Why is the Tamil serial so gender-insensitive?

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Tamil television caters almost exclusively to homemaking women, giving them an escape from drudgery — an outlet for the domesticated woman's need for drama in her life. But, somewhere, in this trend, lies a patriarchal tendency to disparage women's issues.

After several years of entirely ignoring Tamil television, recently, I got to spend a few evenings with my mother-in-law, the both of us watching mega-serials — me utterly amused, and she embarrassedly engrossed. Her embarrassment was perhaps a result of my constant nagging about the regressive ideas in mega-serials — “you feel like you are perpetually in the middle of conflict because of your television habit,” I had once theorised.

My disdainful amusement is not new. Critics and observers have long meted out similar derision for the frugal production quality, unimaginative storytelling and regressive thought-processes of these mega-serials. On kinder days, such television is entirely ignored as unworthy of any critical analysis.

Yet, for years, Tamil mega-serials have continued to entertain women with the silent perseverance of an unappreciated housewife. For most of its viewers (read: women), crying at a teleserial is like the oppaari (elegy) for an unaffected extended family at a funeral. The serial is merely a trigger for them to pour out their emotions, for their life situations, without being judged for such outpouring. My grandmother, at the end of a cliffhanger episode, once remarked, “ Unga amma madhiriye iva vaazhkai. Vidivu kaalame illai [Her life is just like your mother’s. There is no end in sight for her misery].” It is this that makes mega-serials work for the homebound woman — an avenue for her to vicariously live her emotions out through these characters and their troubled journeys.

The ‘femininisation’ of spectator position relegates teleserials to the secondary position it holds today.

Why else would every mega-serial be deeply and claustrophobically placed within the household — even supernatural shows never occur in Malaysia or Goa, for instance — making it relatable, tangible, and if I may dare risk the thought, real.

An icchadaari naagin (shape-shifting snake woman) walks down an abandoned landscape, where strange men harass her. After a harasser ignores her several warnings, she turns into her snake-self and attacks him. Isn’t this the ultimate superpower most women would want? Being able to escape sexual harassment, I mean.

The singular conflict for the protagonists of each of these mega-serials is modernity vs. tradition — which manifests itself into abusive marriage vs. vaazhavetti-ness (pejorative for the state of a married woman separated from her husband); education vs. homemaking; career vs. childrearing and so on. The underlying journey manoeuvring current reality to reach an ideal future, fighting various conniving players on the way, is real for most women. In a nutshell, mega-serials are stories about what women want, and what they can get today. Even as the women toe the Lakshman Rekha very carefully, the story is about their toeing, and not about Lakshman’s drawing.

Kolaveri for a soup boy

The entertainment landscape — cinema and television, particularly — is heavily gendered. Cinema is most often the story of and for the young men of Tamil Nadu, and television serials are distinctly for women of the home. While men go out to experience a film, entertainment for women comes home. What is on these respective screens is a reflection of what creators (mostly men, in both cases) think these respective audiences want to see — female audiences for film and male audiences for television are merely incidental.

My contention is that it is this ‘femininisation’ of spectator position, regardless of their gender (drawing from Laura Mulvey’s theory of ’masculinisation’ in film) that relegates teleserials to the secondary position it holds today.

Sun TV has long been the most-watched television channel in the country — its top-five most-watched programmes are comprised by mega-serials. The sparkling line-up of top brands that advertise during these shows should tell us how widely watched these shows are. If that’s not enough, consider that they are now aired six days a week, instead of the five earlier. By contrast, very few films even break even.

In spite of this and the vastness of its content, the mega-serial has built for itself an unflattering reputation, owing to its focus on women. This, in itself, is hardly surprising.

To claim that teleserials aren’t taken seriously because of the quality of their content is to be blind to the voicelessness of the millions of women in the audience who religiously follow these stories that make them laugh, cry and feel every single day.

Similar derision was reserved for chicklit and chickflicks, for instance. In Tamil mega-serials, this is furthered by the fact that most of them feature with film heroines of the past, whose marketability has been reduced by ageing or marriage.

Yes, television serials are widely regarded as repetitive and unimaginative. Serial-makers are thought to have little or no ‘artistic intent’. I agree that most serials are stretched beyond their sell-by date. However, isn’t much of this true for most of Tamil cinema as well, which nevertheless gets immeasurable critical analysis and public mind space?

K.S. Ravikumar once mocked the very notion of artistic intent. We can count with our fingers the number of films that don’t follow the song-fight-and-amma-sentiment routine. The themes of morality, caste supremacy and patriarchy that fill our homes (on television sets) are the same as in the movies.

Yet, this radio silence about mega-serials indicates we have convinced ourselves that stories written for women — enacted by women and about womanly lives — cannot be worthy of critical reading and debate. To claim that teleserials aren’t taken seriously because of the quality of their content is to be blind to the voicelessness of the millions of women in the audience who religiously follow these stories that make them laugh, cry and feel every single day.

What is more likely the reason for this lack of critique and debate is the absence of spaces for women like my grandmother and my mother-in-law to speak up without fear of judgment why they are attracted to and enjoy their favourite mega-serial. When that happens, there will come a day when it would no more be shameful to admit that one enjoys a mega-serial (like we can now be unapologetic fans of popular cinema).

Following that will come a day when television will create more meaningful, progressive content. No, I don’t mean Gautham Menon’s alleged TV series, thank you.

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