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India’s TV-Land: No Country For Men

Men play second-fiddle on Indian TV serials.

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First, the bad news. Bollywood is really a man’s world. Condescending, patronizing, generous, even accommodating to women — sure. But spontaneous, full-blooded recognition and acknowledgement of their potential to take on any man — no chance! No wonder, despite a Kat Kaif, Piggy Chops or Kareena Kapoor burning the marquee and zonking a zillion fans across the globe, they can never ever hope to sell a film on their own steam. They need a charismatic pairing with the male dazzlers — the Khans, Hrithik Roshan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan, whoever. Woman-centric films (Filhaal, Firaq, Japanese Wife) and female directors invariably chew huge critical press coverage, even awards, but the Box Office has a different story to tell (unless of course, there is the not-so-hidden-hand of a certain Aamir Khan).

Now, the good news. In India’s TV serial space, woman-power rules! Be it themes, story-lines, characters — women call the shots and storm-center the narrative, all the way! Take a look….

Among the chloroformed zillions who sat glued to the iconic Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahun Thi two decades ago, check out which of the three Mihirs or Bahus they remember. Chances are — none, but Tulsi, God, she was the serial! Even today, Smriti Irani — the actress who played Tulsi — is remembered largely for that one larger-than-life role. Cut to the present. Who do you instantly remember when one mentions Balika Vadhu, Uttaran, Na Aana Is Desh Laado, even Love You Zindagi or Sasural Genda Phool? Which guy? Gotta be kidding! Why, even in popular reality shows — Big Boss, Roadies, Splitsvilla, Jhalak Dikhla De — it’s the females who are the scene-stealers, consistently serving notice to men, even declaring a solid glass ceiling for them!

What is the reason behind this diabolic difference between movies and TV serials vis-à-vis male-female preference? Why is the divide so dramatic and contrasting? Behavioral scientist Ashish Nandy offers his informed perspective: “It is only natural and adheres to the model created, propagated and made popular in the U.S. Soaps started as radio plays and later TV programs somewhere in the fifties. They were totally women-centric, catering to the housewife during the day to provide her a little break and entertainment between her household chores. Since these programs were sponsored by soap manufacturers, the name stuck. Today this soap phenomenon is a global disease and follows the same ground rules.”

As for the difference between movies and TV soaps in terms of gender bias, Nandy believes it has to do with the nature of the beast: “Cinema is much older, has a definite tradition, is larger and grander as a medium embracing spectacle, issues and themes and audiences, at once diverse and varied. Its dynamics are totally different as are its compulsions and touch-points. Also, the motivations of going to the movies — stars, glamor, etc., are worlds apart from soaps. In this universe — be it Romance, Drama, Thrillers, Musicals, Comedy, Action — men drive the show, with women as necessary but ornamental props, providing the love interest or glamor quotient. TV is much more intimate, personal, family-oriented, dealing with subjects, themes, issues and story-lines that are identifiable and relatable, despite the exaggerated, hi-pitched melodrama. Seeing the TRP ratings,(but more importantly, the buzz around some of the more popular serials and the manic obsession to follow every single episode of their favorite serial), it is clear however, that women-power in this area, rules.”

Interestingly, critical faculty doesn’t seem to apply when viewing these serials. Maid-servant, MBA daughter, educated mom and old grandmother all sit glued to the idiot box while their favorite serials pan out. The reason is simple. Opines Shoma Munshi, professor of anthropology at the American University of Kuwait: “It is a combination of willful suspension of disbelief and empowerment. These soap stories being woman-centric by nature, locate the women in the family home. Scenes and situations demonstrating that competence in the personal sphere is valued and women who are able to cope and handle difficult, complex situations effectively, are shown. Women like Parvati and Tulsi epitomize strong moral fiber, courage and life-affirming qualities that are inspirational. Also, unlike Bollywood movies, women’s bodies in these serials are not commodified or objectified.”

Hers is not a universally shared opinion. Males — and there are scores of closet women serial watchers — have a different take. While most steer away from these programs, some take umbrage and believe it is a huge anti-men conspiracy. Explodes one furious critic: ”These women-centric serials have pretty much the same theme — show women better than men. What is the modus operandi? First, select the target — not target audience. Target that part of society they feel should be destroyed: men and patriarchy. Have you seen Betiyan – Apni Yaa Paraaya Dhan? Noticed how the lead actress is constantly on a slapping spree, slapping 3 to 4 men. What signal does it send out except that slapping men in public is fine? Shouldn’t there be some sense of responsibility from the producers and TV channel? In one of the Harry Potter movies where a girl is shown punching a boy, a men’s group had raised severe objections insisting that it could trigger great repercussions. Seekhon Unse! (learn from them).”

 P-h-e-w … cut back to the story. These women-centric serials function at many levels and both impact and influence many areas. For one, the jewellery, clothes and accessories scene really catches fire. Next, many festivals (not hitherto known or practiced) gain infectious popularity, such as Karva Chauth. This North Indian festival is today a Pan-India, “must-observe” event for married women. Mangal Sutra has become a “must-wear” accessory even in communities who never ever wore it earlier. At another level, the shift of focus in terms of stories from large cities to smaller towns, even rural areas, consciously promoting social issues, is finding huge resonance among urban audiences as well, entertaining, enlightening, and enriching them along the way.

Everything considered in today’s quick-fix, consumerist, male-dominated world, if there is at least one platform solely dedicated to promoting the cause of women, shouldn’t it be encouraged all the way? Considering women occupy half the sky and yet get precious little from life’s pie, the 21-inch screen should definitely be a gated domain with the inscription: “Only men, accompanied by women with proof certifying anti-chauvinistic nature, allowed entry.” 

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Bollywood | July 2011 | Magazine

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