04 September 2012

Serial Shakti by Divya Khanna (JWT Mumbai)

‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ Whether you attribute this statement to the philosophy of Karma or to Newton’s third law of motion, its truth is undeniable. And if you ever wanted definitive proof of this, start a conversation on Indian TV serials. It doesn’t matter on what side of the debate you happen to be, you are very likely to have some pretty strong feelings on the subject. I do too!

Initially, I hated them. I only watched by force because they were all my brand’s consumers would like to talk about. Luckily I could get by through watching an episode every week or ten days. Unlike British and American TV, these serials are designed for women who are programmed to always put their needs last. So, fast-paced content would lose viewers who couldn’t watch every episode.

At the time when Star Plus and Ekta Kapoor were just starting to discover their winning formula, feminists and basically anyone who wanted to watch “more intelligent” TV started to protest. Every complaint boiled down to one basic accusation – ‘promoting regressiveness’, binding women more strongly to roles and rituals that enslaved and exploited them. If this was true (and at the time I thought it might be), the question was – why were women so hooked?

Two observations prompted me to question my stance. First, we were interviewing women in Bangalore who didn’t understand Hindi but were watching some of these serials. Putting together their experiences with other South Indian women, the researchers discovered that they were intrigued by the fashion shown in the serials. While traditional clothing was a clear preference, the serials allowed even the most conservative of women to experiment with lighter fabrics, better fitting and/or deeper cut blouses and more ‘modern’ jewelry designs or even temporary tattoos.

Secondly, at the same time, media commentators started digging deeper into the popular characters. Just because Tulsi wore a sari Gujarati style and made dhoklas for the whole joint family didn’t mean she wasn’t also a revolutionary with definite opinions that she always took a stand on. She and the other women protagonists demonstrated how women could influence and challenge the family from within, without abandoning their crucial roles and responsibilities and definitely, without becoming the personification of evil.

Indian women were finding inspiration for their own aspirations in the idealized reality of television.

Top Ten Reasons why women find TV serials empowering:
1.       A context that is safe, familiar and non-threatening.
2.       They seem benign on the surface – there can be no serious objection to the content.
3.       The archetypal ‘TV family’ celebrates Indian culture.
4.       The characters are people that they very easily relate to.
5.       The themes connect to every woman’s basic desire to be loved, cherished and understood by her family.
6.       They present role models who seem like real women with their own flaws and personalities.
7.       These women promote their causes from within and in support of their existing roles rather than in opposition.
8.       The plots of the serials provide an opportunity to discuss relevant issues from the outside rather than through intense personal filters.
9.       The serials both reflect and shape the emerging sensibilities of their viewers, for example the increasing sensual content.
10.   Through the story progression, we see family and society show growing appreciation for each woman’s unique impact, making her earlier struggles seem worthwhile.

Today this side of the debate has much more concrete evidence in the face of the ‘regressive’ criticism or perhaps, even because of it. From Ballika Vadhu to Parvarish to Ek Hazaaron Mein to Kya Hua Tera Vaada …the diversity in the women characters on TV today is encouraging.

If you’re not yet convinced, perhaps the real proof is in looking at the other side. Rather like actresses in the Bollywood films of the ‘80’s, the male actors in TV serials today serve mainly as eye candy. And Rama Bijapurkar has noted the subtle emasculation in her ‘We Are Like This Only’ column, “…the men in these serials are often reduced to convenient props, or powerless protesters or tyrants, who don’t realize that the rug is being pulled ever so gently from under their feet.”[1]

The truth about opposite reactions applies to India too. Everything you say about the country is true. And the opposite is true too. We worship goddesses for their feminine energy and we kill female infants for being, well, female. We hail daughters-in-law as Lakshmis and we harass and burn them for dowry. We claim women are the pride and honour of the family and yet they are molested, assaulted and raped with impunity. Indian women believe in adjusting within their constraints - our feminism is not breaking free of the shackles that bind us but about using those same shackles to our advantage and bringing about change drop by drop and not in a sudden wave that could potentially drown us. Within our powerlessness, we are discovering our great power. And we don’t need to step out of the house or outside conventional boundaries to understand this. We only have to reach for the remote and press a button.

[1] Rama Bijapurkar, “The Old Order Has Changed”, Eye on Express, January 29 – February 4 2012

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