Bye-bye Balika Vadhu

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Opinion | 27/07/2016
The serial that tried to make a difference ran longer than any other soap but now calls it a day after eight years.
SHUMA RAHA says it was a trailblazer

Anandi over the years, and her daughter, Nandini,  extreme right. 

 

When it debuted on July 21, 2008, on Colors, Balika Vadhu (Child Bride) immediately soared to the top of the pops among Hindi TV serials. For years Hindi soaps had been all about saas-bahu sagas, as epitomised by the hugely popular K-serials from the Ekta Kapoor stable. Suddenly, there was Balika Vadhu, where the protagonist was a bahu all right, but a pre-pubescent one.

Anandi was a little girl, married off at eight into a wealthy family in rural Rajasthan. And viewers couldn’t have enough of her and her life as a child bride who struggles to negotiate her way through an ultra-orthodox, feudal family ruled by a fierce, dictatorial matriarch. Or of the multi storey havelis and bullock cart rides which suddenly became part of the urban viewer’s soap opera landscape.  

The serial was created for a new channel because its creative director Ashwini Yardi was looking for out of the box ideas. And Purnendu Shekhar, the writer, fished out a script on child marriage that he had written in 1992 but not found takers for. Situating it in rural Rajasthan killed different birds with one stone. The TV audience measurement universe had expanded to take in viewership in rural-urban India and TAM, the measurement agency, was increasing its coverage in Rajasthan.  The channel took the plunge, and the risk worked.

Now Balika Vadhu, which has clocked around 2200 episodes to become the longest running Hindi soap, is set to end on July 31. It’s an important milestone, for the serial was a game changer of sorts. By highlighting the abhorrent practice of child marriage, it harked back to television in the 1980s, when serials such as Hum Log were committed to social messaging. In fact, every episode of Balika Vadhu concludes with an instructional moral reminiscent of actor Ashok Kumar delivering a chatty little homily at the end of Hum Log episodes.

But Balika Vadhu was not just a throwback. It was also a trailblazer. Its staggering success triggered a clutch of other soaps with serious social issues as their USP. There was Na Aana Is Des Laado, based on the problem of female infanticide, Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo on girls who are sold into marriage, Pratigya on eve teasing, Rishton Se Badi Pratha on honour killings and many more. Like Balika Vadhu, they moved the scene of action from the urban milieu of the K-serials to the rural hinterland. The shift in the setting was at once an attempt to reel in audiences in those parts as it was an acknowledgement that some social evils are perhaps more violently prevalent in remote rural outbacks. 

Balika Vadhu’s Anandi (played with endearing spirit by Avika Gor) starts off as an eight-year-old whose childhood is pretty much over once she enters her marital home. But hers is a tale of incremental triumphs. She constantly pushes back against injustices and the strictures that threaten to stifle her, strictures that come chiefly from the formidable Dadisa (Surekha Sikri). Eventually, she overcomes the crippling disadvantage of being pushed into a child marriage; she gets an education, becomes a sarpanch and then a social activist. On the way, her husband divorces her, she marries again, and is then widowed. But she takes every reversal in her stride and comes out stronger each time.

It’s a compelling narrative of women’s empowerment that plays out against the backdrop of issues like child marriage, widow remarriage, adult education and so on. Little wonder then that Balika Vadhu quickly became something of a pathbreaker among Hindi soaps, which, up until then, had been overdosing on interminable tussles between devilish mothers-in-law and their hapless daughters-in-law. 

However, while the broad outlines of Balika Vadhu are undeniably progressive, there are problems with its inner dynamics -- the ingredients with which those outlines are filled in. The story is situated in the same old landscape of regressive TV soap stock-in-trade: a strident emphasis on the importance of tradition and family values, and the usual gender stereotypes. For the most part, women are depicted in their traditional, normative roles — their lives revolving around marriage, childbirth, sacrifice, and service to the family. So even while Balika Vadhu was devouring the TRPs in its earlier years, it had the familiar ring of hyper melodrama, awash with frequent tears, and frequent references to a woman’s kokh or womb from which a vansh ka chirag would spring. 

That is not exactly the kind of messaging that helps the cause of women’s empowerment. On the contrary, that's exactly the kind of messaging that used to routinely emanate from serials such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and so on. 

There was some criticism against Balika Vadhu in the initial years that by depicting so many instances of child marriage it was propagating the very evil it apparently sought to condemn. I would disagree. Yes, the serial returns to the subject again and again. Anandi’s aunt Gehna stops her young sister from being married to a much older man. When she is sarpanch Anandi too prevents a child marriage from taking place. And later, in a case of history repeating itself, her daughter Nandini becomes a victim of child marriage as well. 

That might seem improbable but it is not without precedent in fiction. In Bengali writer Ashapoorna Devi’s novel Pratham Pratisruti, the heroine Satyavati becomes a child bride. A generation later, by a tragic twist of fate, so does her daughter. In the case of Balika Vadhu, the repeated focus on child marriage is neither offensive nor gratuitous -- especially given the enormity of the problem in the country. According to the 2011 Census, one-third of all married women in India were pushed into wedlock before they turned 18. 

The point, however, is that though the serial has been resounding in its indictment of child marriage, the message was often compromised by its pandering to regressive gender stereotypes and vocabulary that is straight up patriarchy’s street.

The Balika Vadhu that airs today has long moved away from the riveting twists and turns in Anandi’s fate. It now dwells on the life and loves of her grown up daughter Nandini, with little to distinguish it from the host of pedestrian soaps frothing away on various entertainment channels. The usual tricks have been deployed to keep spinning it out—a 15-year leap in time, and a change in the time slot at which it aired in Colors. But the ratings continued to drop.

So it is curtains  for Balika Vadhu,  but when it airs its last episode on July 31, with a trishul wielding attack by the heroine to make it memorable,  it will be time to raise a toast to the Balika Vadhu of yore. A toast to Avika Gaur, Pratyusha Banerjee (who committed suicide earlier this year) and Toral Rasputra, all of who played Anandi at various stages of her life. And a toast, above all, to an Indian soap opera which while being on a commercial  channel, tried to be a harbinger of social change.  

 

Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi   

 

 

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