Television Women are the target audience of many of the serials and reality shows on television. But do they empower women or ‘commoditise’ her? Bhawani Cheerath

With the addition of two more channels to the clutch of channels that clamour for their share of the eyeballs, one had to squeeze in more time so as to get down to telewatch. And, there had to be a prioritising. A news channel, or, an entertainment channel? It was a difficult toss-up.

Half an hour of channel-surfing made things easier. Entertainment, news or talk shows, one did not have to do much of a tic-tac-toe, because zeroing in on the target audience was not difficult – women. Offering tough competition to the perennial supply of serials on channels are the ‘reality shows’. Anywhere from four to six hours of an entertainment channel’s schedule are filled by ‘sthree-rials’ and the repeat telecasts. Both seek involvement of the viewer in ever so many ways. Whichever be the age group they are angling for, the channels have recognised the latter to be a major crowd puller.

Once again, thinking hats are donned to conceive and present a reality show that is unique. Driving TRP ratings north and raking in the moolah - are these the two factors that shaped these presentations? ‘Vanita Ratnam’ on Amrita TV, the mother of all reality shows on Malayalam channels, opened up avenues for untapped talents cooped up at home.

What did Bindu Sajan, the producer of this tried-never-before concept, seek to achieve? “Meant for mothers, with no special criteria attached, but whoever believed in their 'inner strength' could pitch for it,” she says.

This was year 2007. Six years on, we have every other channel vying to rope in women, young and old, married and unmarried, to feature in their woman’s reality show and rev up the TRP. The latest entrant is ‘Njan Sthree’ on Media One produced by Jyothi Vellalloor. While the focus is on the woman discovering her identity, her dreams, her entrepreneurial skills and speaking about her role models, all revealed through successive episodes, we get a better picture of the woman in the race.

Social workers, IT professionals, entrepreneurs, strong women driven by a goal can be spotted here. Jyoti describes ‘Njan Sthree’ as conceived for women with the verve, the likes of whom would never be a proxy presence when they share political power. “The finalists were given Rs.10,000 as seed fund to be utilised for a project. They were also expected to bring their role models to the sets for a one-to-one interview apart from simpler tasks that would enable a jury to assess them,” says Jyoti who is upbeat about ‘Njan Sthree’ bringing to the fore a new kind of woman power.

Satheesh is a producer who has had a dream run with reality shows (‘Super Star Singer’ on Amrita TV, ‘Veruthe Alla Bharya’ on Mazhavil Manorama and now ‘Midukki’ on the same channel).

If ‘Veruthe Alla Bharya’ showed the couples in situations that reflected elements of rapport, respect and occasions when they slip, sometimes hurting the other, ‘Midukki’ is a test of personality, poise and the awareness about ground realities that a girl in her twenties should be equipped with.

“All along, girls have been brought up with the father or a brother telling her not to worry about anything because ‘we are there to take care of you’. This has led to a complacent woman who has left all the thinking to the man, in a way, abdicating her responsibility and ceasing to have a voice.”

According to Satheesh, ‘Midukki’ steps in to stimulate thought in the woman, not just about her appearance, but, on how she would respond to child abuse, her views on domestic violence, the public space and the woman.

Setting a trend by exploiting the traditional stereotype and trying to make a difference in more ways than one, is ‘Amma Ammayiamma’ on Kairali. “Yes, it tries to bring two women who will never reconcile their differencesand continue to live under the same roof to reveal the elements that shape their relationship,” says its producer Prasad Nooranad. While Mallika Sukumaran as one of the judges brings with her a voice of moderation, one is left wondering if all these efforts to show the two women on a reality show of this kind only reinforces stereotypes.

A positive element was voiced by Yamuna S.M. who helmed ‘Katha Ithuvare’ and ‘Veruthe Alla Bharya’ (Season 2). “The responses we received from women were indicative of how cathartic watching the episodes were.” One felt as if some of the aspects highlighted by the women were exactly identical to mine, said a viewer. Through the programme, the message had been conveyed to those who matter, felt another.

From ‘therapeutic effect’ to ‘counselling’ was how the impact of some of the issues handled in the reality shows has been described by doctors who watched ‘Amma Ammayiamma’, adds Prasad Nooranad.

While channels work hard at fine-tuning reality shows, questions remain: are we trying to mould the new woman to suit the marketing blitz of sponsors? Are misconceptions about mindsets of the woman, as held by the typical male, stymying minds with the opiate of ‘sthree-rials’ where women and men are portrayed as scheming, vindictive, unfair, envious, and speaking with a forked tongue?

From 300 applicants for the first edition of ‘Vanita Ratnam’ on Amrita TV to over three thousand entries for ‘Midukki’ on Mazhavil Manorama with participants from the metros and the Gulf countries entering the contest, the popularity of these shows has grown in numbers and spread.

Can we fault the cynic who opines that women’s shows, which set out – or at least was touted – as an instrument to liberate the woman has, in a majority of cases, turned out in the final event as one more tool to confine her to the role she has always been seen in?

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What Bindu Sajan says about very first woman’s reality show she steered remains valid even to this day. “My original intention was to break the stereotypical portrayal of women in serials and general misconception about them in the society. The first task given to them was very simple. To look straight into another person's eyes and speak, something they found most difficult. We asked them to recollect all the occasions in life where they really wanted to speak out or react but had kept mum due to fear of society. Thus, started a process which was a learning process for me also.”