The bold, the beautiful and the Bengali


The gloriously dysfunctional world where families always converse standing in a straight line in their living rooms

You watch Bengali soap operas?” my friends ask in bafflement.

I claim I watch them only by osmosis because my mother watches every evening, surfing between channels restlessly, juggling extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and family feuds, somehow keeping separate the vicious aunt in one who appears as the virtuous mother in another.

There’s Gachkouto at 5.30; Kundo Phooler Mala at 6.00; Kusum Dola at 7.00; Andarmahal at 9.30. Perhaps I have mixed up the timings for they tend to blur into each other, all wash-and-wear sob-stories of middle-class morality spinning around in their own vicious circles.

But the truth is, slowly but surely, I too have got sucked into their twists and turns, I too take some guilty pleasure in this strange world where families always converse while standing in a straight line in their living rooms, where women weep but out of one eye, and guests come to the house but never sit down. When I am out of town for a few days, I sheepishly ask my mother for updates.

Fate worse than death

It’s a gloriously dysfunctional world, familiar yet warped like a Salvador Dali clock face. An evil daughter-in-law is killed off and suddenly what was hitherto a perfectly normal family melodrama is saddled with a vengeful ghost, albeit one doomed to wear, for eternity, the same sari she died in, a fate worse than death itself.

A wicked mother-in-law has a change of heart, and becomes so good and so boring the scriptwriters invent a wickeder twin who kidnaps her and takes her place. The husband, like a good Bengali man, does not notice the wife-swap.

A cast-out wife returns as a ‘Hindustani maid’ who wears her ghunghat low, speaks in a high screech, and no one recognises her any more. Nor does anyone seem perturbed that they have hired a maid whose face they never see.

“And why does every serial have two women fighting over one man?” asks my aunt irritably. “Why can’t two men ever fight over one woman?” They just cannot. The Bengali serial universe comes with strict rules and lazy writing. The rules are not meant to be understood. They are just meant to be followed.

Rule 1: The rich wife who wears sleeveless blouses, likes ‘continental food’ and spurns paarshey fish is obviously bad and will get her comeuppance soon.

Rule 2: If a young woman wants to go to the ‘disc’ no good will come of it. She will be assaulted by lecherous men who say, “Baby, come dance”.

Rule 3: If the dutiful daughter-in-law leaves the cooking unattended for a minute, her spiteful sister-in-law will toss in a heaped tablespoon of salt to ruin it.

I know all this but somehow the trusting women of the serial don’t.

Other than cellphones and laptops, few signs of modernity are allowed. Even 90-year-old Congress politician Narayan Dutt Tiwari knows about paternity tests but those who write serials have not got the memo. If they just did a DNA test they would have realised little Potol is actually singer Sujan Kumar’s long-lost daughter. But the rules of the serials do not allow such newfangled shortcuts.

Guise of women power

In an India which is outraged by one Pehredaar Piya Ki, where an 18-year-old girl marries a 10-year-old boy and the whole show gets yanked off the air, my Bengali serials are safer. Their outrageousness sticks to the middle of the road. It all happens under the guise of women power.

In Radha, a ‘full-bodied’ girl finds love.

In Andarmahal, the second wife of a divorced man stumbles upon unexpected sisterhood with the first wife. In Icche Nodi, a young woman fights for her right to a career.

In Kusumdola, an old spinster aunt still dreams of romance. Somewhere in the plots’ tortuous progress, the Radhas, Imans and Meghlas are showing they have agency.

But the progressiveness is skin-deep, limited to the premise. We hear about laws to prevent wife abuse and dowry extortion. But the only women who complain to the police are the conniving ones filing fake charges. The ones who are truly abused stoically suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, forgiving their enemies over and over again.

What’s a little poison in the maachher jhol between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law anyway? Legal marriages mean nothing as second wives move court for their sindoor rights. A scoundrel abandons his bride at the altar; justice means forcing him to marry her, no matter that he is a scoundrel.

The irony is many of these serials are written by one woman, a sort of superwoman of the teleserial world, Leena Gangopadhyay. The bigger irony is that she has been appointed the head of the West Bengal Women’s Commission.

Somewhere deep inside, I can tell they want to raise a mirror to the inequities of society, the plight of women in a man’s world. But they spare us any self-introspection because the bad guys are so nasty we can all feel smugly superior. When the family patriarch in Andarmahal tells his daughter-in-law’s mother, “You have brought her back already! You couldn’t afford to feed her for a few more days?” we can rest happy that our family would never be so crass.

It’s insidiously clever, portraying sexism that we all enable, yet always letting us off the hook. One day, we know the vixenish sister will get her punishment. By then, fed up with her diabolical ways, my mother will say, “Tomorrow Adrija will get slapped. I must watch. I hope the cable does not go off.” I will roll my eyes. But I will procrastinate going to the gym, waiting for that slap after the ad break. Bengal, by the way, tops the country in domestic violence reports.

Whiling away

For my mother’s generation, plagued by bad knees and frail health, the serials are more than timepass. My parents’ generation knows too little about their own children’s faraway lives. But they know the ins and outs of the lives of the serial families, squabbling, backstabbing, conniving but family nonetheless. The serials are reliable in a way that my generation is not. They are familiar in a world that feels increasingly unfamiliar. And when they get too unbearably screechy, my mother can just mute them for a bit. If she could, she’d reach out and slap murderous ingrate Adrija too. Sometimes as I watch her splutter with anger at some ludicrous turn in episode 573 of some meandering soap, I worry this is elder abuse disguised as entertainment.

“You don’t have to watch it, you know,” I say. But I know, for her generation, increasingly housebound, there’s little else to do. It’s not real, you know, I reassure her. No one is as stupid, as naïve, as saintly or as pointlessly vicious as the families on our television. My mother shrugs. Of course she knows that. Who would ever think those overly made-up Bengali women sitting around, narrowing their eyes and endlessly scheming against each other could possibly be real?

If they were drawn from real life from a real Kolkata they would not be in those tangail saris every day. They would be in their nighties.

The writer’s first novel is Don’t Let Him Know. He should be working on his second instead of watching television soap operas.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 6:48:31 AM |

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