They have influenced fashion, created fierce debates in media and the society and mesmerized people across caste, community and religion. Some of them even have brought the entire country to a standstill when they are on. Yes, we are talking about the ubiquitous TV serials on the numerous channels, spanning genre, theme and class representation. A latest book seeks to analyse the impact of prime time soap operas on contemporary society. The writer, Shoma Munshi, division head of Social Sciences and professor of Anthropology at the American University of Kuwait (AUK), has chosen five most popular soaps for her study. Munshi talks to Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on the idea behind her book, Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television (Routledge):
You have chosen five specific serials for your book. What were your criteria for selecting them?
It was deliberate. The book tracks the specific time period of 2000–2008. The three most successful soaps from Balaji Telefilms – ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’, ‘Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii’ and ‘Kasautii Zindagi Kay’ – were an obvious choice, having topped TRPs for eight years. I chose ‘Saat Phere…Saloni Ka Safar’ and ‘Sapna Babul Ka…Bidaai’ as a counterfoil, because they were the first to challenge the K soaps’ supremacy, and both were issue-based, focusing on the dark skin/fair skin thesis.
How do you view the latest trend of serials taking of social causes like child marriage, female foeticide, farmers’ suicides, etc., even if perfunctorily?
Viewership data show that the audience base has spread from metros to include smaller towns and villages, and TAM (Television Audience Measurement) data now tracks this. In such a scenario, stories of soaps have to take into account issues that relate to a larger base of people. Besides, after eight years of the family sagas of K soaps, people were looking for a change.
Soap operas, ironically, are female character dominated. Why is it so, when we see it in the context of the fact that India has a male-dominated society?
There is nothing ironic about this. Soap operas are in fact are referred to as “soaps” because their origins lie in the 1950s radio dramas in the US that were broadcast during the day, when women were mainly at home doing household chores. These radio dramas were sponsored by companies such as Proctor and Gamble who were soap manufacturers, hence the name, which stuck. In addition, the very genre of soap operas is women-centric. This is the case not just in India, but anywhere in the world. The soaps’ characteristic address is to women viewers, and the centrality of women characters is basic to soaps all over the world. Titles of soaps in India also reflect this.
What is your view regarding the quality of serials on Indian channels at present, particularly when compared to days when DD was the only channel?
There is no question about the fact that DD had some landmark shows such as ‘Hum Log’ and ‘Buniyaad’. One must also remember, however, that DD was the only channel available to us. Open skies policy means more to choose from. Of course, the recognizability of channels also helps, in that Star Plus, Colors and Zee have greater recognition value. I am sure, for instance, that if ‘Bandini’ had been on Star Plus, it would have figured in the top ten much earlier. Still, NDTV Imagine pulled in audiences with ‘Ramayan’ and ‘Rakhi Ka Swayamvar’.
Soap operas are often alleged to be representing women in a regressive mode.
This is something that I have always taken issue with. Why must women be considered regressive if they are homemakers? Soap stories, being women-centric by definition, locate the woman in the family home, generally the setting for soaps. In soaps, competence in the personal sphere is valued and women are able to handle difficult situations well because of it, and this is crucial. Women like Parvati and Tulsi has very strong moral centers; through their sacrifice and ‘sachhai ki raha par chalna’ (treading the path of truth) attitude, they surpassed traditional gendered roles. Nowadays, there are women characters with more shades of grey than earlier who are very much in control, as well as characters who despite living in fear of their mothers-in-law, show definite sparks of revolt. And, very importantly, unlike many Bollywood films, women and their bodies in soaps are not objectified.
What, according to you, have been the major qualities of Indian soap operas in terms of their content vis-a-vis society?
Soaps work at many levels. The overtly visible impact includes the influence on fashion in jewellery, clothes and accessories. Soaps have popularised festivals like Karva Chauth to the extent that it is now celebrated all over India. The mangalsutra is now worn by communities where it was not the norm earlier. The less visible aspects include the fact that expensive sets and décor, where festivals and other celebrations regularly take place, contribute to a sense of ‘Indian-ness’. Audience response cells at production houses and channels show how depictions of rituals and festivals in soaps have helped educate the younger generation about them. Soaps also show the constituency of old age romance, and bring issues like marital rape, the problems that dark-skinned girls face in India out of the closet into a space for discussion. Very importantly, and however strange it sounds, soaps play a role in empowering women. Recent academic research clearly demonstrates that rural women admire the independence of strong soap heroines, especially Tulsi and Parvati. The most positive fallouts are, to my mind, a mother welcoming a girl child because she learnt on prime time soap operas that she too can grow up to be a strong woman; and that education is key, so she sends her daughter to school with her brothers.