Deciphering the universe of Hindi soaps demands an astute eye for the texture of relationships within joint families. A few clarifications, hence, for folk unfamiliar with the nuances of an Indian family. A home holds several generations of kin, sorted into couples and children, and authority is usually delegated by position rather than personality. A SAAS (chief villain) is a mother-in-law, a BAHU (doe-eyed acolyte) is the daughter-in-law.
This relationship is the primary conflict in most soaps, and the hierarchy is buttressed by assorted aunts, daughters, grandmothers, and sisters. Wise and virtuous husbands are objects of fawning exaltation; all husbands are the arbiters of this avid tussle between wife and mother to nurture them. Lower than a new bahu on the domestic totem pole are widows. A widowed saas, free of the baleful influence of needy men, will often hoard power and become a matriarch. Younger widows are bait.
Most despicable of all is the snide aunt who couldn’t snare a man (and a life) for herself. ‘Emancipated’ spinsters – careerists, hedonists, divorcees, the implacably indifferent – have no voice in soapdom, which likes its women fertile and undemanding. Across genre and trope and theme, girls are penalised for challenging chromosomes. Women are killed cos they’re pregnant, cos they’re not, cos they’re pregnant with the wrong sort of baby. There is even a soap imploring us to stay away from this cruel country.