gauri, from a middle class background, is married to a man whose wife is, according to astrological predictions, destined to die young. As events unfold, Gauri accepts this as her fate and prepares to die. Miracles save her but her pariksha is not over. Her husband dies, and later, her mother-in-law is murdered as part of a family conspiracy by the classic vamp-aunt. Gauri is charged with the murder; she re-appears to avenge the murder, but suffers violence and humiliation at the hands of her brother-in-law only to marry him later. So the saga continues and the good woman has to prove her innocence at the altar of misogyny.

This is a recurring theme. The suffering and humiliation of women is legitimately sanctioned by the myth of sanskar, an imagined value system distorted to bolster patriarchal relations where a pativrata (loyal to her husband) wife shines like an ominous planet in individual lives. Middle class patriarchal morality is viewed as normal and any deviation is castigated.

“Paanch sau crore ki property meray haath kaisay lagay gi?” How will I get my hands on property worth Rs 500 crore, is a constant refrain in ever-changing lives, or at least that is what most soaps would make us think. Ultimate happiness is linked to power, property and greed. In Dhaka, my elderly friend Ahmed complained that he was shocked when his daughter asked him where the papers for their upscale Dhanmondi apartment were kept. When Ahmed told her that theirs was a rented apartment, she was most dismayed; what could she expect to inherit? Ahmed believes this is a result of his wife and daughter’s incessant consumption of Indian soaps.

In the television world, poverty is a curse, a marker of the ‘envy’ that undermines humanity. The romanticised and glamourised families are all from big business. The poorer families view them in awe, aspiring to be like them. The rich families reluctantly accept daughters-in-law from lesser backgrounds but make sure that this fact is never forgotten. The formula is simple: the richer the family, the bigger the favour.

A TV world where miracles occur on a daily basis is a dangerous one. In such an environment, human effort becomes redundant, creating inaction and fuelling conformity. The overwhelming rangoli pattern and the holy tulsi plant of KSBKBT, the fluttering lamp of Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki are iconic symbols that weave a subliminal message: superstition and transmutated fears sell, and in the process legitimise the ignominy of the past. When cancer patients recover through prayer, the dead come to life and temples intervene in daily struggles, the landscape becomes ethically and politically murky. In transitional polities such as the ones in South Asia, such high-profile depictions are inimical to the evolution of a modern, dynamic society.

During my visit to Lahore last year, the interiors of a plush home owned by an old acquaintance in receipt of new wealth looked oddly familiar. The lady of the house proudly walked us through the refurbished interiors. The rooms were decorated garishly with a surfeit of art-deco. The lady of the house coyly informed us that she got her inspiration from ‘homes in Mumbai’. When I asked her about her visits to Mumbai, I learnt to my disappointment that her inspiration came from Indian TV soaps.

Noticeable for its linearity, a culturally confusing aesthetic thus enters the public domain. The sets where filming takes place are loud, colourful and stacked with dreamy kitsch. They are repetitive and use an identical locale for different situations. There is a great emphasis on display.

The extravagant parties of these tele-visual Richistans also project a prototype aesthetic, disconnected with 5,000 years of South Asian cultural reality. Parties in Lahore, Dhaka, Delhi and Karachi ape and reproduce this aesthetic of vulgar display, of choreographed Bollywood numbers and reinforce every stereotype on vegetarianism (or its converse), alcohol (or hypocrisy in Muslim countries about it), propriety (or lack thereof) and primal male fantasies.

While South Asia struggles to fight the legacies of colonialism and caste- and class-related inequities, the mass media have facilitated an unprecedented opening of societies, leading to greater degrees of public accountability. However, as globalised interests poach markets for profits, the media becomes an attractive space for capital movement.

Is the only route available for citizens’ empowerment through mass media? This is a serious question that is now looming on political and societal horizons across the South. In this wider context, the perpetuation of regressive trends and attitudes can be effective agents of dumbing down public consciousness, of ingraining the imperatives of consumerism and in celebrating profit as the new god. One would think that the middle classes, in whose name such programming is created, deserve better.

A world where the market decides aesthetics and manufactures culture has a perverse and pernicious effect on the present and the future. Absence of self-regulation and untrammeled media lust for profit needs to be questioned and challenged. The all-pervasiveness of TV soaps provides a fitting agenda for advocacy around issues of media responsibility and accountability. How else would we change the present or begin to overcome the past?

A longer version of this article appeared in India International Centre’s Quarterly journal (August 2008 issue)

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