Confessions of a saas-bahu soap maker

Disclaimer: This post, in no way, intends to reveal my ex- employer’s name nor malign my ex-company, nor reveal any company secrets. This post has been written to modify viewers perception of TV shows in general, and will hopefully get you all constructive criticism rather than destructive ones.

It’s very normal for us to tune into a popular Hindi general entertainment channel on weekday evenings, and complain about the absolutely horrendous story quality of the shows. Ekta Kapoor has become a name synonymous with every family-oriented show in our country. Now, whether Ekta Kapoor has made it or not, or whether someone else is copying her style isn’t our concern, is it? They are all typical saas-bahu (literal trans. mother-in-law and daughter-in-law centered) shows! Bickering, scheming, over-the-top dressed women with ugly looking husbands and a fairy-tale love story. Oh god, even imagining this scenario made me laugh.

I was one of those people who grew up watching my grandmother savour all the K shows with delight, and then switch to Star Jalsha when the Bengali serials followed suit. My college hostel had a bunch of serial buffs, who used to watch, criticise, maim, insult, and (sometimes praise) some of the shows they watched in our hostel post dinner. 8pm to 11pm was serial time for some of us in the hostel. I myself was one of those serial buffs.

Any educated, self-respecting person will raise their eyebrows on hearing that I watch Indian serials. Sure, who doesn’t want to watch a character coming back to the show after three plastic surgeries, who doesn’t like seeing bickering mother-in-laws and scheming daughter-in-laws? The portrayal of women in these shows however is the reason for the most criticism. Women are portrayed as family-oriented, child -bearing instruments in the shows. Being a feminist myself, if given to do a case study, I would definitely love to analyse Indian TV shows. (Even Pakistani shows are considered more empowering towards women than Indian shows – prominent examples are Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Humsafar, etc.)

A couple of months ago, a channel called Zindagi came out, showcasing Pakistani shows. While the Indian intelligentsia loved all the shows, and wanted Indian serial makers to learn something productive out of it, the ratings of the channel and the shows in particular were very low. Our saas-bahu serials get the maximum viewership despite fierce competition from youth channels, youtube magnates like The Viral Fever, pakistani dramas.

Does this mean Indian TV will never improve? Are we doomed to watch Saas-bahu soaps forever?


Let me get into my backstory. And my story. In the TV industry.

I was a young, fiery, angry teenager like most of you when I first entered the industry. I wanted to change TV, change the way people saw TV. My boss decided to send me on a research project to analyse viewership patterns of one of the most popular saas-bahu soaps of the channel. I was sent to a remote corner of India, into a village in Madhya Pradesh, where television prevailed, but internet didn’t. The first woman I interviewed was a young housewife in a joint family. She had no clue who we were, and she wasn’t supposed to know either. After a bit of prodding, we got down to talking about her favourite shows on television. She immediately started ranting off all the saas-bahu serials. I was horrified. My colleague smiled and continued the discussion. When we asked her why she liked a particular show, her reply was, “I find her character empowering.” Now, being a radical feminist, I couldn’t help but not ask, “what do you mean by empowerment?”. Her reply was, “helping my family, emotionally and financially, being there for my kids when they need me, and of course, being a good daughter, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, etc.”

Now for those of us who aren’t students of anthropology, such answers will send us into dizzy. So, does empowerment mean being a superwoman? Fulfilling all responsibilities? Indian TV was actually catering to these women’s conception of empowerment – not that of the modern, everyday woman. The realism was not there because the aspirations of the people who actually watched those shows was much, much higher! Why had I always missed that? How could I miss that?

I continued on my road trip and went to Delhi. There I went into a really small slum, and interviewed a few women there. One of them didn’t have a mother-in-law and her eyes welled up with tears as she explained to us how her mother-in-law made sure that she knew how to manage time and manage all tasks with ease- from cooking for her husband and children to making sure she herself didn’t go hungry when she went to office (she was a clerk at a local school). Shocked, I looked at her and asked, “how do you do this?”. And her only reply, “Ma’am, karna padta hai, farz hai. Aur ye hi toh sahi hai.” (It’s our duty, and this is the right thing to do)

Field study is very important to understand the implications of feminism for women. In smaller towns of India, especially amongst the TV watching population, empowerment has permeated through television, but in a very different manner as perceived by the regular urban class populace. Ekta Kapoor gave the people what Mandira Bedi’s Shanti couldn’t- a connect with the women THEY were. Not someone they weren’t.

Ekta Kapoor is a genius. Trust me. And that woman has really changed the face of Indian TV.

A lot of people believe that Colors has changed the face of Indian TV- but take a look at the ratings- the highest rating shows of Colors aren’t much different in their drama content from the typical K soaps!

And guess what- the plot lines of the shows are also based on logic. You can’t kill off any character without reason. Everything needs to have a logic, otherwise why will people watch the show? Now logic isn’t every day marketplace logic. Logic means putting sense into emotions for serials. A character can’t suddenly become violent or aggressive, everything has a backstory. That’s how stories flow in serials.

Let’s take a case study to understand this.

Some of you must have watched Pyaar Ka Dard Hai meetha meetha on Star Plus. You haven’t? You should!

Ok, so lets shorten the name of this serial to PKDH. PKDH has two central characters, Aditya and Pankhuri. Aditya’s mother Avantika looks younger than Pankhuri and this has been the subject of a lot of jokes amongst a lot of people. But why is she younger? Because she has always been in a closed environment and decided to elope and marry at 18. She had Aditya at 19. Well, this does happen amongst people.

on the left is Avantika, on the right, the bahu Pankhuri

Pankhuri and Aditya got married under weird circumstances. At Pankhuri’s wedding, Aditya’s ex-fiance Latika decided to tell the groom’s family that Pankhuri and Aditya once spent a night together in a hotel after a bandh forced them to stay where they were. Now in a small town, if such a thing is revealed, obviously the girl’s reputation is under danger. Aditya marries Pankhuri in these circumstances, but Pankhuri doesn’t treat Aditya’s favour favourably.

Now, this obviously sounds like a daily soap. But it does have a logic, doesn’t it?

I am not trying to sell Indian soaps, hell no. I am trying to explain viewer patterns, and why we watch on tv what we do. Let me debunk another myth. In a socially ‘conservative’ Indian society, where marriage consummation scenes are a romantic song sequence rather than the “actual thing”, how can crime shows be a huge hit? How can families sit together and watch rape scenes, murder and theft? Well, the logic of the public is that these shows educate them.

Now, in a developing society like India, where the crime rate is high, and the media sensationalises crime news, people are eager to know the reasons for the crime. Why it happened, how it happened. Prevention is better than cure people say. Quite relevant for those who savour crime shows.

The reason I am writing this article today, is because I read a very interesting piece in, titled, Meet the people who want you to shut off your idiot box – and start watching shows online. What I found very interesting about this article was the urging to watch alternate content on Youtube of channels like The Viral Fever. Apparently, the founder of The Viral Fever had approached MTV a couple of years back to make a youth oriented show, but was turned down. While I found ‘Permanent Roommates’ of The Viral Fever refreshing, what we need to understand that YouTube is selective content. But what we get on TV is watched by everyone. And there are things called Ministry of I&B regulations. And Standards and Practices (S&P). Which control content, because our country is full of socially conscious people who can take a company to court for using the word, ‘sex’ in a serial. A lot of times, we find censorship annoying, but the sociological issues goes down deeper than we think. I don’t think we should blame those making the serials. The poor souls already have to juggle S&P regulations, logical plot-lines, ratings on their two bare hands.

While TVF can do a great job on YouTube, TV is, was, and will always remain the realm of the Indian family, and to change Indian TV we will need to change Indian society as a whole. Which is happening slowly. Saas bahu shows are part of that phenomena, not outside it. We need to understand that. And I can confess this isn’t made up. You can trust me on that.

(P.S – As for the jewellery and over-the-top make-up issue – people love that too! They ‘aspire’ to be that rich and watching those serials makes them feel ‘bright’ too! Strange, but true!)

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