Women’s Feature Service
In a palatial house in a village in Rajasthan, a distressed young girl, decked in traditional attire, is arguing with her husband, a medical student in the big city. The girl has stood first in her higher secondary examination and her success has not gone down well with the husband and his authoritarian grandmother. He accuses her of over-stepping family boundaries. As the entire family looks on shell-shocked, the young girl retorts by saying that she was only completing her studies so that he did not feel ashamed of having an illiterate wife and goes on to relay the benefits of education.
As this high voltage scene from the daily soap, ‘Balika Vadhu’, airs on national TV, millions of women across India connect emotionally with the young protagonist and wholeheartedly agree with her. Today, television is an integral part of life the world over. And India is no exception. TV viewing here has become an increasingly routine activity, and while women watch TV for entertainment, at a deeper level, for many it has become a way of coping with life and is a major subject of daily conversation.
Despite the undeniable impact of TV watching, there is little understanding of how it actually influences society. Being a post-graduate student of political science – engaged in questions of democracy and the information society – I wanted to understand the phenomenon better. So, I conducted intensive interviews with eight women in Delhi who had been watching Hindi soaps for the last two to three years. Four were from upper class/caste households, and four from lower class/caste backgrounds.
The women were asked to comment on daily serials telecast by Colors and Zee TV, two Hindi entertainment channels. The list included ‘Balika Vadhu’ (on child marriage), ‘Uttaran’ (explores the relationship between two girls from different backgrounds), ‘Na Aana Is Desh Meri Laddo’ (on female foeticide), ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ (on Rani Laxmibai’s life), ‘Pavitra Rishta’ (explores the dynamics within a Hindu middle class joint family), and ‘Agle Janam Mohe Bitia Hi Kijo’ (tackles bonded labour).
Many interesting glimpses into contemporary life emerged from this exercise. Across the two groups, women who worked outside the home saw TV for one to two hours every day, while homemakers tended to watch for at least two hours more on an average. One woman interviewed - a domestic worker - said she regularly saw serials in one of the two homes she worked. Interestingly, while the class hierarchy was kept intact during these viewing sessions - the ‘memsahib’ sat on the bed, while she sat on the carpet - during the ad breaks, I observed that both women discussed the serial almost as equals. For example, whilst watching ‘Pavitra Rishta’, both were delighted that lead pair, Manav and Archana, finally got married after many difficulties. Discussing this, the domestic worker argued that Archana should stop working after marriage and devote more time to the home. Intriguingly, although a working woman herself, she believed that this was a woman’s central responsibility. As she said this, the upper class/caste housewife nodded in agreement, adding, “Girls these days don’t understand the importance of household work.” In fact, that, unsurprisingly, was also the central theme of ‘Pavitra Rishta’.
All respondents revealed they enjoyed watching serials that focused on the lives of women and their families. While they acknowledged that the characters and situations were partly fictional, they argued that the narratives were socially relevant because they had an element of reality in their depiction of interpersonal relationships.
But while viewers from more disadvantaged backgrounds related to the relationships portrayed, they found the opulent backgrounds unrealistic. Others felt that there was no focus on the lives of working women, perhaps because producers believed such portrayals were not “entertaining”. And, one respondent from a Muslim background regretted that Muslim women were rarely shown.
Viewers across the spectrum said that most serials focused on household relationships because they were indeed the most important. One woman put it this way, “I used to work before I got married, but gave up. So if TV depicts this, how is it wrong?”
The portrayal of the female body was another big source of interest to everybody. They noticed that most protagonists were projected as beautiful, fair, thin, with long hair; wearing elaborate garments, heavy makeup and jewellery. They agreed that this pressurised young, and even older, women to adopt the same look.
All respondents revealed they felt attached to some characters more than others. If the ‘good’ characters suffered, they told themselves that it was only a temporary phenomenon. Said one woman, reflecting her religious driven world view, “Ache karam ka fal meetha hota hai (good deeds yield good fruit).” For all respondents, ‘good’ women were those who dressed up ‘properly’ (wearing the markers of traditional Hindu upper caste society, including bindi, bangles, and sindoor and mangalsutra in the case of married women). They could reel out the names of the ‘good’ women: Ichha in ‘Uttaran’, Siya in ‘Na Aana…’, Anandi in ‘Balika Vadhu’, and so on. The ‘bad’ women were those who were self centred and violated established social norms.
As for the ‘good’ men, they were expected to provide for the family and protect the vulnerable within and even selectively beyond the household. In contrast, ‘bad’ men indulged in substance abuse and behaved violently with women.
Many respondents believed that the repeated depiction of abusive behaviour resulted in normalising it for viewers. Some even remarked that such abuse was often depicted in a value-neutral manner – the viewer could empathise with the abuser almost as much as with the person being abused. The upper caste Tapasya’s abusive behaviour towards Ichha (the domestic helper’s daughter) in ‘Uttaran’, was cited as an example.
Respondents generally approved of the ‘progressive’ outlook of some men in the serials. For example, Veer’s character in ‘Uttaran’ is very protective of Ichha, the woman he loves. He stands up for her in front of his parents and Tapasya.
These responses indicate an unquestioning acceptance of patriarchy and the general agreement that men and women play differing roles in society, with the woman’s primary duty being to her household. Viewers used their own belief systems to interpret what they saw on TV. For instance, if a woman character leaves her job to take care of a family member or to get married – like Ichha does in ‘Uttaran’ or Siya in ‘Na Anna…’ – she is considered virtuous.
Clearly, we have here limited self awareness coupled with a hegemonic common sense that accepts patriarchal norms. It is hegemonic because the patriarchal logic behind the narratives and the patriarchal values that mark viewers’ everyday life, overlap without leaving any scope for critical engagement. Yet, not everything was uncritically accepted. Many viewers questioned the opulence shown and the projection of the female body. As one respondent exclaimed, ‘If we wear such short blouses, obviously the men will stare.”
The fact that respondents connected the serials to their own lives is significant. For them television was not just a way to pass time, but a platform to make links between the fictitious characters and their real life family and friends. The passionate manner in which all the respondents spoke about their favourite characters underlined this. Television also seemed to help women counter the alienating aspects of modern life. For example, many mentioned that they kept the TV set on whilst doing household chores because it made them feel someone they could relate to was around.
Anandi, Siya, Iccha, Tapasya, Archana… these TV women are part of the daily lives of most India families. Love them, hate them, but one can’t ignore them, at least not in these times.