Of late, afternoon siestas haven’t been the same in Sirsa village, Haryana. Forty kilometres from Delhi, in the heart of rural Haryana, an unlikely figure has captured the imagination of afternoon television viewers.
She isn’t the regular evil saas on TV, Ammaji, the 45-year-old mother-in-law in the soap opera Na Aana Is Desh Meri Laado, rides horses, commands a village and terrorises those who flout her will.
“Ib ke karein is chhori ka, (now what do we do with this girl?)” mimics 21-year-old Jyoti Khatri, as she watches Ammaji’s latest shenanigans one afternoon in Sirsa. “Aapne jaisa bolti hai bilkul, bilkul fark hi nahi hai. (She speaks just like us, there is no difference.)”
Set in rural Haryana, Laado has been a surprise hit with audiences. Centred on the practice of female infanticide in India, the soap has become the second most popular show of its kind on television.
In the fictitious village of Veerpur in Haryana, Siya, an idealistic young woman rises up against Ammaji, the powerful and regressive sarpanch who rules with an iron hand.
“Ammaji was a strong character right from the beginning but sometimes we have to further develop characters after seeing the interest figures of the audience,” says Ashvini Yardi, who heads the Programming Division at Colors, the channel on which Laado is aired, “Our recent research shows that the good ones like, say Anandi (the child bride of Balika Vadhu) doesn’t have as high a recall value as her regressive grand-mother-in-law, Dadisa.”
“Ammaji is a victim of a mindset and power. After being widowed at an early age she has to lead and head her family as well as the village as a woman,” says Meghna Malik, the 30-something actress who plays Ammaji. “Despite being a woman she has to carry forward her village’s tradition of girl child infanticide and now she’s enjoying the power.”
A graduate in English literature from the Kurukshretra University who wears her purple-tinged hair cropped short, Malik shares little in common with her on-screen avtaar, preferring clearly enunciated English to Ammaji’s raucous Haryanvi. Viewers might recognise her as the teacher in Taare Zameen Par.
Malik is familiar with the language of her character as she was born in Sonepat, Haryana, she still that feels delivering her dialogues with conviction and diction is a challenge each time. “I live this character for 13 hours a day and a lot of research had to go into it for me to play her with that conviction.”
Back in Sirsa, Malik’s realistic portrayal of her character has won her audiences over.
“Ib meri daadi ko hi dekh lo,(look my grandmother)” says Jyoti, “Only my mother’s stubbornness ensured that I was born. Daadi would never have let that happen,” she continues in Haryanvi.
The matriarch of Jyoti’s family takes drags on the hookah, smokes beedis, and drinks beer on the pretext of soothing her throat, but is determined not have granddaughters. “She doesn’t like girls,” says Jyoti simply.
Data from the 2001 Census of India supports Jyoti and the soap’s contention that a significant number of young women in Haryana survive solely by dint of the courage and stubbornness of their mothers. As per the census, Haryana had only 819 girls for every 1,000 boys in the age bracket of zero to six years.
Recent data on the Ballabgarh block in Faridabad, Haryana, revealed villages like Malerna and Duleypur where the sex-ratio is as low as 370 and 400 girls per 1,000 boys.
“It is a fantastic serial,” says Poonam, Jyoti’s mother, “People should know [about the perils of infanticide] so girls can advance. I do more for my daughter than for my son, as she will leave once she grows up.”
Listening to this discussion are Ravinder Kherti and Bhura Malik, friends of Poonam’s son Sandeep. Initially they play ignorant saying they’re only interested in Roadies or Khatron ke Khiladi but then enter the discussion from time to time with information from the serial. “Our mummy watches this,” says Kherti.