Article, Reviews

DAMSEL IN DISTRESS OR SELF-RESCUING PRINCESS? – A FEMINIST CRITIQUE ON THE PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN IN INDIAN SOAPS

We have grown up watching our moms glued to the television sets at around 2 in the afternoon, laughing and crying with Tulsi and Mihir in Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, gritting their teeth at Komolika, the vamp in Kasauti Zindagi Ki, and discussing how Anurag from the same show is brought back to life after dying, what, thrice? Here, we take a look at how these shows add to the innate misogynism that’s already embedded in the DNA of the society.

A cursory glance at any Indian television serial and we see mother in laws who are overprotective of their sons, damsel in distress bahus and vamps in heavy makeup and bindis who are always chalking up a plan to somehow get hold of the ghar ki chaabi. There is also a grandmother, usually a powerful matriarch, who faced systemic misogyny as a young woman and now perpetrates the same behaviour on every female member of the house (unless the woman has a son).

The Indian television industry seems to have taken a downward spiral in the past few decades. With the advent of cable and satellite television, things rapidly changed as we went from ambitious and awe-inspiring shows like Udaan (1989) to shows like Sasural Simar ka and Saath Nibhana Saathiya that displayed women as either wronged wives or domineering middle aged women who regularly compete against each other to win the affection of the male members of the family. Udaan (meaning: flight) told the story of Kalyani Singh who joined the police force by her hard work and sheer determination. Based on the real life story of IPS Kanchan Choudhary Bhattacharya (Former Director General of Police), it instilled in its (predominantly) female audience a desire for emancipation and provided a role model for them to look up to.
As time went by, the new millennium saw the phenomenal success of soaps dealing with the bittersweet happenings of family life- Kasauti Zindagi Ki, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kumkum to name a few. These were championed by none other than Ekta Kapoor who shifted the focus from various sections of the Indian society to a quintessential ‘perfect’ family. However, the overnight success of these shows doesn’t change the fact that these targeted a very precise section of the society- economically privileged joint families often belonging to a high caste and taking pride in their family name. Although they did bring to the surface familial problems that were previously kept hush-hush, they failed to bring within its territory the struggling middle class and solutions for the discrimination that women face on the daily. Superstitions and black magic replaced common sense and logical thinking. Woman empowerment became synonymous to fighting bhootnis and naagins.

The Villain whose entry made us wish for a background music for our own: Komolika

Going by the TRPs, it is evident that these soaps have a very high viewership, thanks to the omnipresence of the idiot box in our living rooms. There is a huge enamoured audience of different age groups that watches these shows religiously. In this case, one cannot ignore the lack of diversity and inclusivity in these shows- in most cases, fat people and people from different parts of India (especially Punjab and South India) are made laughing stocks that need not be taken seriously. Soaps like Qubool Hai and Sanskar that showed Muslim and a gujarati family respectively had no other characters from different backgrounds. The men are stereotyped as workaholics who label their wives gawar or machos that tame the rebellious streak out of their partner and domesticate them. The shows are sprinkled with generous amounts of slapstick humor and sexist jokes. (Who else misses Dekh bhai dekh and Hum paanch?) Women who emblematise self sacrifice are deified, their silence glorified, and the ones who try to assert an independent voice of their own are vilified. Take, for example, the role of Tapasya in the famous soap Uttaran. Daughter to wealthy aristocrats Jogi and Divya Thakur, Tapasya is well aware of her talents and does not shy away from putting her needs before others. However, she is shown as a vilified alter ego of Ichcha, the daughter of her live in domestic help, Damini. This further pushes the narrative that women who do not fit into the clichés (and who, very often are more rooted in reality with their follies and weaknesses) are transgressors of the society and must, therefore, be weeded out or domesticated.

Very often, a working woman in the soap is made a huge deal, her career portrayed as a generosity bestowed on her by her family or a catalyst for familial problems. She, as an individual, is not whole until she works and manages the household, getting her elder’s blessings. Tara (1993), the story of three urban women dealt with this beautifully. A realistic handling of social issues is also a need, for shows like Baalika Vadhu only ended up shifting its focus from the evils of child marriage to the bittersweet love life of Anandi (in her magnificent in-laws house). The sitcom Na Ana is Des Laado began with a powerful message against female infanticide, but generally lost direction along the way.

Balika Vadhu against a real child marriage
Image Credits: DNA.com & Reddif.com

It’s time we move beyond stories that focus the lens on human-fly romances, women washing laptops and villains adding acid in the bride’s wedding haldi. Sometimes, the maximum impact comes from the ordinariness of a situation (think: Nukkad (1986)). Artists and directors hold the power to mold and shape the opinion of the public, especially the female audience. It’s time they channelize their energy towards weeding out the sexist notions deeply embedded in the society. As we always say, charity begins at home. Social education does too, in this case, in the living room at around afternoon, over lunch, papad and pickle.

Sania Ansari
BA (Hons.) English, Jamia Millia Islamia

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