Saas-bahu sagas are being rewritten online, by women viewers
In an alternate universe, CID has a female protagonist and Abhijeet is struggling to come out as gay, having realised he’s in love with Daya. The women in Qubool Hai are nice to each other, dress as they please, and help their husbands confront and unlearn their biases.
Jodha Akbar is retold in a 21st-century setting. She’s Jody; Rukaya is Rukz. They’re college mates, never fall for the same man; never fall out. Jodha has her Akbar and Rukz is still searching.
Women are rewriting TV shows online, as fan fiction, and the themes are surprisingly feminist, erotic and imaginative. There are suhaag raats that go on for days, described from the point of view of the woman; male characters falling in love; romance retold with serial-killer plot twists.
Fan fiction — popular in the West for decades, as fans rewrite endings, pair favourite characters and reinvent plot twists — began to gain momentum in India in 2011, with Indian fans rewriting film plots and even Chetan Bhagat novels. TV fan fiction is a step forward. “IndiaForums has over 400 registered TV fan fiction writers,” says founder Vijay Bhatter. There are over 2,300 spinoffs on FanFiction.net of the TV show CID alone. Wattpad and international forum Archive of Our Own has Indians writing TV shows too.
The most popular TV fanfic writers on these websites have up to 10,000 readers per chapter, and continue writing even after a show goes off the air.
“We, and by ‘we’ I mean a lot of urban Indian women, do not relate to the Indian TV shows and characters any more. They do not seem to reflect the society we live in,” says Nupur Asthana, film director and writer on the path-breakingly realistic Hip Hip Hurray, a TV show from the turn of the century that was set in a Delhi high school.
“We do not wear sindoor or know women who do. But we do know gay men and women and we’re starting to notice that TV shows just don’t talk about them. This use of digital platforms to alter storylines is an attempt to make sense of the shows we watch on television.” Their language may be imperfect but the stories are engaging.
“It’s interesting to see women forming communities, creating and sharing stories, on these digital forums — and interesting to think that this has by default become a platform for women’s expression,” says Paromita Vohra, writer, filmmaker and founder of Agents of Ishq, a multi-media project on love, sex and desire.
“An overwhelming majority of the viewers of Indian TV soaps are women, and so it has happened that regressive shows have create a community of subversive women writers.”
It helps that the women can conceal their identity and write under a pseudonym. That anonymity ensures they can finally say what they think — about sex, bossy men, religious dogma, women turning on women.
It’s empowering, Delhi professor Jaya Dubey, 43, says. She started writing TV fan fiction in 2012, after watching about 100 episodes of the TV show Qubool Hai.
“I was so impressed with the teasers for this show about a young Muslim woman who travels to Bhopal in search of her father. It looked interesting, refreshing,” she recalls. “When the show began, the female lead was charming and strong.”
And then the soap did what soaps do — it plunged into stereotypes and conspiracy; began to recast its characters as either saintly or vampish. “It was suddenly the same story of daughter-in-law vs mother-in-law, husbands against wives. I felt like the characters were going back in time to a different century.”
Dubey wanted to vent about this online, and that’s where she came upon IndiaForums and Archive of Our Own.
“Writing fan fiction became my oxygen. It let me love my characters, make them do what I wanted them to do. The show ended last year. I still write,” she says. “I write the show the way it should’ve been written in the first place.”
Dubey is currently on Chapter 136, including one about an erotic, never-ending suhaag raat told from the point of view of the woman. Her fan fiction attracts about 5,000 readers per episode.
Most comments on her work are from readers who want updates more frequently. “We wish you add a few episodes that are about Asad and Zoya sightseeing in NYC,” reads one. “I liked how Asad laughed at his crazy family and their antics.”
BEAUTIFUL, FIERCE, WILD
Manga artist Nandhini* from Tamil Nadu is using her fan fiction to drag the skeleton of child sex abuse out of the closet, and make it relatable.
So in her retelling of Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon, the female protagonist Khushi, an orphan, becomes also a survivor of child abuse. “She rose above it, became a successful businesswoman, and doesn’t fear to talk about it,” says Nandhini.
The Indian TV shows we binge on conveniently brush away all references to something so prevalent, Nandhini says. “I figured if I discuss it by relating it to TV heroes that we love, it may create an impact.”
Nandhini has also written fanfic based on the TV shows Beyhadh and Ishqbaaz. “In my stories, men are not full of bravado. They talk about their weaknesses, deal with depression, tackle abuse,” she says.
Even the simple, formulaic fan fiction by Indian TV soap viewers reflects women more in touch with themselves.
Anita*, 25, a college student from Bengaluru, writes fanfic where the TV shows Ye Hai Mohabbaten and Ishqbaaz merge — in Paris. “I also have myself as a character in the show,” she says. “And why not? I have a crush on the lead actor and want a romance. I get to do that through the fan fiction.”
The retellings also reflect a generational shift — particularly on issues such as women’s sexuality, homosexuality, gender equality.
Xyz1009 from Madhya Pradesh, who chose to remain anonymous, is the on writing in a love angle between Daya and Abhijeet, on FanFiction.net. “I thought it was a good way to break the stereotype that gay men look and act effeminate,” says the 30-year-old.
Also on FanFiction.net, 20-year-old Kolkata student Nusrat Maliha has turned the CID character Tarika into her lead, and created a crossover with her other favourite female character, Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series.
“I love Tarika and always thought she had a lot in common with Hermione,” she says. “My readers responded encouragingly and I made it work for a couple of episodes. Crossovers give readers the best of both worlds.”
As they rewrite the on-screen tales, many are injecting a sense of who they are, or hope to be. Here’s an excerpt for a rewritten Jodha Akbar episode.
“‘What kind of girl am I Jalal?’ Jodha laughed softly; she began to get a little drunk. “You’re beautiful, fierce, wild,’… Jalal responded.”
That was by Niken Perwitsari, 45, a banker from Indore. “I have set my characters in today,” she says. “Jodha wears skirts, goes clubbing; she is best friends with Rukya, the vamp from the show, because I hated seeing the conflict between the two women over a man.”
Rewriting popular stories is giving the writers a sense of freedom from constraints, says Shiv Visvanathan, social scientist and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. “The TV shows are a pretext to get past all the things people have been telling you to do or not to do, explore your own ideas and express them through your work. The phenomenon tells us that women are ready to play creative, imaginative participatory roles in a community of the like-minded online,” he adds. “They’re more than just episodes, these are panchayats of thought.”
(* Last names withheld on request)