“Rishton ke bhi roop badalte hain,
Naye naye (exploitation ke) saanche mein dhalte hain.”
Television is no longer an idiot box as it possesses the power to work as a cultural and ideological force which not merely reflects our society but also constructs it. Daily soaps telecasted on various channels have become an integral part of Indian households having such a mass appeal that they cross more than a thousand episodes. They both – blatantly and subtly, inject into people’s minds a black and white version of reality, presenting it in a “normalized” fashion. These serials serve as ideological apparatuses to create and shape influential paradigms like, “An ideal domesticated woman”, “an aggressive rational man” with the notion of “Indian culture” at its centre. The emphasis on Sanskar (values) and Parivaar (family) becomes a way of restoring pride in Indian tradition and culture.
A dialectical opposition between social convention and individual libertarianism is presented in serials as a conflict between good and evil, where a domesticated Bahu (Yes, wearing ostentatious clothing and jewellery even while sleeping) is constructed as a chaste, self-sacrificing and virtuous prototype in relation to the ‘Femme fatale’ or the ‘Vamp’ who negatively manifests sexual immodesty, having agency to act autonomously.
In this tussle, the Mangalsutra (sacred thread) metonymically associated with the chaste woman (Gopi Bahu/Prerna/Tulsi) wins hands down as against the liberated woman (Komalika/Tapasya/Ramola) whose character is scandalously assassinated and set as a bad example for anybody who wishes to transgress societal norms.
Moreover, when it comes to a male character, it is usually his conflicts, desires and heroism that the serial focuses on and a woman is merely used as a tool to make him realize those dreams, a “muse” to the artist, passive rather than active, reinforcing stereotypical portrayal of the woman. So, next time you go gaga over RK from ‘Madhubala’, think about the maniac that he is.
Instead of focusing on the kaleidoscopic nuances of a particular character, what we have is a set of sweeping generalizations and distortions consumed by Indian audiences who unquestioningly watch the monochromatic, uni-dimensional caricatures presented on TV.
For example, in serials like ‘Sasural Simar ka’, Simar, the protagonist performing black magic and turning into a fly touches absolute insanity. The concept of Icchadhari Naagin is used in serials like ‘Naagin’ which have high viewership, whereas socially relevant serials like ‘Tamanna’(which fell into the abyss of anonymity) went off-air in just 143 episodes which is relatively low in comparison to the never-ending saas-bahu drama.
Institutionalized sexism/ patriarchy and commercialization on TV feed on biological differences between men and women and exaggerate them to the point of constructing women as weak and submissive, and in need of protection either by father, brother or husband. In a serial named ‘Thapki Pyaar ki’, the protagonist is a girl who stutters while speaking and therefore, struggles to find a marriage proposal. In spite of having a confident attitude, we hardly see the makers of the serial giving her work significant importance and the action constantly comes down to getting her married because being a Kunwari (unmarried girl) would only bring shame to the family. So, the family decides, “Well, let’s wrap her in bandage, oops, BONDAGE (same thing, I suppose?!) like an Egyptian mummy.”
This infantilization of women only strengthens the structures of surveillance which constantly keep their actions in check. Female characters are not only treated to be the carrier of tradition but their bodies become the site on which the discourse of tradition takes place.
When exploitation camouflaged as rituals and values is presented to the Indian audience, they do not look at it as a “defect” which beckons for correction, but rather believe “Yeah, that’s how it is”.
Thus, suppression of sexuality and desire allows hetero-patriarchy prevalent in serials, and in general, to make women comfortable captives of concentration camps. Such pervasive patriarchal projection never allows women to come out of their accoutrements of traditional Indian household like bindi, necklace (haar), sindoor, and rituals they obediently observe due to the orders of the Maa or Baa of the family.
Sshhh! Desh so raha hai.