Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Saas, bahu aur asar

Media analyst Sevanti Ninan writes a significant piece in The Hindu (4 April 2010) this Sunday. A very interesting article in which she discusses Indian television serials, what comes across as regressive content and the unexpected, unforeseen effect it seems to have had on women exposed to them.
TV soaps with bizarre, regressive storylines pay scant respect to notions of women's empowerment. Yet, they seem wildly popular and, according to some studies, empowering too. Are these script writers more in touch with reality than literal-minded activists and journalists?
she asks.

Ninan quotes Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television by Shoma Munshi, which in turn partly bases its conclusions on research by Robert Jensen and Emily Oster on the effects of cable television in rural areas of India. Taken together, the argument is that Indian soaps are actually empowering women, that "regression" depends on the point of view. In her piece Ninan wonders at the results and the very convoluted route to empowerment.

The whole story is up here at The Hindu and here on The Hoot.

I responded to the article and the link is here at The Hoot.
And here, for my record, is all of it.


A response to 'Is this empowerment?'

I found myself laughing a little over Sevanti Ninan's bewilderment in the piece (Is this empowerment?) reprinted from The Hindu. As someone who bestrides what seems to be a chasm, I am tempted to respond. I am a modern woman - I am intelligent, I have a media degree, I'm a mediaperson (of sorts), I'm feminist (I like to paint in my own shades but the broad umbrella will do). Also I watch serials avidly - it started because I like the TV on and I prefer glittery clothes to the news. But lately, because it fascinates me.

As the writer says, there is a world of difference in perception. The casual disinterested viewer -­ or more particularly, the casual, contemptuous journalist/activist - is appalled at the goings-on in serials; the regular viewer cannot be persuaded to move her eyes from the screen enough to feed her squalling children. For a very long time now, media-watchers and analysts have berated the average viewer for her tastes, shuddered and averted their eyes from the gaudy colours, the campy vamps and the bizarre plotlines, and tried rather desperately to uplift everyone's frame of mind.

They have not succeeded. The serials have gone on being made and, more importantly, they have gone on been consumed. If Balaji Telefilms is no longer the market leader, it doesn't matter any more. They have handed on the torch of that particular stamp of television - it has grown many more heads.

Why these serials thrive is an interesting question. The easy, lazy answer is that these hordes of nameless women across the country (and in neighbouring Pakistan) are fools. That they don't know any better. That they could be watching... oh, I don't know what but certainly something more educative.

However, I don't think that is true. I think our middle class is peopled with sensitive, intelligent, attentive women capable of nuanced thinking - I have several TV fanatics myself among my family and friends; I even adore a large number of them. In which case, we must go by Holmes: when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. We must consider that women are gaining something from this; that they are not merely swallowing whole every broad stroke of apparent regressiveness; that they are entertained; that they are sifting, sorting and picking nuggets that fit in with their current social constructs - and even moving ahead in desirable directions with whatever subtle manoeuvres are available to them. That in spite of the disastrous-seeming package it comes in, Indian TV serials MUST be doing something right.

I was delighted to learn from this article that even so far back as 2001-2003 - the very initial years of the saas-bahu sub-genre - the serials had such a positive impact. It also bears out my own persistent feeling that there is a great deal of difference between what appears to be the message and what is actually absorbed - because there is no other way to explain why they fascinate this huge mass of audience, why they have continually done so this entire decade.

Is it merely that these serials engage in women's concerns? Kitchen politics, in the broad scheme of things, may be insignificant. But perhaps to the woman trapped in it, it helps to have someone examine her situation? TV serials, after all, are not primarily for the outgoing modern woman with various exciting options for her evening's entertainment. They are watched (we assume) by women who have just finished their household chores; the woman who comes, at the end of the day, to her place in front of the television, where the rest of family resignedly relinquishes the remote. Even that, to my mind, is no small victory. It is understood across Indian households now that primetime television is the woman's right - in spite of scoffing malefolk in the background, she is entitled to watch her serials; moreover it is understood, by and large, that she is not to be disturbed as she does it.

Coming now in particular to Pratigya, which Ninan quotes. I'm not arguing for a minute that the plotline isn't utterly shocking, or that there is something right about marrying a harasser. But to see the “power of women”, or the charm of “Pratigya character”, the devil is in the details.

It is a piquant situation. There are two families that are contrasted here: Pratigya's refined, educated family with its genteel manners, and Krishna's rowdy, coarse, wealthy but unlettered folk, as ready with their fists as they are with abuses. Pratigya, for Krishna, is the aspiratonal goal. He wants her, he has got her. Now he needs her approval, he needs to measure up to her and is doing everything possible to please her, to be worthy of her. Through her eyes he now sees his family. A household in which his mother is kicked and punched the minute she steps out of line, where the older bahu is slapped down fairly regularly. I imagine it would curl quite a few stomachs (it did mine) to hear the maid servant inform her mistress with coy triumph that the bahu has already been ‘worshipped' for the day - she means the daily beating, of course. It is appalling. But as a study of how women buy into and participate in the suppression of their own kind, it shows a mirror.

I understand the writer's horror at Krishna's popularity. The context, however, is that he comes of such stock. He has a brother against whom he is measured - the brother (Shakti) is completely a product of his background, while Krishna questions it. Shakti buys into the male hegemony; Krishna is willing to see other sources of power. Krishna is ordered, pressured, mocked into abandoning his support of his wife on the grounds that such devotion makes him very unmanly - he has (so far) resisted attempts with commendable firmness.

Krishna's own (very crude) sister is now married into Pratigya's mild family - their unkindness is of a rather different kind. They sniff at her, they ignore her, they will have no truck with her - curiously, for someone used to being hurled abuses at and pushed around, she still finds their reception of her unbearably hostile. Her abrasive manner only thinly masks her hurt at the rejection. The families are deadlocked in a rather interesting situation, for each has a daughter hostage in the enemy camp.

The social milieu in Pratigya and recent developments in the show throw up a few note-worthy points:

  • Neither family wants to continue to stay in the situation it finds itself in. Most of the characters would rather retrieve their girl and break relations (the situation is being held in place by Krishna, who still desperately wants a good marriage with Pratigya and hopes to bring her around.) Marriage, apparently, is no longer a lifelong commitment. Interestingly, neither family makes any concerned noises at all about their daughter's future, should such a break happen. It makes a contrast from even a decade ago when we were told repeatedly that once a woman's ‘doli' had entered a portal, only her ‘arthi' could leave it.
  • The Thakur family, in spite of its violent habits, does not actually have the stereotyped silent, suppressed women. They talk back, they argue, they fight. When they are abused, they exhibit no very great weakness - if it is an indignity, they do not permit it to touch them deeply. They brush it off, get up again and contrive to have their voices heard.
  • Only last week, Pratigya refused to have her name changed in her sasural; refused to have her identity taken away and be demeaned by having another name foisted on her.
  • Krishna's mother hates her daughter in law Pratigya because her son backs her to the hilt. It is a hate born of deep envy. It brings home to her the inadequacies of her own life, a glimpse what she might have had, viz., a husband who respects her.
  • Pratigya's father has now managed to negotiate for his daughter an environment that contains books. The Thakur family is feeling backfooted because they cannot read, while their bahu can.
Incidentally I have bad news for some viewers - in the week to come, Pratigya is about to be raped by her hitherto forbearing husband. Doubtless the twist is led by the TRP race but there is also no doubt that it will trigger a rather invisible, subterranean debate on marital rape.

I've been rather long winded about this - but the point, I suppose, is that these serials do occasionally shine the light on what exists; and that depiction doesn't always amount to ratification. Unfortunately, there has been a rather dismissive attitude to popular culture - as if low-brow material must necessarily lack sensibility. To draw a small lesson from Bollywood, not all the cinema and literary work before it managed to make homosexuality as acceptable to middle-class India as Dostana (2008) did. The movie took the idea, wrapped it up affectionately and placed it before the masses, who, to their credit, considered it and accepted it. It was a gentle transaction.

The stories streaming into our drawing rooms may not preach in an ‘acceptable' way. It is possible that they just show, allowing for people see themselves, recognise themselves and wherever possible, identify with this or the other character? They do this to the accompaniment of high melodrama. The saas-bahu genre is now heavily stylised, with its own vocabulary, make-up (what are the bindis and hair-dos but equivalents of the white hat/black hat or Kathakali costumes for positive and negative stereotypes), and a distinct style of editing involving many white flashes.

In spite of the presentation, merely the fact that television serials deal with a long line of female protagonists is encouraging. The female life is being rather thoroughly examined - the child bride, the new bride, the wife, the mistress, the mother, the businesswoman, the ruler, the matriarch. Not even Bollywood has paid us that compliment.


Anonymous said...

Sheetal, this is a brilliant piece! Particularly love the bits abt the "glittery clothes", the "gaudy colours" and the "campy vamps", which are what seduced me inititally for a while to Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, which is really mild in comparison to the fare on display now. But you lost me at Pratigya.

I am currently following Laagi Tujhse Lagan and Na Aana Is Des Meri Laado on Colors, when time permits.

The current plotline on NAIDML with the enforced incest bit was a shocker, and got me thinking about what Colors seems to be doing with quite a few of its offerings.

Clearly it's all about money-making, callous sensationalism in the guise of bringing to light social ills. Basically, anything for TRPs.

It's not just pulp fiction, but rotten, vile stuff that is abusive to women and undermines whatever little gains have been made on the female empowerment front. It seems to me as though the backlash against visible signs of female progress in India is now already underway.

I find it deeply disturbing that all these channels are being allowed to get away with this insidious damage to society.
I know people will say it's the TV/violence issue all over again. But if Dostana can create a friendlier climate for gays, these serials can make a lot of crimes against women/girls more acceptable. At the very least they desensitise people to crimes against women and retard the social status of women.

I don't buy the channels' argument that this reflects the evils already present in society. Yeah, there are extremes - people with multiple wives, female foeticide, child marriage, et al, but I don't see how glamorising them and seducing us with those images makes the war against them any stronger.

I wouldn't watch serials like Pratigya, and even with the NAIDML, I only return to it at intervals to see if the issue has been resolved and see if the newest Bahu has finally dropped being "Sita" and become "Gita".

But then I never much went for Violet Winspear either, although I can happily read Nora Roberts.

I really wish someone would start a signature campaign or something against these depictions of women. I'd be happy to sign one.

(Sorry for this long response, but these serials really alarm me.)


Sheetal said...

Thanks so much Sabiha! and sorry for the late response – last week was crazy-busy.

First, I should say that I don’t want to be pushed to one corner of the slide with regard to positions on this. Merely defending all TV serials is a false position with regard to how I feel.

I see what you’re saying. You were very persuasive on the phone the other day – you’re saying that these scenes that show women being subjugated are powerful images, that they’re capable of insidiously influencing our society, desensitising us. That the more we see these incidents to be ‘normal’ the more common they will be. That these serials are thwarting the gains made by the feminist movement.

To this I say, a feminist movement that does not gather all our sisters is a flimsy one. If they don’t believe in the values written on the placards heading the procession, if they don’t find them particularly relevant, they will drop off. And they have that right, to make up their own set of values – values that ensure their best shot at survival and happiness.

My thoughts re “channels are being allowed to get away with this insidious damage to society”. Irrespective of whether the effect is positive, negative, complicated, counter-intuitive or any combination thereof, my point is: there are producers of a certain type of product and there are consumers – both presumably happy with their place under the sun. Quite clearly there is a communication there that the intelligentsia is not privy to, that gender activists are unable to tune into. There is a sub-text – sent out, received and understood. At the very least, it keeps women entertained, gives them something to discuss. Why should that bother anyone else? As for “being allowed to get away” – isn’t that censorship of a very biased, very top-down kind?

Also, I personally don’t believe that the cause and effect between these serials and female disempowerment is that simple. Simply because the message isn’t that simple. Also – this is important for me to say – the audience isn’t that simple. You underestimate the viewers. You think of them as a foolish sponge that absorbs water or expels it without altering it. You don’t give them credit for understanding what you do. You don’t give them credit for knowing their own conditions thoroughly, for reacting sensibly.

If that step back you talk about does occur, it will occur for reasons far more complicated and essential to the lives of India’s rural and middle classes than simple exposure to ideas. Ideas are powerful, yes, but only when their time has come; when they fall on soil ready for them, when other conditions support their taking root.

I can understand demands for more versatile television. I’d like to see myself some nice thrillers, some classics, short stories. I’d like to see adaptations, fresh crime fiction, translations from inaccessible regional sources. But what I don’t want to do is grudge this homegrown culture its space. It is huge, it is significant.

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