Soap operas and the glorification of misery

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The South Indian television serial, which showcases storylines predominated by domestic conflict resolution, sets up and perhaps perpetuates moral binaries in a world sorely in need of nuance.

Indian soap operas are well-known for their over-dramatised and protracted storylines. How many reaction shots does it take really for dismay or shock to be properly communicated to an audience?

In a matter of mere minutes, his behaviour transforms from loving to abusive. She suffers the blows silently, even in her misery playing the part of the obedient, respectful wife.

A woman is chided by society for her loud and brash manner; background music meant to tug at one’s heartstrings accompanies the sermon they deliver about how her behaviour is unbecoming of a woman and causes everyone distress.

“You’re in love with someone?” her sister gasps. “I was under the impression that you are a good girl!”

Scenarios like these — and many others, including the normalisation of avunculate marriages or vilification of premarital romantic (let alone sexual) relationships — aren’t uncommon in Indian soaps, which primarily target female audiences. If you’ve grown up in an Indian household, chances are that you know at least one person who diligently watches a TV serial, as they are called, every night. From my sporadic, involuntary absorption into the world of South Indian television dramas, I have deduced a few things: the degree of suffering that a person undergoes is directly proportional to the “goodness” of their character, and people are either entirely good or altogether evil.

While exceptions exist, for the most part things seem to have regressed since the '90s, when one of the first Indian TV series, Shanti — Ek Aurat Ki Kahani (1994), emerged featuring a strong female protagonist. Yet today, saas-bahu dramas dominate this world. Barring some exceptions, a lot of these women-centric shows usually aim to provide justice to their virtuous long-suffering female lead, ultimately arriving at a happy end. But they do so via a painstakingly circuitous path that conveys many mixed (and often downright regressive) messages along the way.

But why should we care about what people watch in their spare time, and why am I harping on TV serials?

The Impulse to Assign Meaning to Suffering

Early Hinduism shares striking similarities with, and is said to have influenced, the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism. Both Hinduism and Stoicism associate virtue with a certain sense of non-attachment, of not being controlled by anxieties, materialistic pleasures or desires, instead focussing on performing one’s duties aptly and striving for the common good.

 

As with almost everything else, these ideas have been contorted over time to give rise to the misplaced notion that enjoying one’s life and prioritising one’s own goals and happiness is selfish, possibly immoral, regardless of the fact that studies have repeatedly addressed the importance of self-care for one’s mental well-being. In today’s internet-dependent world, albeit one that is beset with its own wide-ranging set of issues, individualism is not just celebrated but expected. Confidence and the ability to take care of oneself has become a much-needed survival skill.

But most TV serials have remained steadfastly rooted to their longstanding formula of sympathy, tears, villainy and a melodramatic background score. One of the things that I find most perturbing about these sagas-of-endless-gloom-with-a-happy-ending is this — why would we choose to watch something that essentially allows/requires us to wallow in misery? Some might say that people find comfort in relating to these situations. But at what point does it stop being a case of art imitating life and become life imitating art? Are we drawn to misery because we are miserable, or do we feel compelled to assign some kind of special meaning to our suffering since the belief that ‘we endure suffering because we are good’ is constantly reinforced?

Is it logical to associate being treated like a doormat with ‘bad karma’?

Reinforcing Gender Roles on Television

This is particularly so in the case of Indian women, who have been conditioned to place familial interests above all else, including personal safety and well-being. The majority of these TV serials, despite being women-centric, reinforce archaic beliefs about a woman’s modesty and her place in the household and in society. Maintain your dignity, keep your head down and endure the humiliation, for that is a testament to your strength of character, they seem to say.

 

Another way in which this is achieved is through the dichotomy between the ‘good Indian woman’ and the ‘vamp’. The former is primarily seen in traditional attire, is respectful and performs all of her wifely/daughterly/womanly duties with precision. On the contrary, the vamp is often clad in pants or decked in heavy jewellery and make-up, has a domineering or outspoken nature, and is possibly unmarried (because who would tolerate her?). Pitting women against each other is an age-old technique that unfortunately continues to provide entertainment, regardless of unoriginality. Does one pick a fight with their daughter-in-law because of her truly disagreeable personality, or because it is expected by now?


The soap opera is a televised enacted story told over a span of time through recurring episodes. The phrase originates from the fact that the serials would be sponsored primarily by soap/detergent manufacturers, who shared a target audience with the shows — homemaking women.

Female characters, such as the domestic abuse victim in Tamil serial Shakti (2014), attempt to display a stoic strength in difficult situations, when the logical thing to do would be to exercise one’s rights or remove oneself from the situation entirely. And yet, she remains by her psychotic husband’s side for the majority of the show, reinforcing a dangerous message within a society that is already plagued by domestic violence. When and how did we get stoicism all muddled up with masochism?

But perhaps my frustration is somewhat misplaced. After all, to what extent does the continued subordination and resulting feelings of helplessness among women in a patriarchal society play a role in the popularity of these characters? Achieving financial independence, while crucial, is not enough to eradicate beliefs that persist about the inherent inferiority of women or the gender roles that remain entrenched in our society, despite all the progress that has been made so far.

The Impact of Lazy Storytelling

Storytelling is an art form that can be utilised to engage, challenge and inspire its audience. In a country of over a billion inhabitants, Indian soaps cater to a wide-ranging audience and possess the ability to influence societal thought processes. When we fall prey to lazy storytelling and the regurgitation of tired stereotypes, we are essentially lowering our standards and accepting vapid entertainment fare as good enough.

 

One such example of lazy writing is the black-and-white portrayal of human beings, devoid of any understanding of the nuances of human nature. People are classified as either good or evil, leaving no room for realistic depictions. Not surprisingly, this rhetoric has grown common even in everyday life: that aunt is a money-hungry devil, don’t let the gossiping neighbour set her eyes on you, the landlord is a sneaky, conniving rat. However, the appeal of characters who remain naïve, unassuming and trusting, only to be walked all over by their more cunning counterparts, remains undiminished.

In a country that is witnessing growth, experimentation and innovation — with regard to the proliferation of art forms and mediums of entertainment — Indian soaps for the most part have remained trapped within a decaying framework that benefits neither the individual nor society at large. It brings a number of questions to the forefront regarding gender roles, the denial of various aspects of human nature in the pursuit of ‘virtuousness’, and our inclination to wallow in misery.

But the main question we must ask ourselves is, does the television that we choose to regularly immerse ourselves in contribute towards repairing our myopia or does it further perpetuate it?

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