Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi
is dead. Long live saas-bahu serials. Ekta Kapoor’s first saas-bahu soap, which began in July 2000 on Star Plus, went off the air a few days ago. Instantly, obituaries of saas-bahu soaps began appearing everywhere. But saas-bahu serials are a bit like the characters in their own stories — the ones who are given up for dead but miraculously come to life again with different faces courtesy plastic surgery. Because
may be over but its No 1 slot has been taken over by
(Colors) which is also a saas-bahu soap —with a difference.
Once Ekta Kapoor’s formulaic K serials became a success, everyone in the TV industry followed suit. There were many elements to the K template but the highlights were as follows: (a) all-white protagonists and all-black vamps and villains (b) the former starting out as underdogs and suffering endlessly at the hands of the latter (c) everyone all dressed up with nowhere to go (except maybe the puja room) and (d) opulent residences (read opulent sets).
But all formulas come with an inbuilt expiry date. The Ekta Kapoor formula too finally spluttered to the end of its long and successful life. Once in stratospheric double-digit figures, Kyunki’s ratings over the last year had dropped to forlorn single-digit numbers. “Viewers got tired of the unrealistic drama of these serials,” says Purnendu Shekhar, scriptwriter of Balika Vadhu. According to him, the serial worked with audiences for many reasons: the novelty of the theme (child marriage), the more realistic quality of the drama, no all-good or all-bad characters, different and unusual setting (a village in Rajasthan), good lead actors, particularly the endearing child bride (Avika Gor) and her sour grand mother-in-law (Surekha Sikri). “Now I hear all channels are getting production houses to do village-based shows,” chuckles Purnendu, recalling one of the first comments he heard when the show opened: ‘It’s so preachy.’ “But I want to be preachy!” says Purnendu. “I am from Rajasthan. My mother was married off at 15. So much of what happens in the serial is taken from her life. I am clear that I am writing a serial about a social issue. That’s why every episode ends with a slogan, all of which have been written by my father, Meghraj Shrimali. And viewers love these slogans.”
But Shekhar’s explanations notwithstanding, why is the country hooked to a serial about a child bahu and her orthodox rural sasural? In other words, why are we fixated on traditional family serials, whether they are of the Kyunki variety or the more agreeable Balika Vadhu kind? The answer is not difficult to find.
The number of cable and satellite homes in 1993 was 3.3 million and went up to 22 million by 1999 (according to the latest Indian Readership Survey report, the figure is 66.5 million in 2008). These numbers contained an important lesson, which Ashwini Yardi, the current programming head of Colors, learnt when she moved to Zee in 2004 and tried to recreate the kind of hit shows Zee had done in the early Nineties. Then, Zee had made serials like Tara (about four young working women in a big city) and Sailaab (a mature man-woman story with an infidelity angle). So Ashwini attempted serials like Kashish (a grown-up tale about intense relationships). But Ashwini had not reckoned with the fact that the world had changed.
In the early years of satellite television (Zee launched in 1992), the few households that had a cable connection were typically well-off and educated. But by 1999-2000, viewership had already turned mass. Which is why
— which the then programming head of Star Plus, Sameer Nair, commissioned just because he found the name intriguing —worked. Because by 2000, the mass audience was already in place – and it didn’t particularly want to see serials about modern, outgoing, independent working women.
Purnendu Shekhar, “I wrote such a serial about a big city gynaecologist, Dr Simran, for Zee TV. It was called Astitva — Ek Prem Kahani. I picked up every TV award for the show. Everyone said nice things about it. But it never got those big viewership numbers.”
Female viewers can’t identify with such women, explains Ashwini. Her attempts in 2004 to recreate those modern dramas of the early years of satellite TV bombed. “After I figured out my mistake, I switched tracks,” says Ashwini. She brought in serials like Banoo Main Teri Dulhan, complete with good bahus and bad vamps. But when she joined Colors, she didn’t fully embrace this Ekta Kapoor-inspired formula. “I couldn’t afford to,” she points out. “Colors was the 11th player in the GEC (general entertainment channels) segment. We had to be different.”
Overstaying their welcome
But it won’t be easy to be different. One of the reasons the Ekta Kapoor formula met its death was because it exceeded its legitimate lifespan. Explains Shailaja Kejriwal, vice-president, NDTV Imagine, “It is very, very difficult to run a daily soap for eight years without a break (like Kyunki did). Nowhere else in the world has this ever happened. Every serial has seasons, takes breaks. When you just go on and on without a break, fatigue sets in. There is all-round creative exhaustion. Even the scriptwriters can’t keep the story alive.”
Shailaja says that when Kyunki began, it was a simple story of a poor girl marrying into a rich family. But once it became a monster success, it had to be kept going, even after the story had run through its course. That was the cue for plot devices like kidnappings, murders, illegitimate children, insomnia, time jumps, generation leaps, the works. As long as the ratings came in, no one cared whether the serial had lost the plot or not. But viewers cared — eventually.
Reality weds tradition
So even as writer Purnendu Shekhar comments that most serials should ideally end in about a year, Ashwini Yardi says of Balika Vadhu: “It has the potential to go on for a long time.” (You can already see Anandi growing up, having children of her own, perhaps ensuring that they don’t become child brides…)
Is there a way out? Is there a possibility of a niche channel that doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator but offers more ‘contemporary’ entertainment? While most television executives are united in the view that niche is the way forward (the emergence of channels that specialize in travel, fashion, cookery, wellness, etc), they are equally unanimous about entertainment being a different ball game.
When NDTV Imagine CEO Sameer Nair was in Star, he launched Star One as a foil to the mass-appeal Star Plus. Star One was meant to be more upmarket, youthful, big city-oriented. But after the channel had established this identity, Sameer promptly steered it away to a more mass identity. “You have to go mass, there is no other option,” he had said at the time. Agrees Albert Almeida, executive vice president and business head, Sony Entertainment Television, “If you want to appeal to a pan-Indian audience, you have to stay within certain parameters. Yes, India is changing, there are people from small towns migrating to big cities and living alone or in nuclear families, but how much ‘modern’ content will they be willing to accept? I’m not sure. There are fine lines you can’t cross.”
But Albert does feel that Balika Vadhu’s success has come with a silver lining.
“Successful serials like Balika Vadhu or Bidayi (on Star Plus) are taking up social issues,” he points out. “They’re more realistic than the earlier soaps and most important of all, the protagonists are asking questions. In her innocent way, Anandi challenges the social order. That’s the new spin. And it’s working.”
So Kyunki is dead. But long live saas-bahu serials. The good thing — at least the bahu is saying a little more than “Aapke pair dabaa doon?”