The ideal 'bahu'

The ideal 'bahu'

Despite the advent of reality TV shows, ‘saas-bahu’ sagas continue to rule the roost and captivate viewers. Sunetra Narayan analyses the role of Indian ‘bahus’ on television, and their impact on society...

While reality television programming has proved to be popular, in 2009-10, fiction was the staple diet for Indian viewers. Hindi general entertainment channels also targeted regional language channels. The regional general entertainment channels showed  high viewership figures in 2009. The genre of news also lost ground to the Hindi general entertainment channels in the race for ratings in this year (PwC Report 2010).

Another trend discernible in entertainment programming in 2010 was that viewership volumes were coming from middle and small town India, as a result of the demography of television becoming more heterogeneous…. Out of 134 million television-owning households, 70 million were in rural areas, according to the TAM Annual Universe update in 2010. Rural India was embracing new technologies such as DTH and mobile telephones.

As a reflection of these newer audiences, characters were sometimes being portrayed in a more realistic fashion, themes included social issues such as female infanticide, child marriage, and so on, and many stories were set in non-metro India. Viewership ratings suggested that programmes which had more progressive aspirational characters were finding resonance with the audience. 

A lot of daily soaps had lead female characters. In general, the portrayal of women had changed over the decade 1990-2000. Sadly, the emergence of private broadcasters had not led to a more emancipated portrayal of women on television in this decade. While serials such as Tara on Zee in 1993 permitted a more realistic portrayal of Indian women in the 1990s, things changed for the worse in 2000.

Despite having female lead characters, one media analyst commented that the spate of soaps on Hindi channels had actually been regressive: In the 1980s, tele-woman was striving to break traditional moulds, new millennium television is hell-bent on taking the big leap backwards and transforming the country into a nation of bahus (daughters-in-law), where marriage is the raison d’être of a girl’s existence. The success of the extended parivar (family) series seems to have totally blocked the path for avantgardism and slice-of-life realism.

The tradition-bound, stereotypical roles that women have been playing in soaps have recently led to a convergence in the image of the Indian woman in the new millennium: she is one-dimensional, wears Indian clothes, sports Hindu symbols of marriage such as the bindi and the mangalsutra, aspires to be a home-maker, and embraces traditional values including patriarchy and the preservation of the extended family and marriage. The high TRPs garnered by soaps, which portrayed women in this fashion, implied that the MNCs and advertisers were backing these programmes in 2000.

Peter Mukerjea, the CEO of STAR in India, commented on the current spate of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law portrayals of women on STAR Plus, “We are transiting from an English channel to a local channel, so there are some basic ingredients that go into making a channel successful. And quite honestly for us, to go into something radical, in the first instance, would be much too risky.’

Is it a contradiction that the liberalisation of broadcast media has turned full circle where the portrayal of women on Hindi soaps is concerned? Have audiences voted for the neo-conservative portrayal of women on television in 2000 in part fuelled by renewed family values Hindu style? Is it just a marketing strategy that the family image with a subservient woman character is currently selling well? One suspects that this portrayal of women is a phase that will pass as others have done before it.

While the regressive portrayal of women in soaps has been particularly marked on Hindi channels such as STAR Plus and Sony, regional channels still permit some different portrayals of their female characters. For example, the Marathi serial Damini had a female protagonist—an investigative journalist who exposes corruption in high places. This serial had the ability to pull in high TRPs even after airing over 700 episodes.

Women characters had also dominated Kannada serials in the previous decade. While many serials portrayed women as being employed outside the home, they were simultaneously shown as still endorsing the traditional values of marriage and motherhood. Some portrayals of women have been different, for example, S Narayan’s Parvati and T N Seetharam’s Mayamriga, which won critical acclaim.

In a surprising volte-face, global players STAR and Sony were associated with a spate of soaps such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in the latter half of 2000, which reverted to an unrealistic and conservative portrayal of female characters. In fact, many of these serials, aired on different channels, have been produced by the same local content provider — Balaji Telefilms.

According to one estimate, Ekta Kapoor, the head of Balaji Telefilms, was associated with over 20 serials in four languages, airing over 10 channels in April 2001. Thus, global channels, which are competing with each other as well as the national channels, are utilising programming from a common local source projecting similar values. This is yet another example of the surprising ways in which the global/local dimensions of broadcasting can be configured.

(An excerpt from Globalization and Television: A Study of the Indian Experience)
Women’s Feature Service

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