Soaps of our Indian lives

Many years ago, the mailboxes of a television network crashed. Newspapers were writing of the tragedy of someone’s death. People were in tears. Why? Because a character on a television soap died (eventually the makers of the series had to bring the character ‘back to life’ under immense public pressure). The power of television in India was paramount (I say “was” because I no longer believe Indian television arouses mass hysteria as it used to. I may be wrong though; I gave up watching most Indian serials a few years ago).

I read an interesting story on research on the positive aspects of soap operas a while ago and I was a bit aghast. While the article mentioned that soap operas helped in furthering education and development in their respective countries of origin, I sat stymied.

The Indian soap opera boom started in the late 90s-early 00s when the typical saas-bahu (mother-in-law — daughter-in-law) serials were born. In the story I’ve linked to in the previous paragraph, here are the excerpts about Indian soap operas:

Others have found that in India — where soaps dominate the airwaves — villages where people watch more TV give more responsibilities and rights to women and girls.

Researchers have found a similar effect on the other side of the world, in rural India. Two economists, Emily Oster at the University of Chicago and Robert Jensen at UCLA, looked at surveys on a range of social attitudes in five Indian states from 2001 to 2003, a time of rapid expansion in access to cable TV. As with Brazil’s Rede Globo, Oster and Jensen found that the spread of cable brought down the fertility rate, but they found other changes as well: Women with cable access were less approving of the idea that a husband could justifiably beat his wife, and reported having more autonomy and more of a role in household financial matters. Their daughters were more likely to be enrolled in school.

I read this and scoffed. Pardon me for doing so, but the mindless contraptions that dominated the Indian airwaves during this period were nothing short of regressive (in my opinion anyway!). I found this blog post on Reuters that I agreed with on the state of television serials in India.

The mindlessness of some of these serials suck people into a vortex of impossible mind-numbing plotlines and never lets them go. For some insight into a handful of preposterous plots, think of characters who have died a gazillion times, yet always come back; think of the innumerable shows where, in order to prolong the series, they kill off the main characters and re-incarnate them. How can I not assume India soap operas are insanely hyped and wrongly held in esteem when I read news like this?

Of course, articles such as these give a voice to the proponents of these serials who believe that they are truly trying to do good. That their serials are contributing to the development of the nation. A line from this article:

…the show is among a growing number that use their influence as an occasional platform to educate viewers, most of them middle-class women and housewives, about a variety of social causes, from treating diarrhea to the rights of women and the importance of donating to tsunami victims.

Yes, I agree that Indian soaps do manage to seep in causes that need to be highlighted in the country. This article highlights how some TV serials can do that.

But not always.

Most of the serials are based in metropolitan cities of India, which have become westernized in their own way. So ‘traditionalists’ viewing these serials become infuriated by the “independence” shown by women going to offices and divorcing their husbands and goodness knows what else. Perhaps it is because of this reason that serials introduced elements to their shows that did not contribute to the improvement of social situations in the country but worsened them.

Thanks to these serials, this is what the people of India absorb: cheating husbands are constantly forgiven for their behaviour by self-sacrificing wives, mother-in-law’s are invariably conniving evil souls (if it’s not the MIL case in the evil role, it’s the sister-in-law), women who wear western clothes are loose/uncaring/cold/adultresses/the Kraken (Okay, I kid about the Kraken. Or not.), women who marry those their parents oppose eventually turn out to be cads, and so much more.

Or am I just a victim of media imperialism where I  find locally produced shows inadequate? No. Because really, how can anyone take television seriously as a medium of developmental journalism if it perpetuates social inequalities and damages your brain cells?

  • Read this article about how India is influencing Brazilian soaps – Sepia Mutiny
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