Balika Vadhu: Showcasing reality through drama and text

BY Sanjay Ranade| IN Media Practice | 23/08/2009
Far from "encouraging" child marriage as some politicians feel, Balika Vadhu is the rare serial that induces audiences to engage intellectually with social conflicts on an entertainment platform,
says SANJAY RANADE

                      Reprinted from Infochange media

    

 

 

Balika Vadhu is set in rural Rajasthan and tells the story of Anandi, a child bride. Married at the tender age of eight, to an equally young Jagdish, Anandi enters a new world that is at once alienating and confusing. Torn from the carefree joys of childhood and her family, she must accustom herself to a new family of strangers, new relationships and accept her roles as friend, lover, wife and mother.

 

The show is produced by Sphere Origins and aired on the satellite channel Colors, Monday to Friday, at 8 pm.

 

Balika Vadhu caught my attention because of a device it uses. At the end of each episode, it poses a question or makes a statement about the nature of conflict being represented in the episode. The question or statement is read out and also appears in text form at the bottom of the screen. The use of text to articulate the conflict interested me because it made me wonder what kind of complex conflict was being represented that could not be communicated through the usual entertainment format of an episodic serial.

 

The whole point of the televised episodic story is to play on the audience’s emotions rather than intellect. Audiences have to feel, not think. The serial is an emotional ventilator that operates more or less in a binary format where there are the proverbial two sides of the coin -- one good, the other bad. Simplification is the key. And yet, here was a serial that presented text at the end of each episode, thereby offering several perspectives to an issue. Was it just a device to make the serial seem ‘intellectual’?

 

 

I see the serial in the context of two media-related phenomena. One is that almost all mass media content is dominated by the entertainment platform; even news and current affairs are beginning to look like reality shows. On the other hand, serials are becoming more frivolous. Yet here was a serial articulating Indian social realities both in drama as well as in literary text at the end of every episode.

 

The other phenomenon is the use of traditional drama to convey serious and modern messages to audiences that are essentially looking for pure entertainment. Two programmes in Marathi stand out here. One is Tickle Te Political and the other Daar Ughada Na Gade. Both use the traditional vag and tamasha formats of entertainment to present serious and complex social and political issues. Balika Vadhu uses the traditional drama format very effectively; what is interesting is the textual input.

 

The use of text, as much as of folk media formats in entertainment programmes that deal with serious and modern conflicts, and the acceptance of these formats by audiences is, to my mind, an indication that audiences want to intellectually engage with social conflicts, albeit on an entertainment platform. This is not something new. Our values, morals and ethics were handed down to us by storytellers more than philosophers and thinkers. What is significant is that the mass media is now making adjustments in format to deal with Indian realities.

 

As I write, a teenager in the family (in the serial) has stolen money to fund the little pleasures of a computer game. He is influenced by another teenager who has been sent back to the village from the city because of his vagabond ways. Statement: ‘It often happens that a teenager is unable to determine what is right or wrong’.

 

One might say that is stating the obvious. However, what is significant is that the statement, in so many words, articulates the cause of the conflict that is to follow. Once such a statement is made, it is a challenging task to keep the balance between the serial’s entertainment value and its educative potential. Any wrong move could make the story didactic and lose audiences. Moral endings are nice to watch early in the morning when the children have gone to school, teenagers are still asleep, and the husband is reading the newspaper over a cup of tea. But at 8 pm, when the husband has returned from work, the pressure cooker is being put on the gas, and the dough is ready to be made into rotis, nobody wants doses of ethics and morality. So, are only women watching this serial? It would appear that the dominant majority does comprise women. 

 

I have heard many teenage girls discussing the serial. Teenage girls, and for that matter boys too, are viewed with anxiety and teenagers’ movements looked upon with a high degree of suspicion by parents. I am deliberately refraining from using the words ‘even today’ or ‘even in a city like Mumbai’ because I support the hypothesis that democracy, socialism, secularism and federalism stand outside the threshold of the Indian family, and that inside this threshold life is rural, feudal, patriarchal, caste-ridden and communal regardless of the family’s location, level of earning, or level of education. This could explain why teenage girls are among the audience watching this serial because they are at home when the serial is telecast, and their mothers are watching it too.

 

Significantly, the two characters that drive the serial match the categories represented most in the audience. There is the young bride Anandi and the widowed matriarch Dadisa. Anandi entered puberty after her marriage. Her father had to mortgage the family land to get her married. She is still struggling to get an education. Jagdish, Anandi’s husband, is a teenage boy of about the same age.

 

Anandi’s husband is not yet a ‘man’ -- a difference that almost every teenage, college-going girl knows instinctively but is unable to articulate clearly. That kind of relationship keeps sex and its inherent distractions out of the picture and allows ample room to articulate the gender conflict. The emotional and intellectual play on the sexual and gender conflict happens in other people’s lives with this ‘innocent’ couple providing emotional and intellectual ventilation. The audience becomes innocent along with the couple; it then becomes easier to face the complex reality of men and women ‘growing up’ in different and often conflicting worlds in India.

 

Dadisa is outdated and illiterate. She exercises absolute control over everybody in the house and yet we can see that her position, in terms of political power within the family, is not without challenge from the men who are her grown-up sons. Treating this conflict in the context of a matriarch and her sons, rather than a patriarch and his sons, makes it easier both for the writer as well as the viewer because the violence is articulated in ‘talk’ and ‘emotion’ rather than on a physical level. The latter kind of violence is shown happening in other families, and that makes the central family appear that much more moral and progressive.

 

Dadisa represents the classical mother, mother-in-law and matriarch in Indian families who is always under pressure from the unknown, undefined log, or people in society: thinking about what they will say, how they will treat her and her family, how a situation will affect her position within the family and her family’s position within society.

 

The serial has so far addressed issues like child marriage, gender bias, morality, sexuality, widow remarriage, caste, class, rural and urban conflict, juvenile delinquency, the fragile and often corrupt credit system, moral corruption within the Indian family system, the institution of marriage, and education. As discussed earlier, the makers of the serial have been careful to use every dramatic device available to ensure that these issues are put forward directly and, at the same time, the audience is afforded an escape, a ventilator to distance itself from responsibility. The text helps the audience detach itself emotionally from the issue and, instead, consider it intellectually.

 

So, why are some Indian politicians objecting to the serial? The objection seems to be to the child marriage that took place in the serial. The serial showed how the marriage was negotiated via a complex social and familial process, how various parties exploited each other and are, in turn, also exploited by each other. Can the serial be accused of ‘promoting’ child marriage by doing this? Definitely not. Firstly, this would be taking media effects to an extreme that even the worst critic of the media would find hard to accept, and secondly, because we have a dubious record on implementing the law against child marriage. In fact, the serial’s position on any issue, especially in the literary text at the end of each episode, is like the leader comment in a newspaper. The text puts the conflict in context.

 

The episode dealing with the marriage of a young widowed pregnant woman to a young man was kept finely balanced between the emotional and dramatic ‘text’ of the dialogue and the serious, intellectual and literary text at the end. In this case, negative reactions to the event within the girl’s family were set off by a more angry display of physical violence and dramatic scenes involving the boy’s family. There was every danger of the serial veering towards a blood-for-blood kind of resolution as the boy’s family accuses the girl’s family of cheating and robbing them of their only son to settle a score of hatred that runs through both families. But the serial managed to project the violence and the hatred in the context of both families’ inability to come to terms with the reality of the pregnant widowed woman and the willingness of the young man to marry her. The serial uses a very interesting device -- the boy does not tell his family that the woman is pregnant, just that he loves her. The underlying text said: ‘Often to hide one falsehood one has to lie over and over again’.

 

From the issue of marriage with a pregnant widowed woman, the discussion shifts to the nature of lies and the importance of telling the truth! Similar textual devices are used, coupled with small threads of moral conflict, as the original story of the remarriage of the pregnant young widow reaches its resolution.

 

Balika Vadhu has so far broken up issues into single threads that start with the articulation of conflict, discussing various aspects of the conflict through the characters’ reactions with the literary text providing an intellectual round-up of emerging questions and debates, and finally, a resolution. The literary text at the end of each episode is what really lifts the serial from an out-and-out entertainer to an intellectual exercise, however limited in scope given the fact that, ultimately, it is a serialised family drama on television.

 

Clearly, Balika Vadhu articulates Indian realities. Anybody who says these are not issues in India is living in a fool’s world. That’s like saying that a particular community is ‘the most tolerant community in India’ in the face of the continuing existence and need for an anti-dowry Act and an atrocities Act that were instituted to check and, if possible, correct the malice of intolerance more specific to that community.

 

 

 

(Sanjay Ranade is Reader and Head of the Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Mumbai. He is also Honorary Research Fellow, Monash Asia Institute, Monash University, Australia)

 

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