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Women in Indian Soap Operas

 


The proliferation of private television channels post-economic liberalization resulted in competitiveness in the realm of cable television programming which further led to the creation of new and modifications of the existing characters of female protagonists in Indian soap operas. Therefore, it is pertinent to understand the construction of different roles in which the characters of female protagonists are portrayed on screen. In this research, “A Study of Female Protagonists in Contemporary Hindi Soap Operas” the researcher aims to analyze two contemporary Indian soaps of Sony Entertainment Television, that claim to differ from the traditional narrative and offer a “new” perspective to Hindi soap operas. The soaps under examination are, Dhadkan Zindagi Kii ( Arif Ali, 2022) and Story Nine Months Kii (Aniruddha Rajderkar and Ashish Ranglani, 2021)


Ever since cable tv programming in India, television has become a source to disseminate information and entertainment. Soap operas are generally made with female spectatorship in mind. Therefore, the representation of gender in soap operas becomes a comprehensive topic to analyze. In the last decade, the wave in Indian soap operas has flown the culture into a new, very unique dimension. Dr. Anamika Ray in her research paper titled "Women Representation in the Entertainment World" claimed that TV serials have been able to revolutionize the values of our society as the soap themes underwent a paradigm shift from the year 2008 onwards with social problems like child marriage, female foeticide, child labor, bonded labor and farmers’ suicides providing the thematic context to this new breed of soaps. The earlier two major phases of Indian Soaps one is the 'progressive melodrama' and the second is epitomized by the saas- bahu tales or popularly known as the 'K' soaps by Balaji Telefilms.


Balaji Telefilms largely created melodramatic, stereotypes and heteronormative gender roles. This production house introduced never-ending prime-time soap operas in which certain characters were reborn even after their death. The main aim of the Balaji production house was to garner high rating TRPs (Television Rating Points). During the broadcast of K serial women were projected in the roles of domestic help, traditional mothers, wife, or sisters in a submissive way. Pejorative terms such as saas-bahu soaps or K-serials were coined to refer to these three shows namely Kyunki, Kahaani, and Kasautii, and others of their ilk that were rapidly spreading across all channels. For


 


practically the entire lifespan of the K soaps, which ended in 2008—the adjective used most often to describe them, especially in the English-language media, was “regressive”. On the contrary, contemporary soaps claim to be “ progressive” and offer a new narrative to the audience. However, the degree of newness is yet to be examined. Therefore, the aim of this study is to evaluate the representation of female protagonists in contemporary soaps and comment on whether it is breaking the stereotypes associated with Indian soaps or strengthening them.


The American press coined the term "soap opera" in the 1930s to denote the extraordinarily popular genre of serialized domestic radio dramas, which, by 1940, represented some 90% of all commercially-sponsored daytime broadcasts hours. Soap refers to the fact that the early sponsors of such serials on US radio were often soap manufacturers; opera refers to the scale of a dramatic incident that happens in these programs, "opera" suggested an ironic incongruity between the domestic narrative concerns of the daytime serial and the most elevated of dramatic forms. "Soaps create a world dominated by interpersonal relationships, where characters discuss marital, romantic, and family relationships. The soap opera world seems emotionally hazardous mainly because of the continual sorting and resorting of relationships." (Ahmed, 2012)


To understand soaps we first need to look into the expansion of television in India. The growth of television started in 1959, also known as the experimental stage. Regular programs were started in 1965 with a gradual increase in the duration of telecasts thereafter. Television started expanding in 1982. One of the major reasons was the onset of the Delhi Asian Games of 1982 (Asiad). It was a landmark in the growth of television communication in India. Two important technological advancements took place in India, the introduction of colour television and live broadcasting of the Asian Games. (Rani, ).


No private enterprises were allowed to enter the sector – either to set up television stations or to transmit television signals. It can be observed that the need to keep the social agenda, the demand for entertainment content, and the interest to generate revenue through advertisements were the factors that determined the functions as well as the kind of programs televised in these years. Although television communication remained the sole privilege and property of Doordarshan, The first soap opera of 1984, Hum Log was a family story with an underlying theme that could educate the viewers with the message of family planning. In the early 1990s, soap operas on state television deployed the education-entertainment model in the context of development and nation- building.


In 1984–85, the popular use “proposes that the analysis of soap operas in the post- feminist era and the increasing individualization of women will be strengthened by the


 


incorporation of the transnational and may provide somewhat different dimensions to notions of the ‘New Indian woman’ in the postcolonial, globalized India.” (Fazal, 2009 ) Following the shift in the Economic policies in 1991 Indian Television witnessed a revolution. The pre liberalization era was much different in terms of policies and television projection. The new economic policies launched in India in 1991 brought in considerable reforms in the world by opening up the capital markets to private enterprises and providing operational freedom to private sectors. Besides economical transformation, media underwent a significant technological change that brought in 'transnational communication- the communication that transcends the geographical borders of countries using satellite broadcasting technology.'(Mathai, 2015, p. 225) this resulted in the tremendous growth of the cable television industry.


One of the significant changes post-liberalization was that of media ownership and the introduction of new transnational players and private channels. It not only shifted the government's monopoly but also made the market competitive. Due to advancements in communication technologies the entire scenario of media production, distribution, and consumption patterns shifted. Continuing on the theme of gender representations in Indian media, Purnima Mankekar, provides us with quite a detailed analysis of how television in the post-economic liberalization era focuses on the upscale middle-class consumers who in the decades before watched Doordarshan religiously as citizens. This transformation from citizens to consumers explains Mankekar, has come from the state television re-engaging with the middle-class viewers within the frame of the‘New Indian Woman. It The recasting of Bharatiya Indian woman to “New Indian Woman” is that she is a modern, educated, Hindu and aspiring to be, if not already, part of the middle-class socio-economic group. These revised representations are woven into nationalist serials to engage middle-class audiences and consumers. The state broadcaster Doordarshan devised its soap operas on the premise of the national project, whereas the new cable and satellite television channels base their programming content and strategies on the viewers’ disposable incomes.


Krishnan and Dighe’s study, which decoded women’s images on television, found that the expansion of commercialism on television didn't improve the representations of female characters. On the contrary, they note that the sooner primary definer, the state, was being replaced with the growing commercialization of the medium with the result that ‘it consistently devalues women; on the opposite, it holds up as desirable the values of bourgeois liberalism, individual gain and subsequent consumerism’ (Krishna and Dighe, 1990: 113). Serials such as Hum Log as well as Khandaan, Karamchand, and Buniyaad had major followings in the urban areas in India, as well as overseas where these programs were available to viewers via video cassettes. Literature on the general analysis of the reception of the Hindu epic serials Mahabharata and Ramayana has


 


provided narratives on the emotional appeal and ambiguities that utilized modern conventions of television discourses (Kumar, 2006). States that in televising Mahabharata, Doordarshan has circulated the set of practices that seemed to be ‘good’ which were represented within the epic via the daily activities of the Pandava family. Additionally, within the packaging of Mahabharata the signature section, the language, the music, and therefore the north Indian costumes, the state broadcaster was ready to privilege such representations as typical of Indian rural life.


Talking about the Gender Politics in Indian Soap operas. Shilpa Nandy and Rumi Datta said that television is a powerful medium and holds the capacity to influence opinion and strengthen existing stereotypes it can strengthen gender-based discrimination or encourage the empowerment of women through the portrayal of strong independent women. Soaps have an impact on Indian society, specially Middle-class families with regard to national integration, identity, globalization, women, and ethics. After economic liberalization soap operas emerged as "melodramatic" having enough potential to catch the audience's attention and further intensify commercial needs. Vinaya Nayak in his paper, "Gender on Television" mentioned that studies found television produces stereotypes of women, they are either enclosed in the domestic sphere as wives and mothers and outside the domestic sphere as embodiments of the beauty stereotype - young, slim, fair and objects of sexual desire.


Few common features of female protagonists in Indian soap.operas include. Ideal bahu in sari obeying in-laws the perfect cook, submissive to elders, and obedient. Her personality is very pleasing and likable. She's polite, innocent, cheerful, and shy at times. She stands right behind her husband all the time following in his footsteps and consulting him before making any independent decision. Another distinct characteristic of soap operas is the costumes and turnout of women which is one of the major factors of audience attention. "Construction of images of women in T.V prioritizes emergence, glamour, sexual bodies, and charm. " ( Dasgupta, 2012) Their beauty is enhanced by strong make-up, heavy jewelry, and sarees. Women are found to marry in rich households and have nothing else to do apart from dressing and gossiping. (Annand, 2007). UNESCO in their report described the images of women in the media says "the glamourous sex kitten, the sainted mother, the devious witch, the hard-faced corporate and political climber."


K soaps’ is the popular name for the soaps produced by Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Telefilms in Hindi. Almost all these soaps feature women in formal silk saris, loads of make-up, wearing the traditional ‘sindoor’ prominently, living in lavish mansions, and spouting dialogue about Indian culture and heritage. Usually, the women who play the negative roles sport dark lipstick, eye make-up, and bizarre-looking bindis on their foreheads. The attitude towards these soaps ranged from mild embarrassment and grudging


 


admiration to patronizing put-downs and outright hostility. Shobhaa De, one of India’s most popular English-language commentators, was scathing about the Kserials in a 2003 interview, contending that ‘the protagonists’ mindsets were 50 years behind the times and the “saas-bahu” themes [were] extremely insulting and degrading’ (Indiantelevision.com 2003).


Television critic Poonam Saxena wrote about the K-serials that they were typified by ‘over-made up scheming vamps, the multiple marriages and extramarital affairs, the scripting gimmicks (amnesia, time jumps, etc), and the crude special effects (jarring zoom-ins and zoom-outs)’ Saxena 2009). It hardly seems that women are cast in a powerful role, but still the patriarchal context comes forward. "Soaps are full of contradiction or dualities and there is a dual projection of women in these serials. They define dual projections of women as the "ideal Hindu Nari and pativrata" (Despande, 2009; 120) a symbol of feminine perfection She is a 'domestic Subaltern' in a make constructed stereotype. (Nandy and Dutta 2009 )The second group they say represents women who are power-hungry, full of vice, heartless and ruthless (Anand, 2007) "selfish vamps like outgoing and a threat to family stability often dressed in western clothes a female viagra, the supreme threat to male sexual superiority" (Deshpande,2009) Often characterized as manipulators and evil.


Soaps have undergone a shift in the last few years, while the soaps in the early part of the decade had moved away from the social reform themes popular in the Doordarshan era, the contemporary soaps brought issues addressing social concerns and centered on women’s empowerment. According to Vinaya Nayak, the nature of the narrative of soap operas, after the initial few years the series end up meandering towards the largely established genre of family dramas and soap heroines continue to embody the virtuous femininity that has become the staple for Indian television. Soap operas are ever-changing and a fluid genre. They have been a site for the reading representations of gender, stereotype, and many ways as small capsules of contemporary life. It may well be fair to suggest that they are conceived for female spectatorship, however, to perceive them as either the site for positive representations of gender or deride them as regressive would be a limited perspective. (Nayak, 2017)


Story Nine Months Kii, In a bid to grab eyeballs, the Sony Entertainment channel has launched yet another new show; Story 9 Months Ki, which according to the channel is a progressive and entertaining story that features Sukirti Kandpal as Alia Shroff and Akshay Mishra as Sarangdhar Pandey in the lead role. The show premiered on November 23, 2020, and narrates the story of two completely different individuals, Alia Shroff, an independent and successful woman entrepreneur from Mumbai, and Sarangdhar Brij Pandey, an aspiring writer from Mathura. It’s a tale of two characters,


 


hailing from two different families. Alia Shroff is a successful and ambitious businesswoman, who is a go-getter in life. Whereas Sarangdhar Pandey is a budding and aspiring writer. The lives of these two individuals crossroads when Alia decides to become a single mother through IVF and Sarangdhar becomes her donor "unintentionally". The SET website describes the soap as;


“Alia Shroff, a self-made and strong-willed lady, who has experienced the repercussions of a difficult marriage. Alia believes she doesn't need a spouse to have a baby since she is confident in her ability to walk the journey alone. The successful businessman is on a mission to find a suitable donor for IVF treatment. But what will follow when her path intersects with that of Sarangdhar? He is a dreamy writer who has left his hamlet to pursue his goals in this city.”


Dhadkan Zindagi Kii is a mainstream Hindi language soap opera broadcasted by Sony Entertainment Television and Sony Liv. Its first season aired on 6 December 2021 and ran a total number of 75 episodes which concluded with the final episode on 4 March 2022. Directed by Arif Ali, Dhadkan Zindagi Kii is a medical-themed drama Starring Aditi Gupta in the lead role with Rohit Purohit. The SET India website introduced the serial as;


"In a world where rules are set by men, Dr. Deepika Sinha, a surgeon, enters FNM hospital. But for her to live her dream, she must struggle against gender bias, judgment, as well as her own past."


The story narrates the daily events of FMS hospital and the doctors that work in it. Aditi Gupta is playing the role of Dr. Deepika Sinha, Dr. Sinha, according to the narrative of the soap, is an ambitious woman who sets off on a journey to pursue a successful career in the medical field ridden with patriarchy and to disprove the beliefs of her loved ones, colleagues and society. She has a complex relationship with her ex-fiancee Vikrant Saxena, who also happens to work in the same hospital. Despite having troubles in her personal life she also struggles to make a place for herself at the hospital due to an ugly past. In her professional life, she is undermined and ignored by most of her colleagues owing to her being a woman.


The identity of a ‘new woman' in soap operas.


Sony Entertainment Television created many soap operas that offered a generic shift in programming in India. As the channel set its foot in creating soaps that are based on an idea of projection of a 'New Women' something that is limited to the feudal domestic context; contradicting the traditional narrative of soap opera that is to be particular relies on gendered stereotypes. The programming on Sony Entertainment Television is directed at a supposedly urbanized, globalized audience depicting topics like rape, sexual harassment, and working women, that were mostly unknown in the earlier soaps.


 


The soaps under examination focused largely on the ‘new bold woman’. They contend that these shows offered a ‘variety of new role models to the urban middle class.


These shows often featured the woman walking out on the marriage or refusing to graciously welcome back the straying husband as she might have been expected to do as a traditional Indian woman. Alia in Story Nine Months Kii (2021), and Dr. Deepika Sinha in Dhadkan Zindagi Kii (2022), are all strong women characters in their own right, even if the serials themselves were often wracked by anxiety surrounding the alleged decay of the institution of marriage. The above-mentioned shows also brought to the fore a very specific representation of the family and the woman, but to properly situate these representations.


While one can argue that these are indeed not more than severely attenuated indicators of agency, Purnima Mankekar has suggested that even these depictions were quite radical for Indian culture in soaps, especially considering the fact that the traditional Indian family continued to be central to the narrative of contemporaneous soaps and movies. She suggests that the emergence of the supposedly traditional Indian family form in the K-serials constituted a backlash to these depictions of desire and independence in the Indian woman (Mankekar 2004).


It is particularly important to understand what is projected as a novel tendency in popular culture because the serial (here, Dhadkan Zindagi Kii and Story Nine Months Kii) itself is thematically premised upon the idea of the 'makeover', a key form of 'change' that became a major source of attraction for the audience. According to the producer of Dhadkan Zindagi Kii, Nilanjana Purkayastha introduced a new role for the lead actress questioning patriarchy and standing up for herself, her career, is new to Indian TV she said in an interview with India Forums,


"It is gratifying because the idea of questioning patriarchy and portraying a heroine who stands up for herself and her career is new to Indian television. The promos seem to have struck a chord with the audience and we are happy about that. This theme of sexism is the USP of Dhadan Zindaggi Kii. We do it not just through the story of the lead character Dr Deepika Sinha (Additi Gupta) but also through other characters and their stories. The show talks about women in a


25 topical way and challenges the status quo of the representation of women on Indian TV for the last two decades. The show is almost entirely based on the workplace and highlights the challenges for women at the workplace, unlike 99% of Indian TV shows that highlight challenges for women at home. There have been many shows made on doctors. This is not the first time. One wonders how Dhadkan Zindagi Kii is different.“Dhadkan Zindagi Kii is probably the most authentic medical drama made on Indian TV. It shows medical procedures, surgeries, etc authentically. It is not a love story with the hospital just as the backdrop. It is about the lives of doctors, their professional and personal challenges are played out seamlessly,” she ends


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