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Manic realism

india Updated: Apr 22, 2008 23:50 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times
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When the first saas-bahu serial started in 2000, no one, not even Star Plus on which it was being telecast, could have dreamt that it would spawn a generation of clones. Eight years later, although the popularity of these serials seems to be waning, they’re still the only kind of soaps you’ll get to see on the general entertainment channels.

Unless you start feeling deeply emotional at the sight of a mangalsutra, you are likely to be perplexed and exasperated at the long-running success of these soaps. What explains their ascendancy? And will there ever be a decline and fall?

But first, a quick recap of the defining characteristics of saas-bahu serials — a generic term really for a certain kind of family drama:

n They are centred around a large joint family.

n They are shot mostly indoors.

n They have a traditional, opulent look and feel (read: heavily made-up women laden with jewellery and wedding-type sarees; gaudy interiors).

n They have starring roles for women: good and noble homemakers are pitched against vamps who scheme and plot so much that even Machiavelli would look like a teddy bear in comparison.

n They have tortuous plots, involving every device in the scriptwriter’s book of clichés: amnesia, return from the dead, plastic surgery, illegitimate children, extra-marital affairs, revenge, etc.

n They have a certain technical grammar and style with crude, jarring special effects.

Not surprisingly, saas-bahu serials have been hammered for their abysmal aesthetics, creativity bankruptcy and cookie-cutter templates. They’ve also been panned for being regressive and backward, and for failing to reflect the changes taking place in Indian society. The paradoxical part is that all this is happening at a time when entertainment’s other twin, cinema, is going through its most exciting phase of experimentation, having abandoned the worst excesses of commercial cinema.

But I think this paradox can be explained partially, if not fully, by the audience/distribution factor. It’s quite well-known now that the current experimentation in cinema is largely driven by distribution. With the proliferation of multiplexes (and, therefore, smaller theatres), filmmakers can afford to make films for niche audiences. A modestly budgeted, off-beat film may not run in huge 1,000-seater cinemas across the country, but it can certainly run in select multiplex audis in big cities.

But in television, the ‘reverse’ is true. From the time satellite television came to India in the early 90s till today, C&S (cable and satellite) homes have grown enormously. In October 1992, there were 1.2 million C&S homes in India. By 2006, the number had risen to 68 million. Today, satellite TV is pushing its way into more and more smaller towns and into more and more lower-income families in bigger towns. In market research jargon, it is moving into Section B, C and D categories. In short, it has become a mass medium, catering to the lowest-common denominator. The space for experimentation is minimal.

And, of course, not only are C&S homes increasing, the number of entertainment channels is also growing. There are at least ten major entertainment channels now, and many more are expected to go on air in the next 12 months. The competition is ruthless and there’s not a single channel out there willing to try anything different.

When the first saas-bahu soaps (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kasauti Zindagi Key) clicked with audiences in 2000, everybody followed suit. And it continues to do so. In all fairness though, when these three soaps began — though they were, even then, old-fashioned — they did have strong women characters (Tulsi, Parvati and Prerna) who made a place for themselves in viewers’ minds and hearts. But as the serials dragged on (Kasauti… has mercifully ended now), they lost the plot. By then, it was too late. They had already become a habit for viewers and their success ensured that neither the channel nor the production house (Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms) was willing to pull the plug on them. And, of course, all the other entertainment channels, smelling a successful formula, quickly did a cut-and-paste job for their own viewers.

If you remember — with affection and nostalgia — Doordarshan serials like Hum Log and Buniyaad also came in the pre-satellite era. Even if you have wistful memories of later serials like Tara, don’t forget that they too were telecast in the early days of satellite TV, when there was only Zee. There was no competition. The time of formula serials had not yet arrived.

But there is another truth. Serials that are Xerox copies of each other are necessarily assembly-line products. There’s no creative ownership of such serials. Even if you are the most avid saas-bahu soap watcher, you won’t be able to recall the name of any director of these serials (whereas we all know that Buniyaad was made by Ramesh Sippy, the man who gave us Sholay and Seeta Aur Geeta; and that Tara was made by Raman Kumar who directed charming films like Saath Saath). Even television executives have no qualms admitting that the directors of saas-bahu serials are from the dregs of the entertainment industry. Anyone who is halfway talented prefers to make a film (possible for a new filmmaker today) rather than opt for the drudgery of directing a daily soap. Especially when he knows that production houses and channel bosses will insist that he make only saas-bahu soaps — because that’s what the TV audience wants to see.

But it’s not the only thing TV audiences want to see. It’s the only thing they get to see. Despite the illusion of choice, there is no choice. You can see a saas-bahu soap on one channel, or you can see a saas-bahu soap on a second channel, or you can see a saas-bahu serial on a third channel — and so on. When it comes to fiction, you will see the same thing everywhere.

So why did I say at the beginning of this piece that the popularity of these soaps is dwindling? Here’s why: first, they are facing tough competition from reality shows (which have got into a rut of their own, but that’s another story). Second, their ratings — the raison d’etre of their existence — are dropping. Third, other kinds of serials — like mythologicals — have started doing well.

Even if saas-bahu serials survive, there is still light at the end of the tunnel — because, some years down the line, hopefully, we will have a choice. As distribution via DTH becomes more widespread and subscription becomes a healthier revenue stream than it is now, there is a real chance of viewers being given channels which are not mass-oriented, but aimed at niche audiences. So you, as a viewer, might have the option of subscribing to one or two (maybe even more) ‘intelligent’ entertainment channels.

These channels too may have family dramas. The family drama can never die in India. But it needn’t be in the form of saas-bahu serials.

So bye bye Tulsi. Can’t say it’s been nice knowing you.