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Why I Sing My Blues: Women and Hindi Soaps

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.

What I had to do, I reasoned as I planned this article, was acquire a niche. I had to locate a dissident soap, one which refused to gamble away its women. I was to compare such proto-feminist television with conservative women in other cultures, and (optimistically) paint a humane picture of the beleaguered bahu. My quest, it must be admitted, was ever an unlikely enterprise, while its failure taught me a valuable lesson about the diffusion of hegemony. A sampling, from the journey, of the oddities currently on air:

Justice; slang for Courthouse.

Ronit Roy, the most married man on Indian television, recently graduated from Inscrutable Divinity to Rugged Defender. Suave as his super-lawyer is (A Barrister’s Dream, in truth), the real mystery of the show is how he affords his plush offices. In the one episode I watched, he contradicted his witnesses, bullied the judge, patronised the prosecutor, and tricked his client into confessing premeditated homicide in open court.
I will find my path.

Alka, as we meet, is the lucky bartender capable of hightailin’ it on four shots of vodka. We soon find that her family, too, is a Family (a conservative political dynasty). She falls in line with dubious machinations and in love with Best Friend. Threats and violence ensue, while Alka’s red highlights degenerate into a Defiant Romance.

Marital Home without a Mother-in-Law

Hic sunt the Toasty, who arrives in a mythopoetic household of seven men. A solid bahu, Toasty proceeds to live up to her lovely name. She quits her job, ingratiates her way into everyone’s confidence, and discovers a Devastating Secret: an earlier bahu once stormed out of this bachelor pad. This wretched predecessor is now divorcing the Family and has amassed the nerve to sue for her share of Family money.

The proceedings, Toasty tells us, began as a contentious divorce. In the ineffable wisdom of the accreting legal system, the case becomes one of dowry, molestation, and (not unfairly) exploitation. Absconding bahu is accompanied by harridan mother (rarely can our soaps resist sneaking in an irate saas) and thus doth the plot venture off into the epics. What began a promising male domestic drama is compromised by my sorry sex, for which I duly apologise.

Sacred Relationship

I fled through the two year run of Pavitra Rishta in forty two minutes. Boy and Girl get married, transcending class barriers. The subsequent plot is an elaborate edifice of morose sanctimony. There is the Saas. There is the other saas, who rescues her daughter from abuse. Moral Turmoil. Mortal Toil. More Turmoil. Boy and Girl elope…. I give up.

Pavitra Rishta frames the dominant fantasy of popular soaps. Women exist to ‘knit Families together’. All their dreams and marginal rebellions, it concedes, are doomed to the devil’s treadmill. Keep your head down, it counsels, as you negotiate imposed boundaries. Obey, don’t reason. Don’t think, smile! The world is your obstacle, and salvation is to be found only in service to those around you. That this service usually ignored and often berated is a woman’s lot. Bear with it, be demure, go cajole your young.

Personal ambition is the deepest incision the soaps make into the hardy Indian wife. Working women are conflicted moms and forgetful bahus, ‘Career’ women are strident shrews. Dilapidated colleges made of us feminists and freethinkers; television’s capacious hearths now breed a steadily-more-vacuous damsel.

Pure bahus, one is led to believe, are coy creatures that couldn’t fathom freedom from domesticity. Her family, pure-bahu concludes after each righteous day, is the sole reason for her sustenance. To separate any woman from her (wedded) Family is a theft of her soul, her identity, her reflection in the mirror. Without her husband, the fabric of her existence would melt away — she would be worse than worthless, she would be wasted.

The Hindi soap transforms the quotidian into the spectacle. Done well, they capture the quiet frustrations and tired dreams of a cross-section of Indian women. Done badly, they are prolonged cat-fights. Versatile and flexible, the domestic drama is the perfect medium to dispense a message of despairing chauvinism — a point sometimes made in frenetic plots of girls married at gunpoint and threatened with blackmail or rape. It is more often made with subtler traumas and lofty insinuations. Television can help millions of everyday humans deal with the contradictory demands life makes upon them. Hindi soaps, sadly, buck this obligation and advocate submission as the “natural role” of women. This is a disservice both to its audience and to the tradition it claims to represent, which evolved away from such misogyny centuries ago.