With scripts tackling issues like cancer, remarriage and single motherhood, television has moved away from the machinations of the evil saas and the docile bahu. What's driving the small screen’s revolution towards progressive story lines and realistic characters?
Have you caught up with Anandi recently, Indian television’s balika vadhu who was married off at eight to a boy called Jagiya? Now that she’s divorced her childhood husband, Anandi is rebuilding her life quite differently. She is the “sarpanch bitiya” of her village and runs a school for girls. Recently, she was in the news for stopping a child wedding in her village, with the help of the dashing collector saab, but more on him later.
First, let’s talk about Maanvi, Jeevika’s younger sister. The vivacious, prank-a-minute girl is currently battling cancer on primetime television. She’s braved chemotherapy and lost her hair but doesn’t think of herself as a victim. The tears she sheds are because she can't be with the boy she loves, Virat. Says Siddharth Malhotra, producer and show creator of Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behna Hai on Star Plus, “Maanvi never cries because she has cancer. She cries because she feels she can’t be with the boy she has fallen in love with. Her emotions are that of a normal girl. She is taking cancer on the chin and has the attitude ki main cancer ko rona sikha doongi (I’ll teach cancer to cry).”
The small screen is in the midst of a paradigm shift. Progressive storylines, modern treatment and realistic characters are bringing in fresh energy to teleserials. It’s no longer just about the sagas and the saazish of the saas, bahu and the betis. With story lines tackling issues like cancer, female empowerment, remarriage, single parenting, television has come a long way from the days of kitchen politics and people returning from the dead. Today’s bahu is not just content to make the best kheer in the family but, like Sandhya in Diya Aur Baati Hum, the country's top-rated show according to TRP ratings, aspires to be an IPS officer, and is encouraged to dream big by her uneducated husband Sooraj. Or, like Aarti and Yash in Zee TV's Punar Vivaah, happy to discover love after their first marriages don't last. No wonder television producer, Ekta Kapoor says, “Television soaps are, in many instances, more progressive than films.”
Nitin Vaidya, business head, Hindi channels, Star India, the country’s No. 1 GEC (General Entertainment Channel) according to the latest TAM ratings, and the channel which came up with popular soaps like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, says, “Innovative formats in the programming strategy are the need of the hour as identical narratives fail to impress the audiences of today. We have also observed that although the family continues to be at the centre of all the shows in Hindi GEC, the focus has shifted from just dealing with family problems to dealing with social issues.”
Social issues have always been a mainstay of Colors channel’s magnum opus Balika Vadhu. Initially, the serial was panned for notching TRPs by exploiting, and thereby propagating, a social evil like child marriage. Writer Purnendu Shekhar says it took a while for people to get the irony of Anandi’s situation. “When we started, people said we were glorifying child marriages. They couldn’t see the irony that this child had no idea of what is happening to her life. When you go to a doctor, he first diagnoses the disease and then treats it. Similarly, we had to first talk of child marriage and then show what it does. In that sense, regression is the first step to progression.”
Four years and 1,000 plus episodes later, the show has kept its word. In Balika Vadhu, every episode ends with a slogan summarising the theme (Shekhar’s father Meghraj Shrimali writes the slogans). “Initially, people used to say this makes the show preachy. But if you are being entertained through the episode, at least at the end of it, something should make you think. If we are taking a stand, we have to remind people about it again and again,” says Shekhar. Interestingly, when Shekhar wrote the original story in 1992, there was no divorce in the plot. The thought came as they shot the show, “the realisation camethat kachchi umar ke pakke rishte sahi nahin ho sakte… Anandi Jagiya ke saath nahin ho sakti (Relationships forged so early can’t last. Anandi and Jagiya can’t stay together),” he says.
The audience relates to Balika Vadhu easily. There was a recent news report about Jodhpur girl Lakshmi Sangara who took inspiration from Balika Vadhu to annul her child marriage. Incidentally, this marks India’s first ever legal annulment of child marriage.
Even though the television landscape is broadening, the general notion is that women are still the major content determinants. But there’s also a growing demand for variety. “There is definitely a shift in viewership. The usual fare is not what the viewers want. They are rejecting anything similar, anything depressive,” says Sneha Rajani, senior executive vice-president and business head, SET (Sony Entertainment Television). Her channel’s revamp began last year when she took over and rejigged its fiction roster. Balaji’s Bade Achche Lagte Hain with the robust Ram Kapoor and Sakshi Tanwar as a middle-aged couple (the latter now plays a single parent in the second season of the serial) worked as a catalyst for the channel and now they have an all-fiction roster post last season’s Kaun Banega Crorepati.
Although the family remains the unshakable foundation of an Indian soap, breaking through the clutter has become the buzzword. The twists in the tale are more organic and less tenuous. For instance, in Colors’ Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha, Megha Vyas is a widow with two children who is being urged to remarry by her in-laws. Star Plus’ Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behna Hai, which on the surface is a story of two sisters, deals with cancer, setting it apart. Malhotra says it was part of the storyline from the first day. “We knew where we were going. The basic premise of the show is that Maanvi bigaarti hai, Jeevika sawaarti hai (Maanvi destroys, Jeevika nurtures). We want to show what happens to the sisters when real life comes knocking and the stakes are high.”
The focus now is on being real and keeping it natural. Characters are no longer dressed for a wedding at bedtime and the action has moved from the kitchen to the bedroom. Sex is hardly a taboo word, coyly indicated by a closed door and rustling sheets. Ram and Priya's consummation episode in Bade Achhe... showed the couple locking lips, garnering 2,034,413 YouTube hits on the way. Rajani says this was expected. “It reached a point where people were hounding us about it. Even my mother who lives in London asked me about it. There was tremendous anticipation, so we made a promo which went viral and it kind of became an event.”
In Star Plus’ Mann Ki Aawaaz Pratigya, child sexual abuse is now under the scanner. The story track is similar to the talk show Satyamev Jayate which explored the topic in its second episode. According to Vaidya, this integration “is part of the channel’s effort to make the audience aware of these issues through their favourite characters.”
Shashi Mittal, producer-writer of Punar Vivaah and Diya Aur Baati Hum, says television and society are watching over each other. “It’s a chicken and egg situation,” says Mittal, “We are showing what’s happening in society. You can also say that because we are showing it, yeh sab aur chal raha hai (it’s happening even more).” But she says the saas-bahu saga is not entirely behind us. “Saas-bahu is something we will always have. Just like pati-patni.
These are crucial relationships, it’s impossible to ignore them completely. But the context has changed, and so relationships have to be redefined. A woman is no longer just a beti, saas or bahu. We can finally show aspirational characters too,” she says.
In the quest for authenticity, the actors too are up for all kinds of challenges, willing to venture into unchartered territory. Gone are the days when actors were unwilling to age on screen, now they even go bald if a role requires them to. Child actor Bhavya Gandhi, who plays Tappu in Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah on SAB TV, went bald to create awareness of the trauma that kids suffering from cancer go through when their friends tease them about their baldness. So did the Ek Hazaaron Mein… couple Nia Sharma and Kushal Tandon. Though it wasn’t an easy decision for Sharma — she admits to getting into a depressive funk — she did it because it was essential for the role. “Initially, I was thinking like a girl and not like my character. I had long hair and felt I would look ugly without it, but I relied on Siddharth’s vision and went ahead. It’s heartening to see the response,” says Sharma.
In order to get the nuances of her character right, Sharma spent time interacting with children battling the disease. “When we met the kids, we found them to be happy and full of life. That’s when I decided that Maanvi won’t be listless,” she says. The show is being written by a cancer survivor and another writer whose father is fighting the disease. There’s also a cancer specialist on the set to avoid misrepresentation. “As television makers, we have a social responsibility to change the mindset of people. We want to send out a positive message,” says Malhotra.
Interestingly, the internet is opening up as a new viewing option, especially for the younger generation. Star Plus’ romantic drama, Iss Pyar Ko Kya Naam Doon, is an online rage. The show’s lead actors, Barun Sobti and Sanaya Irani (who portray the characters of Arnav Singh Raizada and Khushi Kumari Gupta), enjoy cult status with fans terming themselves as “Arshians”. Gul Khan, producer of the show feels the show’s fan base proves the real reach of television. “The assumption is that housewives watch Indian soaps but the fan base of our show proves that youngsters are also tuning in. It is an entirely different population we are talking to but they don’t necessarily reflect on the TRP ratings, since youngsters watch the show whenever they are free. Its high time we took this generation into consideration when we develop content as this demograph is growing,” says Khan.
So what’s in the future of Indian television? Malhotra says a mix-and-match fare will work. He is currently putting together a Glee-inspired show with 150 songs. Khan is putting finishing touches to a crime romance about two cops and a modern day Muslim love story titled Kabool Hai. Rajani says television will follow the same pattern as films. “Films like Vicky Donor and Gangs of Wasseypur have shown us that the audience wants different content, TV will also need to do it.” She cites the example of Sony’s new show, Byah Hamari Bahu Ka, which was launched with much fanfare but is struggling for TRPs. “Somehow, the audience didn’t connect with the image of a sari-clad, docile bahu. The channel loyalists like their protagonists to be empowered like Priya, Dr Nidhi, Mona and Sweety,” she says.
The Hero Gets a Makeover
He is a corporate bigwig, a district collector, a reporter, hell, even a superstar. But at heart, he is the quintessential lover who supports his woman through sickness and health, good times and bad. Meet some of television’s most-loved leading men
The Mills And Boon Hero: Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon’s Arnav Singh Raizada played by Barun Sobti
As ASR, he is the Bluetooth-plugged-English-speaking millionaire. For lady love Khushi, he is Arnavji. He’s rude, brooding and arrogant and believes “Main kabhi galat nahin hota (I am never wrong).”
Producer Gul Khan says, “Arnav is full of himself and thinks he’s god’s gift to humanity. He is extremely flawed. He clicks because for all the character’s arrogance, his eyes have that innocence which lets him get away with anything.” No wonder, girls love him. The episode in which Barun went shirtless got 1,23,219 YouTube hits. Sobti plays down his star appeal. “The character is well fleshed out. Just like we are all made up of our moods, Arnav too goes through these emotional phases, so let’s not judge him.”
The Earnest Crusader: Balika Vadhu’s District Collector Shivraj Shekhar, played by Siddharth Shukla
His character’s entry was nothing short of an event. There was a chariot, a horse, a damsel in distress and Shukla came in like a knight in shining armour (despite a knee surgery) to save Anandi’s life. As Jaitsar’s Collector saab, he’s earnest, straightforward and conscientious. He is so natural as an officer that people on the street have also started addressing him as Collector saab. He wins brownie points for being the understanding suitor. “He gives Anandi her space, doesn’t push her around, doesn’t snap at her even when she snaps at him. Guess, this is what women like to see in a man,” says Shukla.
The Man-Child Loverboy: Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha’s Mohan Bhatnagar, played by Kunal Karan Kapoor
He is not perfect and that’s his biggest appeal. He makes mistakes, is sometimes immature, plays Spiderman to a child, is a cocky reporter and is hopelessly in love with a mother of two children. Fans love his desi mannerisms. Says Kapoor, “There is a restlessness in Mohan which I relate to. He’s a nice guy but the world hasn’t been kind to him. He’s basically a loner. He has a certain rebellion which is interesting to interpret.”
Other show stealers:
The Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behna Hain boys Viren and Virat played by Karan Tacker and Kushal Tandon. Madhubala, Ek Ishq Ek Junoon’s Superstar RK, played by Vivian Dsena. He lives life king-sized, drives recklessly, gets into a scuffle with the media and flashes his bad boy tag. What’s more, he’s modelled on actor Salman Khan. Punar Vivaah’s Yash, played by Gurmeet Chaudhary.
Source: Indian Express