Mihir Choughule, Uncategorized

Dude, where’s my sanskaar?

Indian soaps are a staple of every person who has ever grown up in India (or outside), much like croissants and berets with the French and clouds and rain with the British. We all have a fascination with gross exaggeration and let’s face it – as much as we may detest them, the over-the-top nature of all soaps, and especially Indian soaps, is inherently appealing to the human psyche.

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How can anyone resist this riveting plotline?

And therein lies the issue. Because of their seemingly vast control over our minds and because entertainment in India is traditionally seen as a way of escaping one’s miseries in life, the lines between fiction & peddling so-called morality subliminally can get blurred, with worrying frequency. There is growing resentment & anger, especially amongst the younger generation, about the patriarchal structure blatantly glorified in these soaps.

But the scale of the problem is a vast one, possibly greater than anyone imagined, myself included, as seen in this article. Just to summarise the findings from that article, 27.4% market share from 600mn viewers in India means roughly 165mn watching these patriarchy versions of Death Stars on a daily basis. That is almost the population of Bangladesh, the 8th-most populated country in the world. Add to the fact that these are popular ‘especially [amongst] women in rural areas’ suggests a disturbing fact: TV producers are deliberately targeting the ultra-conservative households in India’s rural belt.

That in itself is not a problem per se, because some people really do watch them for their entertainment value, expecting nothing in terms of intellectual gain. It is simply a way for them to relax after a long day at work (an explanation used by my mum – true or not, I don’t know). Although it is the last thing on my list ‘to relax’ and first on the list of ‘making my blood boil,’ it differs for different people and each to their own at the end of the day. The sad part is that Indian TV soaps, especially during the ‘90s, really produced some ground-breaking stuff, to try and explore issues which hadn’t received as much attention as it had (for a better explanation, check this post). Now, it’s all about TRPs. Whoever captures the most eyeballs at a given time can charge higher advertising fees and hence make better money – and what captures people’s attention better than loud, over-the-top, gross exaggeration?

The big difference between Indian soaps and Western ones is twofold. One, there is a bombardment of these types of shows on Indian TV, with channels almost exclusively dedicated to broadcasting these shows (all of them shoving the same ‘values’ and ‘culture’ down our throats). Contrast this with British soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street, which are effectively the only two soaps left on British TV and cater themselves specifically to the older generation (for reference, Coronation Street started broadcasting in 1960; EastEnders at a relatively recent 1985). This then leads directly to the 2nd point – because the target audience is so small, these British counterparts serve the sole purpose of entertainment.

Indeed, as mentioned in the hyperlinked article, the primary reasons why TV soaps are so popular in India (coincidentally, it is NOT a ‘developing country issue’ – almost no other developing country has a comparable market for daily soaps) are because a) people, especially housewives/women in rural areas, can identify with them and b) more worryingly, because there exists the possibility that they can potentially be used to put on a pedestal a way of living that is in accordance with ‘Indian culture’ – which is more often than not, a byword for patriarchy. And almost everything in these shows is geared with the sole objective of the facetious ‘good over evil’. That is not a bad thing, of course – but the things considered ‘good’ or ‘evil’ are so far removed from reality that they would probably reside in Shia LaBeouf’s head. For example, there is no room for the benefit of the doubt or a grey area in the characters. The brilliance of several Western dramas in the recent years has been a certain ambiguity around pivotal characters, thus allowing viewers to come to their own conclusion, one way or another. In Indian fiction programming, it’s like there is a checklist for what constitutes good and evil. If a character smokes – evil. If a woman shows skin – evil. If a woman wakes up at 4am and serves tea to the elders in the house – good.

Not only is this race to the lowest common denominator, completely ridiculous and a waste of money that could actually be used to produce good fiction, but its potential misuse as a way of promoting ‘Indian culture’ really elevates the threat, indirect it may be, to the development of society as a whole. Let me expand on this further:

  1. Various generations of the same daily soaps lead to imitation & mimicry of the agendas seen on screen; hence, gender & social inequality is exacerbated
  2. However, because these shows are naturally eye-catching, demand for them rises, which leads to a proliferation of shows from the same mould, with little variation in story & characters
  3. The increased competition means that existing & new shows have to somehow make their respective soaps more attractive & eye-catching – which usually means a race to the bottom in terms of the content on screen
  4.  This goes back to point 1) and the whole cycle repeats again.

It is truly astounding that producing fiction in India costs less than producing reality shows – people look towards entertainment as a respite from the daily grind but in India, it seems the opposite is true. In a country as media-loving as India, its citizens deserve far better than the stuff they are being exposed to at the moment. Even greater a problem, in my opinion, is that various generations of the same type of shows can be extremely detrimental, particularly when TRPs and ratings are all that matter and good quality content is sacrificed at the cost of crude, sexist and patriarchal behaviour. Luckily, there has been a lot of outrage and criticism, from people from all ages, sexes and geographies, about the state of daily television that they are subjected to. However, it will remain unheard & eventually die out if action (from the government or other organisations, even possibly the industry itself) is not taken immediately to put in place some guidelines & regulations to monitor the stuff being put out on the screens.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Indian TV soaps haven’t been eye-opening – if nothing else, at the least we realised that our ladoo-making skills are directly correlated with our chances of keeping a job.

Article by Mihir Choughule

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