TV soaps with bizarre, regressive storylines pay scant respect to notions of women's empowerment. Yet, they seem wildly popular and, according to some studies, empowering too. Are these script writers more in touch with reality than literal-minded activists and journalists?

In the current political climate, women's empowerment is occupying mindspace because of the debates engendered by the Women's Reservation Bill. The buzz it has generated unconsciously becomes a filter for evening television viewing. Suddenly prime time TV fiction on all the major Hindi channels seems even more bizarre than it normally does, a collective antithesis to any notions of empowerment. Seen in terms of direct messaging, these sagas threaten to turn the clock back quite drastically. The most cheerful among them (currently), “Ye Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai” on Star Plus, has the young bride pleading with her mother-in-law not to hand over the house keys just yet — I am not ready for this responsibility, she pleads sweetly.

Different priorities

Judging by the popularity of these dramas, female empowerment as we understand it would seem to be the last thing on any viewer's mind. Marriage and is associated rituals are the central motif in one tale after another. The anxieties of “moo dikhayi” or the viewing of the girl by the boy's parents (“Sasural Genda Phool”, Star Plus), the family politics being played out in the background of the sangeet ceremony in households with impending weddings (“Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya”, Zee and “Palkhon ki Chaya Mein”, NDTV Imagine), the tribulations of some recently weds (“Mann ki awaaz Pratigya”, Star Plus and “Jyoti”, NDTV Imagine) and those of some long married (“Na aane is des mein Laado”, Colours) are what make for entertainment. The air is always thick with rasams, or rituals, the emotions are choreographed, the settings have the spatial characteristics of gilded halls rather than homes.

Women's empowerment as debated in the political arena is about women stepping out of the confines of home and hearth to discover their potential. Indian soap operas are about tussles for power over home and hearth and their near resolution before more twists and turns appear. They depict domestic violence — one of the brothers kicks his wife repeatedly in “Pratigya”— even as his sister who is at her marital home is busy calling her husband and in laws “saale kuttey” (dogs). Women getting slapped is common, the impotent husband knocks over his distraught wife in “Laado”, she in turn pulls his hands to her throat and pleads with him to strangle her. In “Jamunia”, the family attempts to burn a girl. Is a country that favours such entertainment seriously ready for women's empowerment?

But academics argue that one is being far too literal. A book published this year, Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television by Shoma Munshi (Routledge), makes the point that regression is in the eyes of the beholder. If you view prime time soap operas through the lens of development communication, and as direct instruments of social change, you will find them guilty of regressive portrayal: stereotyping women, even celebrating misogyny.

Positive impact?

But if you view them as sites of contestation you will understand why viewers often take positive messages away from them. Munshi argues that in fact such soap operas do empower women. NDTV Imagine's creative head tells the author that soaps in India are responding to social realities of their time. Rama Bijapurkar, the researcher on market strategy and consumer behaviour, tells her that families find reflections of their own life problems in soaps. And according to the consumers of these soaps, as opposed to indignant journalists and social activists, there are solutions to be found in them, strong women to take away lessons from.

Munshi's documentation of the story lines of “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi”, “Kahani Ghar Ghar ki”, and “Saat Phere — Saloni ka Safar” are enough to establish that all manner of dreadful, cruel, lawless and amoral things are par for the course in the life of a soap. Intra family rape, murders, mothers killing sons, you name it. Apparently people watch all this and come away not just entertained, but even empowered. She bases her conclusion partly on empirical research by Robert Jensen and Emily Oster on the effects of cable television in rural areas of India.

Their analysis relies on a three-year panel dataset covering women in five Indian states between 2001 and 2003, years which were a time of rapid growth in rural cable access. During the panel, cable television was newly introduced in 21 of the 180 sample villages. They compared changes in attitudes and behaviour between survey rounds across villages based on whether (and when) they added cable television. “After cable is introduced to a village, women are less likely to report that domestic violence towards women is acceptable. They also report increased autonomy (for example, the ability to go out without permission and to participate in household decision-making). Women are less likely to report son preference (the desire to give birth to a boy rather than a girl). Turning to behaviour, we found increases in school enrolment for girls (but not boys), and decreases in fertility (which is often linked to female autonomy).” They said their findings were consistent with existing work on the effects of media exposure.

Knowing their viewers

So, may be the writers and producers of these tortuous sagas understand their viewers better than literal minded journalists do. From the current crop of serials, a very good example of enthusiastic consumption of a bizarre plot line is the serial “Mann ki Awaaz Pratigya”. The production house, Star TV, bills it a “fight against disrespect of women”. And what does the lead character do? She marries a goon who eve-teases her. Then she tells him that he can win her body but not her love. You fight disrespect by marrying the eve-teaser, taking the battle into his home.

One scene has the couple standing around while the goon's mother and father discuss the fact that the bride did not let her husband near him on her wedding night. The father suddenly sticks his gun at his son's head. The son narrows his eyes and dares his father to kill him. Later his mother is told by his father, that she needs to have her tongue chopped off with a pair of scissors because she interrupts when the menfolk are talking.

But on a blog called ‘TV serials and TV shows' there are 53 comments about Pratigya and here's what viewer postings say: “it is best serial.” “It is best story. This story is Power of women. I like Pratigya Character.” “Excellent concept. its needed to see by all girls and women. very good and congratess to teem of pratigya. (sic)” “Its a pretty gud serial i liked krishna's character.” “PRATIGYA serial is very good story.” “I should tell this or not but i like Krishna the way he speaks in the serial the story is good hats off to your team why i see that show is because i like Krishna a lot.”

Krishna is the goon who is the raffish protagonist. “It's a very nice serial. I love krishna's eyes.” “Pratigya serial is very good. Every character is very natural and Krishna Bhaiya is awesome. His dialogue delivery is wonderful. I like him very much. In fact I am going to crazy about him.” If this degree of appreciation needs comprehending, here is another visitor comment which offers an explanation: “The serial has started off well...the challenge is to sustain the interest. Krishna is a typical young brat from North Indian which would appeal to young audience.” Young audiences are discovering that harassing her is the way to get the girl you want? There I go being literal again.

However not all academics think people will take away the right messages from regressive seeming soaps. Osmania University media academic Padmaja Shaw has just started a blog called WAVE, Women Against Violent Entertainment, in order to build a movement against violent programming on media that targets women.

If serials are to be judged as sites of contestation, are all kinds of ideas, however offensive or bizarre, fair game to be aired? The new wave of serials which are purportedly on social issues — “Ballika Vadhu”, “Na Aana is Des Mein Laado”, “Kashi”, “Uttaran” — serve up pounds of regression for every ounce of progressive intent.

Kashi, the daughter of a poor postman wants to go to school, but the enraged school master says the school will shut down if a poor man's child crosses its threshold. All the families in the area promptly stop sending their children to his school. Till Kashi retreats and hides outside, suitably cowed. It will take many episodes more for her to triumph. Catalytic messaging, doubtless, for a country that has just passed a right to education act.

Not progressive

In “Laado” the current site of contestation is the body of an older daughter-in-law who has remained childless. Ammaji, the matriarch, decrees that since her impotent son is unable to impregnate his wife she should be sent to another man to become pregnant, so that the family can have a male heir. Despite their habitual subservience to her whims, the family reacts with horror and rejects the idea. Very well, she says, then my youngest son (already married) will impregnate her.

TV script writers don't seem like the right kind of change agents to many of us. But apparently with their own seemingly regressive approach, they are!