Behind the scenes: Indian TV’s ‘good bahu, bad bahu’ sagas

TV Women
Television, a once-progressive medium that had sown the seeds of changing how women were perceived, has receded into stereotyping women in the most regressive forms in India. Click here to know more | Image - Eunice Dhivya

Dressed in chiffons, eyes highlighted with kohl and a long bindi on the forehead, she is often scheming about how to bring down the other woman — the female protagonist, who is angelic and sacrificial. If you have already guessed that this is the antagonist of popular Hindi soap operas from the stables of Ekta Kapoor and her spawns, you won’t be disappointed with its regional equivalents. Minus the chiffons and the big bindis or the kohl-eyed women, they are next-door neighbours or distant relatives, who only wait for the minutest of opportunities to target the ‘good woman’. They spread lies about her character and talk to her about how an ideal widow should dress up.

Pinch yourself hard and realise that yes, this is the kind of women you will get to see in the drawing room, across channels day and night. At a time, when women are breaking glass ceilings and when workplaces are talking about gender diversification, you have no choice but to settle for stories that portray women as conniving or murderous antagonists. Amid all the rage to avenge and settle scores, their only ambition is to marry the man they deeply desire, who is obviously in love with the ‘good woman’.

Television, a once-progressive medium that had sown the seeds of changing how women were perceived, has receded into stereotyping women in the most regressive forms in India.

Swarna Rajagopalan, founder, Prajnya Trust, which is engaged in gender equality activism, says she has lost count of the number of times when the antagonist in the reboot of Kapoor’s 2000s’ show Kasautii Zindagii Kay has attempted to murder another person.

“The degree of evilness is baffling and one wonders if human beings can really be that evil,” she says. “It is unfortunate because unlike any other medium — print, digital or cinema — TV has more proximity to its viewers. The characters they see in the serials often become part of their families,” she says.

And the programmes are often seen coming back to the lowest common denominator (LCD), she adds. “When TV grew in India in the 80s, we had programmes like Hum Log, Nukkad and Buniyad and many others with some great content, where social messaging was unmistakable. In old days, there was a strong sense of communication for social change, but now we have just product placements.”

Women galore, but impact little

Actress Raadhika Sarathkumar, who illustrated how successful soap operas can be through Chitthi (1999-2001) and other shows, says that in whatever form women are portrayed, storytelling is a challenge. While her shows too have the conniving female antagonist, she says the focal point is women and their approach to life.

“In Vani Rani, which has two sisters — one an educated lawyer and the other, an uneducated homemaker — it is about how neither of them lost their identity,” she says.

Her experiment with the subsequent Chandrakumari (that ran for just six months between 2018 and 2019), a historical, failed. Raadhika has now reverted to the good old formula with Chitthi 2, which again has a generous dose of the evil woman.

When one assumes that women can actually usher in the kind of change they want to see in the medium, the regression in the content becomes all the more puzzling, as the industry is dominated by them.

Swarna adds, “It is a classic example for why just having women is not enough. They should be with feminist consciousness and it doesn’t mean all the programmes have to be campaigns for some cause. They can be stories about normal, sane and thoughtful human beings.”

Even till the late 90s, when the TV programmes were limited to an episode a week, the characters were realistic, says Pushpa Kandaswamy, managing director, Kavithalaya Productions and the daughter of legendary filmmaker K Balachander who made popular serials for Tamil TV audience in 1990s and 2000s. Some of his popular works on TV were Rayil Sneham, Kai Alavu Manasu and Jannal, Sahana.

She observes, “These stories were not about placing them on a pedestal, but they actually gave them some realistic shades. There was a justification for why they behaved in a particular way. Those sensibilities are largely missing today.”

All for TRP?

Pushpa rues that TV content is in the hands of sponsors today who are more focused on TRPs. “You have to play to the gallery. They are more concerned about creating exciting content on a tight budget.”

“Today, the time spent on the shows content is limited too, with at least two episodes being shot per day. Earlier, during my father’s time, 1/3rd of an episode was a day’s work,” she explains. “We had the time to flesh out the character. That is the reason why serials today don’t have characters go beyond the drawing rooms in their enactment. In such a setting, you have very little time and space to outline their traits. It is due to this model of business that we don’t see great shows. Unless the budget is increased and unless the content director gets freedom, they won’t change.”

The banality of content has kept many veterans away from the business. One such person is actress, writer and director Renuka Shahane, who was once popular face to reckon with, from the 80s till early 2000s with shows such as Circus, Surabhi, Imtihaan, etc.

She says, “When I was growing up, I was exposed to content and programmes from across India, be it North East, South or from the North. Today, TV content is divided and distributed among regional audiences in a parochial set up. The demands of a soap opera today are contraindicative to creativity. In one way, it doesn’t fit my definition of work. I do not want to spend 18 hours a day shooting for serials all through the year. Moreover, the characters are cyclical — in the past they were progressive by and large, today they are regressive. Even if they begin with a progressive storyline, they are back to being regressive.”

“Okay, I wouldn’t mind playing a regressive character, but I do not want the character I play to realise that she was wrong after seven years into the serial,” she adds with a laugh.

Renuka says she has found a better space in over-the-top media services model. What The Folks, which has been aired since 2017, centres on modern families breaking stereotypes.

She says, “There is a lot of variety for the audiences in this model. The competition should give TV content producers a push to reinvent. There are audiences who do not sift channels and watch the programmes on one channel as there is no choice. Why not give them a choice?”

Watchdog can do little

The Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), an independent self-regulatory body set up by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, had recently pulled up Sun TV and the producer of a show for a vulgar rape scene in a serial called Kalyana Veedu. The makers subsequently had to air an apology ahead of the serial for a whole week and the channel was fined ₹2.5 lakh.

While such actions ensure that standards are set by content makers, the big change can come only from them. A source in BCCC says on condition of anonymity, “So far, we have issued 13 or 14 advisories to the makers — some of these related to women. Besides, we keep travelling to different places to meet the content creators and producers related to the field and have our experts — our chairperson and women experts — hold interactive sessions to apprise them as to what can be done.”

The source also says that complaints reported to them get taken up time and again, as in the case of Kalyana Veedu, and action is directed against the parties, in case they violate guidelines.

The guidelines specifically point out that women should not be shown as passive or submissive to glorify their secondary role, or as witches in programmes on occult. However, these guidelines have been thrown to the wind. Even today, there are shows that portray them as shape-shifting snakes in supernatural thrillers replete with sorcerers and spell casting witches, courtesy Nagin in Hindi and Nandini which was aired in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada.

S Sumathi, professor and head, Department of Anthropology, and director, International Centre, University of Madras, says that the shift to showing women as vamps and antagonists was a part of binary oppositions.

In the post-modern and contemporary discourses starting from 1990s, we realised that there must be a grey area. When social inclusion was ushered in the subsequent years, TV media took storytelling to the other extreme through these over-the-top portrayal of women.

Studies have shown that such negative portrayal and exaggerations can impact the vulnerable group and their mindset. It can be changed by the same content producers, but thinking out of the box is not easy. “And are they ready to take the risk?” she asks.

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