That CID has had a non-stop run for 15 years, or Balika Vadhu has already crossed the unbelievable mark of 1000 episodes in its four-year uninterrupted run may not come as a big surprise to many of those glued to their television screen, channel surfing or otherwise, whether in the afternoons or late evenings even at the midnight hour. It may also not come as a shock that some of the big stars hosting various shows charge crores for the limited time they spare for the small screen, or that the still-ravishing is reportedly charging one-crore per appearance in judging Jhalak Dikhla Ja. But what is sure to surprise is that even small screen stars like Ram Kapoor (Bade Acche Lagte Hai), Ronit Sen (Adalat) charge a lakh of rupees per day, and some of the leading female actors like Mona Singh (Kya Hua Tera Vada) and Sakhshi Tanwar carry a purse of Rs 75,000 at the end of the shoot on a daily basis.
Before these also there had been long running serials like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi with Smriti Irani and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki with Sakshi Tanwar, and now Kuch To Log Kahege, Saas Bina Sasural etc are been done to death through endless stretching, change of artists, sporadic change of storylines, adding and deleting characters at will resulting in audience losing after a point of time. Take, for instance, the currently running serial, for instance, ostensibly based on Pakistani serial of the 1980s, Dhoop Kinare, which began very well but has been gradually degenerating into a long-drawn uninteresting yawn. Two of the more interesting characters like Arman and Rohan summarily dropped from the narrative without any explanation. Mericfully, many of the some already mentioned serials currently on the tube serials to sustain audience interest resulting in restricted channel surfing like it was some years ago.
Television soaps seem to have come a long way since they made their advent on Doordarshan (which despite skeptics continues to draw a monumental viewing thanks to its massive terrestrial footprint across the country) and are seemingly undergoing a paradigm change of viewing on satellite channels even if good old DD continues to be conservative. Its best phase post-Hum Log had been mythological like Ramayan and Mahabharata or fantasies like Chandrakanta—(that it is running an otherwise badly made, keeping contemporary high technical standards (in partnership with Zee Television) also speaks volumes about the prevalent thinking with Mandi House mandarins. Yet, paradoxically, it has a captive audience which has been keeping it floating even though it is top-heavy and invariably has to rely on State exchequer to bail it out, year after year.
And unlike the erstwhile Saab-Bahu serials which ran off steam for an initial fairly long run largely because of an unchanging attitude, the current crop, generally, has a team of better equipped writers, which has been proven beyond doubt by the success of Balika Vadhu, a serial constantly highlighting social issues, in which Anandi, an eight-year-old girl married at the beginning is now seeking an entirely different world after divorce—a sarpanch running a school for girls and raising voice against child-marriages in keeping with call of the day.
Or take the instance of Maanvi in Ek Haazaroon Mein Meri Behna Hai who braves cancer and chemotherapy, like many others in real life with a shaven head, without sulking. Or take the instance of Mona, who divorced by husband Pradeep living with the other woman, Anuksha, isn’t willing to accept suitor Vineet’s marriage proposal despite her mother-in-law whole-heartedly approving the match. Similarly, in Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha the story is wearing round to the in-laws wanting to secure the future of the widow with two children, Megha Vyas, through remarriage. Similarities have also been found in the lesser-known Mann Ki Awaaz Pratigya ostensibly about child sexual abuse.
The definite scenario that emerges from this sample analysis is that to succeed a serial has to be women-centric to not only capture the interest of small time women, but big city educated working housewife as well who identifies herself with one character or the other which in turns leads to its popularity. The word-of-mouth monitoring, exchanging notes also plays a vital role in a soap’s longevity. Though herself constantly hibernating between tradition and modernity in both the kind of serials and films she has been lately promoting, soap-queen Ekta Kapoor has been reported to have observed: “Television soaps are, in many instances, more progressives than films.” If modernity means crude jokes, pun-laden dialogue, and exposure then certainly both she and her productions are the torch-bearers in small screen productions. Avid channel surfers complain of repetitive identical narratives and incidents in various concurrently running soaps. If Ganapati pooja is being shown on one channel, similar celebrations would be available on others as well. The same goes for Karva Chauth, and other women-centric events.
It has generally been observed, and is actually a proven fact, that films and soaps about real life protagonists do not work, and are jinxed. But this has not only been proven wrong, and elevated actor Vidya Balan to dizzy heights, with The Dirty Picture, based on the life of the late South Indian sex-bomb Silk Smitha, even one of the current soaps, uncharacteristically called Madhubala (because thus far it has been more male-centric) loosely based on Rajesh Khanna’s peak glory mannerism is seemingly making heads turn, and mapping up TRPs rapidly.
Finally, it seems like in the West, television soaps have found their rightful place, even though the originals have believably moved far beyond purely women-centric, and man-woman relationships that do not work. Since the causes in those societies are different so also are the related issues. Families had been seldom at stake though it seems implausible that the same would happen to Indian television in a long time for no matter how bold and solution-based results might be, the Indian society continues and will continue to do so for a long time hereafter, to have stories centred purely around families, and it would, perhaps, always be the parents or seniors who will make or unmake them. Unfortunately, since the Indian society will continue to breath down the necks of the young, their licence of liberation will also be short-lived, and before returning into the familiar mould.
Until then, long live channel surfing and even unhappy viewing. The options are limited.
By Suresh Kohli