After the saas-bahu soaps that dominated Indian television in the 2000s, since 2009 pro-social soaps have been entertaining audiences. Soaps such as Balika Vadhu, Na Aana Is Des Laado, Diya Aur Baati Hum, Bade Achhe Lagte Hain that looked at child marriage, female foeticide, inter-caste marriage, late marriage etc became some of the most watched in recent times.
Post the Dec 16 gangrape outrage, the focus sharpened slightly when few such as Parvarrish — Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi, Amrit Manthan incorporated tracks in their stories. While some soaps seem to be reflecting the conscience of the times by piggybacking on popular anger, according to Akhila Sivadas, director, Centre for Advocacy and Research, the larger question is how are they generally looking at women. “The framework of several soaps is expanding and is definitely anti harsh patriarchy,” says Vasanthi Raman, senior fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
The thrust is to tell women how to balance home with work and the outside world, especially in smaller towns given the rapidly changing pace of life. “Today all channels ask, what is the social issue in your story? On our part, we are attempting to break stereotypes,” says Rajesh Dubey, writer of Balika Vadhu.
However, writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar is scathing. “Has any soap been made on a rape victim or a live-in relationship? TV has largely accepted more regressive norms of society. Their notion of empowered woman is always the vamp,” he said at the Film Writers Association conference in Mumbai earlier this year, where scriptwriters came together for collective introspection. Vivek Bahl, chief creative head, Sony Entertainment Television defends TV. “We are not in the business of news. Yes, some shows might reiterate the opposite and we need to ensure we’re not socially irresponsible.”
While the debate continues, the advertising industry too has faced flak, the recent Ford Figo advertisements being a case in point. The controversy sparked off fresh debate on sexism especially when the anti-rape law had just been passed.
Interestingly, the Ford Figo ads gained international infamy at a time when post-16/12, the ad world had responded to the outrage with a gender sensitisation campaign called Violence on Women (VoW) in February. “Content writers have to become conscious. The journey has begun,” says SK Swamy, president, India chapter of International Advertising Association. Issues like over sexualisation in deodorant ads or equalisation for men and women in seemingly innocuous ads like cooking oil ones will be looked at in the next VoW session in Delhi end April.
The industry also rode the national outrage with a couple of ads (Gillette’s ‘soldier’, Jaago Re with SRK) in the last few months. The ‘soldier’ ad looks at men as women’s protectors. Josy Paul, national creative director at BBDO India who conceptualised it, says it calls out to men who embrace the values of the soldier by standing up for women. The aim may have been to be progressive, the subtext consolidates the idea that women are potential victims in need of male protection says Mallarika Sinha Roy, assistant professor, Women’s Studies Programme, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The main question is about the timing, points out Sangeetha Narsimhan, executive creative director, RK Swamy BBDO. “How come none of the creatives on these brands stood up for women before and are doing it now?”
Overall, there’s a minor dislocation of intention sums up sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “From sexism we are going to gender understanding but the figurative balance isn’t there yet,” he explains. The West has gotten more organised in how they look at sexualisation says writer-activist Rami Chhabra. “Women there have fought battles. For gender sensitisation to happen here, hypersexuality or misogynist sexuality must be addressed first,” she says.