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Indian television and women

Written By: amodini - Jan• 18•10

 photo tv2_zps0edeabd2.jpgI’m watching TV. The husband comes in.

He : Why are you watching this crap ?

I : What crap ?

“This”, he points at the TV.

“This is not crap, it’s Perfect Bride.”

“Same thing.”

He exits.

Cut to 2 weeks later. He tells me, eyeing the clock “Your program is coming on” and goes into the bedroom, switches on the TV, seats himself in the comfy chair and begins to watch “Perfect Bride”. Now he’s as into it as I am.

As we’re watching it, they announce the “Bride of the Week”, and it’s Priyanka Sharma.

I’m appalled, “What ! People think she should be “Bride of the Week” ?

The husband doesn’t do sarcasm often, but when he does I can tell, “Yes, of course they do – they’re the unwashed masses. You’re probably the only padi-likhi (educated) woman to watch this show”. I can tell he’s getting a little worried with my suddenly, as he calls it “going gharelu” (getting domesticated); I’m also now intermittently watching some Hindi serials. I’m perpetually going “tsk, tsk” when watching these, and he, the problem-solver, asks me why I’m watching these if I have such a problem with them anyway.

Which is true, I have big problems with these TV serials. I started watching one “accidentally” but started to tune in when I realized that the hero Ambar actually had some sense – he would not leave his apparently not-Brahmin wife (he is a Brahmin) even on severe parental pressure. But now, I’m starting to go off it, because the nut (Ambar) has gone ahead and married another woman, since his **wife** insisted he do it. A lot of Hindi serials on TV right now have heroes who have more than one wife.

Besides these there are also the other problems, like the dialogues which say stuff like –

– What can you do ? You are a woman.
– A married woman must forget her parents.
– The parents of a daughter have only one big ambition – to get their daughter married.
– A woman is the izzat of her family
– A woman must strive to be a good daughter, sister, wife, mother. Period.
– Oh, we’re the girl’s family, it is our job to bow down before you (the groom’s family).
– A low class/caste girl like that can never be associated with our Brahmin family

 photo tv3_zps4efeae08.jpgBesides all this very tiresome dialogue, these serials are populated by characters who probably don’t live in modern India as we know it. The fixation on marriage, rituals, relationships, motherhood, domesticity is unbelievable. Still, this would be fine, if all this was a part of normal life, not ** the only thing ** in life.

The husband can’t stand the above mentioned serials, and it’s easy to agree with him, because the needless rona-dhona/no common-sense is starting to get to me. Yes, yes, all that stuff about free speech etc. – surely the TV-wallahs can express themselves too, even if I find their views offensive and regressive. Or atleast that’s what my brain says; I still have a problem. I could stop watching this TV, and even if I did, it’s not actually having much effect on my thinking; I’m snorting through much of it anyway. But my Mom watches it and my Mom-in-law watches it. My parents actually time their dinner to coincide with their favorite serial “Agle janam mujhe bitiya hi deejo” – the last time I watched it with them, the rich zamindar had bought a (second) wife for his son, so that she could bear a son, the first wife being incapable of doing so.

Not everyone’s watching this stuff with disinterest.

Most serials have a disclaimer at the beginning of every episode, which tells us that Star does not believe in any of these social evils – bigamy, casteism etc. But is that it ? What of showing women in such regressive, powerless situations that it sets your teeth on edge ? It was in 2007 that I heard of a “culture” school for women – this was where they were taught to serve their families and lose their ego. But really there is no need of a special school, when there are daily classes/serials on TV. The culture school folks are unaware that their regressive message is being spread far and wide via Ekta Kapoor and her ilk.

Hindi serial story-lines are silly as it is, but really get unbearable with all the “good” women portrayed as being devout doormats, thinking only of their husbands and in-laws, even when they are tormented and humiliated, and the husbands are bigamists. Phrases like “I must be a good wife”, “I must serve my family” are repeated so often, they seem chant-like. Women in these serials are perpetually on tenterhooks trying to walk the fine line of expected behavior dictated for a female in their position. When overstepping these lines, they are often berated and tortured, and told to repress themselves. Thus it appears that the female leads in such serials lead most of their lives fulfilling their duties, and the rest wringing their hands in regret and trepidation over “apparent” trangressions. I am fuming looking at this stuff, but it’s truly bad television because it is very influential. How many times is an impressionable mind going to watch this stuff without wanting to be a docile, repressed “good wife” herself ?

Yes, for television to be interesting one must allow for some drama and some heightened emotions. However it is possible to produce interesting dramas without putting down women or bringing in artificial, damaging notions of “good” women, just as it is possible to have humor on television without degrading women. Remember “Hum log”, “Buniyaad”, “Nukkad”, or even “Fauji” which gave Shahrukh Khan his break? I must say that Fauji wasn’t great production values, and didn’t exactly carry the flag for feminism, but it wasn’t bad. These serials and dramas which aired on televison many years back, had interesting story lines, and generated enough viewership without having to resort to over-the-top, heavy handed emotion and regressive notions.

 photo tv1_zps5ad83992.jpgToday’s TV dramas are women based, and not in a good way. Either the women are “bad” and vampish or think for themselves (and that’s very, very bad !), or they are too holy for their own good. The female characters (atleast the “good” ones) in today’s TV serials are shown kow-towing to the demands of family members to such an extent, that it’s almost akin to a breakdown of self-esteem and the natural self-confidence that allows a person to function. Women so absolutely powerless, are a bad example in itself, but to actually enshrine qualities like extreme docility, and not being able to stand up for oneself, as being “good” and desirable, is extremely dangerous.

Plus one wonders about the apparent disregard for the law of the land that serials like this depict. Everybody is so into the bigamy thing; one would think that Indian Law actually permitted such a thing! The men go around being “forced” into second marriages, and the wives consult each other on domestic details so pati parmeshwar can lead a happy, stress-free life.

It is time the GOI (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) stopped worrying about Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru, and started doing something about the real problem. Women have a second class status in Indian society, and many of these problems stem from the regressive mindset and patriarchal notions so entrenched in society. Indian television should not be reinforcing such damaging attitudes.

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26 Comments

  1. Oh a fantastic post. You have reflected my thoughts. I too, had become an addict of such serials but slowly untangled myself from this web.

    People really get influenced by such serials. And its shown as if we are in the dark ages. Women are so passive or on the extreme so strong that there are no gray shades in their character. Hardly realistic.

  2. Arun says:

    yuck yuck and more yuck!

    i dont know where to start; indian society? or just the tv wallahs??
    well guess the tv wallahs are making masala out of the horror thats already there in our society. and i can tell that all the malayalam serials follow similar strategy.
    it seems so atrocious, especially when you contrast it with the "india has arrived, the next superpower" chanting you get to hear.
    ridiculous!! a few hundred million people needing to grow up, how horrorsome is that!!

  3. Dewdrop says:

    Well written… I agree… in fact one of the worst serials on today is Bairi piya where the zamindaar gets his village woman married to his haveli's naukar so that he can take advantage of her… read http://blog.livemint.com/first-cut/2009/12/16/the-most-disturbing-serial-on-indian-television/

  4. ramesh says:

    yaa but that does not explain why you are hooked to these serials ..

  5. Ankur says:

    I beg to differ with your claim that women are always portrayed as powerless. As a matter of fact men are the weakest characters in these serials as they are almost always are used as mere props while female characters leading the main story. I agree some serials do portray women being repressed but there may be underdogs in any drama and in most of the cases they are being repressed by other female characters(very true to the values of our society).

    And we all agree that these serials have a big following among some of the most educated people and individuals who would like to call themselves feminists. I think TV soaps are not corrupting us in anyway but these are just mere reflections of our deeply rooted regressive thinking as a society. When we see a women being "portrayed as being devout doormats, thinking only of their husbands and in-laws, even when they are tormented and humiliated, and the husbands are bigamists". Probably that's what we(the viewers) want to fantasize through these serials. We need to have a closer look at ourselves in the mirror.

  6. Landed here on this brilliant post through Blogadda picks.
    My mother also watches these shows – these serials are kind of addictive. Yesterday she visited me and first thing she did was to ask me to check the time and switch on the TV for … 'Tere Mere Sapne' – when I told her we had Airtel IPTV and she could watch the show later also, she was delighted and asked to watch a show she had missed the night before.
    I feel the only way to beat these serials is to create equally addictive stories with similar oppression but show women fighting and winning.

  7. Aparna says:

    This is so true. Almost all serials in India portray the supposedly "good women" as doormats. I have not seen a single serial where a woman holds a real job. Most of the times they are obsessed with the thought of marrying someone. And I also find the clothes and jewellery objectionable. And they always wear such outlandish bindis.
    How come there is not a single decent story on Indian television today?
    It is high time people from the television industry chose to introspect. And I do not agree with the view that this is what people want to see. In that case Buniyad Humlog and Yeh jo hai zindagi would not have been so popular in this country.

  8. PNA says:

    I too watch serials.. sometimes because of the suspense element. Other times to know what's being broadcasted on national television…. You have analysed it so well, and at times I fail to recognise with what they portray. crib and am angry at what they show.

    the influence is beyond belief, wonder whether the producer/writers of the show take that factor into consideration or is it only the TRPs!!

  9. Haresh says:

    A nice post indeed. How often do we see in a serial/movie where a husband touches his wife's feet? Never, eh?

    I'm planning to make a post soon on a topic similar to this.

    And yes…

    @Ankur,

    It's not about who's shown to be 'powerful' or 'powerless' or who's leading character. It's rather about what they portray to be our ideals. How they portray an 'ideal wife', etc. is what's unwelcome. It gives a wrong message. And, unfortunately, not all of those who watch these serials can avoid those indirect messages.

  10. The Survivor says:

    The Hindi TV serials represents a backward ethos instead of exhibiting today's trends and realities.

    No wonder, I stick to the English ones they are far much better and does not cause any headaches.

  11. Fantastic.
    You should watch the Southie mega TV serials and hear the dialogues.
    Mamiyar (mom-in-law) always at the throat of marumagal (daughter-in-law) and the latter conspiring to get rid of the mamiyar. The interesting thing is that these serials are being watched by both the mamiyars and marumagals without batting their eyeleads even for a second.
    Krishnamoorthy

  12. Roop says:

    Very well written!!!
    btw i am also one of the padi-likhis who watched perfect bride religiously. ;p

    i don't know how i got dragged into it but it was entertaining for as long as it lasted. as for other shows, you've hit it rite on target. i got desi tv at home to fill in the void that not having any family around here ;p … if that serves as an excuse. but watching these absolute drivel is beginning to drive me more mad about being indian and belonging to a society with such regressive ideals!

    i wish something could be done to bring about a change. Sony has a new serial now .. Mahi Way and there's Rishta.com as well … they promise to be representing modern middle class india. let's see.

  13. AMODINI says:

    Lazy Pineapple,
    Thanks !

    Arun,
    Society needs to mature, yes. But there needs to be stricter regulation. All this lip-service paid the welfare of the girl-child is just lip-service, if we continue to go the other away with media.

    Dewdrop,
    Thanks for the link – that serial sounds atrocious.

    Ramesh,
    I have watched a smattering of these serials, but am not exactly addicted (did I sound so enamoured of them ?).

  14. AMODINI says:

    Ankur,
    You talk of superficial power – the power to fire the maid, the power to start a fight – how exactly does that count ?
    And yes, it might be a reflection of society, but society must change – are you suggesting that society remain static just because that's how it is ? About fantasizing thru these serials – I fantasize about a lot of things, but not about wanting to be a doormat.

    Indianhomemaker,
    Thanks – I do agree with your suggestion !

    Aparna,
    Indeed, there is a huge market for "good", well-made serials. I f people actually only wanted to watch this crap, Buniyaad, Hum Log would never have succeeded like they did.

  15. AMODINI says:

    PNA,
    Yes, these are so very influential- which makes them all the more damaging.

    Haresh,
    I am not suggesting that a husband touch his wife's feet, or that she touch his – it's not a game of tit-for-tat. But you get my drift – respect is necessary, whether it be to the man or the woman. Thanks for your reply to Ankur – nicely said !

    The Survivor,
    I have problems with the English ones too – but that's a different post :-)

    S. Krishnamoorthy,
    Thanks – am glad have been spared atleast the South Indian version then !

  16. AMODINI says:

    Roop,
    Ooh – another "Perfect Bride" watcher ! :-)
    Haven't seen the Sony stuff – hopefully it's better than this crap.

  17. mayflower says:

    Reading this was like dejavu. I read an article about how one serial was meant to fight female foeticide and decided to check it out.Some where along the way while waiting for the ‘fighting foeticide’ to start I got addicted. The husband was very critical and worried at first, but it joined me in my daily fix of nonsensical drama.Soon we were working our schedules to ensure dinner was had when these serials aired.
    Thankfully after a point we couldn’t take any more of the simpering, self sacrificing,perfect Indian wife – nonsense any more.
    Am hoping a lot more people tire of the rubbish they pass of as serials on TV, stop watching or then express their discontent and force these serial makers into making quality, non regressive entertainment

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  20. Preeti says:

    Hi,

    I’m coming late to the party yet again. I have discovered your blog only today and find your writing to be insightful and thought provoking.

    I just wanted to say that I agree whole-heartedly with you. My ex-MIL was an ardent fan of these K-serials and watched them with a great deal of interest.

    While I do not think that people are stupid enough to blindly accept TV soaps as accurate reflections of real life and real families, I do think that they set a bad precedent.

    Women in their thirties and forties, who have some degree of education and common sense, watch these soaps and treat them as they should be, mindless entertainment for evenings spent at home.

    However, I believe that many women who lead circumscribed, home-bound lives, do regard these soaps as some sort of good bahu/ good wife primer.

    To begin with, Indian society has unrealistic and unattainable notions of good wifely behavior.

    These soaps make it that much more difficult for ordinary DILs and wives to resist family pressure and to just be themselves.

    What is truly unfortunate is that these soaps are primarily watched by women who have fully internalised the domestic ideal.

    The average viewer is typically a housewife, with a limited amount education, professional experience and exposure to the wider world.

    Given the skewed power dynamics of the typical Indian family, the new wife/DIL is expected to adhere completely to these TV-driven notions of how “bahus” should behave in their “sasural”.

    These soaps limit a woman’s ability to think for herself and shape the terms of engagement in their marriage on their own terms.

    That said, I do think that Ekta Kapoor merely tapped into the vast, subterranean world of desi sexual politics.

    She did not invent the stereotype of the dutiful, submissive and devoted wife.

    We have our penis-loving “pracheen sabhyata and parampara” to thank for that.

  21. serial says:

    At least in south indian serials the bahu fights back and plots to out the mamiyaar (mother in law) in north indian serials as is in society mother in law is king . The bahu is expected to live without any kind of self respect …and her dignity trampled under her feet

    • amodini says:

      “Plotting” should not be required – women should be free to live as they see fit.

  22. Interesting article, Amodini!! I have to say these serials do give me a headache so I have to agree with your husband…”Its so much CRAP” :) But I do agree on the part that media should work on social issues that would lead to progress not degress. These serials are viewed by mainly rural population where education among women is so minimal. I understand why these programs are a hit there!!

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