TV Soaps: Finding a way back into Reality

And there I was, fretting and tugging at my invisible chains. I was addicted – against my will, against my moral compunctions, against every natural instinct that bid me to flee. It was the kind of enslavement that was an insult to one’s sensibilities, a perversion of the ideals I always held dear in life – particularly those aspirations to feminism that always had me comfortably superior in the knowledge that I was more virtuous than everyone else (especially the men, those beastly, immoral men).


But oh! What a stern mistress the Hindi serial world is, and how lowering my dependence on her ghastly soaps were! I couldn’t escape. I was trapped in my cravings for the bitter dregs, and there was only one thing for it. I must learn to cope with my treacherous addiction.


And so sometime in the summer, I affected a shift in perspective, a change in the view I understood the soaps. What if we were to imagine that this entire set of serials, the collected works of countless artistes, bad and worse, was actually a thinly veiled satire on society? What if Ekta Kapoor was not, in fact, being earnest? What if she was actually inviting us all to laugh at our country, and we, the viewing public, completely missed the point? Maybe the piled-on gaudy jewellery, elaborate sarees, and immaculate coiffures were really a social commentary on the superficiality of the lives of the rich. Maybe the excessive caked-on make-up was hinting at the masks of duplicity those people put on. Perhaps the redoubtable Ms. Kapoor was merely poking fun, tongue firmly in cheek, at the sasumaas and bahuranis of the world. Of course! It all made sense. Then the loud irritating melodramatic music was loud and melodramatic on purpose – it was the laugh track, obviously. How could I have ever wanted to kill the composer of such subtle masterpieces of irony?


Then I had nothing to be ashamed about. I was addicted not to a series of regressive, nauseating assaults on womanhood and modernity, but to an anthology of clever parodies of 19th century Victorian culture 21st century Indian culture instead. Needless to say, I was instantly propelled into dizzying new heights of supercilious self-satisfaction.


Until then, I had always puzzled over the garishly coloured walls – purple, electric blue, sometimes burgundy – but no more. It was clear to me that the colour of the walls was a direct reflection of the personality of the inhabitants. Purple, commonly associated with royalty, was indicative of a superiority complex. Burgundy, the colour of wine, symbolised an alcoholic living within those walls. Electric blue was just a clear sign of a mentally deficient person with bad taste in colours.


And now I began to understand all.
The abrupt jerks in the story arc, the sudden twists and turns that defy all standard narrative conventions (besides inducing motion-sickness in anyone trying to keep up) are really a metaphor for the arbitrariness of life. The nearly-identical plotlines of all the K-serials are a commentary on the sameness of all human behaviour and the artificiality of regional, ideological, and narrative borders that should be disregarded in favour of a broader humanism. The characters that die and re-appear at their own will, making a mockery of the audience, merely serve as a symbol of how death rules the lives of humans and defeats all their intentions and expectations. And the characters that refuse to be defeated by death – the grandmothers that live on and on, the pious women that survive through horrific car accidents – are a physical metaphor for ageless personalities. What the serials are trying to say is that these personalities aren’t actually living in the technical sense of the word. They’re only living on in the minds and hearts of all who knew them, but the writers couldn’t figure out a way to convey this without resorting to tedious, weepy monologues, so they made the bodies walk around as pseudo-ghosts instead.


And you know how the characters are etched in black and white – they’re either pure, chaste goody-goodies or a combination of Satan, Beelzebub and Hitler? That’s just the writers’ exploration of the dichotomy of human nature, a subject that has intrigued great philosophers and thinkers throughout history. And the laser-like focus on the rich and idle to the complete exclusion of the lower classes? That’s an attack by the writers on the social milieu of our times, where the lower classes are suppressed and excluded from the decision-making processes and their voice is never heard, almost as if they were invisible.


Staggering, isn’t it? I never suspected the depth of these seemingly crude TRP-fed sagas.


Oh, and I love the exaggerated portrayal of elaborate prayer services, rites and rituals, and ceremonies conducted at the drop of a hat. They’re so obviously an over-compensation for lack of intellect. Perhaps the characters are all praying for brains? And have you ever seen any character receive a mildly disturbing announcement on any one of the soaps? It inevitably results in them being rooted to the spot while the camera leaps to action, zooming in at garish angles and zooming out, spiralling and circling vulture-like, then whooshing to the floor and then zipping up to get an aerial shot and then suddenly bringing us face-to-Revlon-coated-face again. I used to think the overzealous camera work was just to extend the melodrama, in case some viewer with brain damage failed to get the message from the deer-caught-in-headlights look on the character’s face. What I didn’t realize was that the 100 or so camera angles were a metaphor. The cameraman was merely trying to give a helpful hint that life is like a kaleidoscope. Every situation can be viewed in countless different ways, and every disturbing announcement merely requires the right perspective to be assessed for its true worth.


One of the more recently launched soaps deals with how terrible life is for a dark-skinned woman. My immediate reaction was that about 80% of Indian women are dark-skinned, which would make this soap either complexion-ist or so out-of-touch with reality that it was completely ludicrous. But then I looked closely at the woman with the dark skin, and I realized with a jolt that this was no average dark woman, this was an orange mutant! The girl’s skin had taken on a distinctly carroty hue. I thought then that the producers, not content with having an ordinary run-of-the-mill dark woman, wanted to emphasize on how ugly dark skin was, especially compared to the pretty whiteness of the half-sister (who was conveniently inserted into the narrative expressly for that purpose), so they slathered on enough strange darkening make-up on her to change her colour to a luminescent orange. Dark skin is not ordinary, you see, dark skin is bizarre.


But then with my new-found understanding of the satirical qualities of the serial world, I had to concede that I had wronged the producers terribly. Of course she was orange. Don’t you see? The creators are all trying to show their solidarity with the Orangemen, a conservative Protestant organization. No doubt the cult of the Orange Men disapproves of the wealthy and believes that ill-gotten wealth saps your emotions, which is why so many of the rich characters never appear to have any expression on their faces.


Some time back, a large group of women took to the streets to protest against what they felt were multiple offences on the part of the serial writers. They claimed that the serials depicted “incidents like someone marrying for revenge” and they found it “embarrassing to see this with kids.” I have to say – I completely sympathised with them. I could understand their embarrassment. Until they had seen these serials their kids had only known marriage as the sacred bond that gathers up every woman in its protective embrace. They had always been told that marriage is the natural refuge of every woman whose duty it is to one day step into her husband’s home. And now look – the kids had seen countless remarriages, divorces by the dozen – in short they had learned of things that set a dangerous example to them. Divorces and remarriages are inherently ‘anti-cultural’ and ‘anti-Indian’. So what if the jaws of the trap closed for countless unwilling brides every day? They must take it as their duty towards their culture and towards India.


One such righteous lady disliked the idea of a rapist in a serial unrepentantly justifying his action of raping a blind girl. Because of course all rapists automatically break down and repent for their crimes – they’re good people on the inside, after all. The lady was also angry that the serial showed the husband convincing his wife that the rape was committed not out of lust or desire for the girl but out of a need to punish her for “misbehaving” and not respecting him enough. Now some studies support the serial’s claim – that the vast majority of rapes are committed to exert dominance over the victim, and that this is a symptom of a heavily patriarchal society, and the human tendency to relate sexual virility with power. But they are wrong, and the protesting lady was right. All men are animals. And all crimes can be broken down into pithy little catchphrases.


If only I could make the viewers understand the wonderful satirical angle to the stories. Unfortunately, they tend to nitpick about rather inconsequential issues in the narrative like the divorces and the extra-marital relationships and the mercy killings, ignoring the truly important philosophical subjects about life and death that the writers are actually trying to play out.


At least I could give them one piece of consolation. The Hindi serials are the reason we now have such entertaining Hindi news channels as well. When Aaj Tak and the other news channels found out that Star was competing with them for melodrama, they upped the ante and started to focus on the supernatural, on the levitating sadhus and the UFO invasions. If that isn’t good for our society, I don’t know what is.


Joyeeta Biswas

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