Sleeping with the enemy

Sleeping with the enemy

Mansi Choksi, TNN, Jun 7, 2010, 02.08am IST

In December last year, the front pages of leading English dailies were splashed with ads of a college-going girl from Allahabad slapping an eve-teaser. Pratigya, the girl in the pink salwar suit frowning into the camera, was then the latest symbol of television’s ostensible obsession with social issues. Child marriage, female infanticide, farmers suicide, dowry and now, there was eve teasing. 

A few episodes later, Pratigya was married to her eve teaser. His family’s men went around beating their women with mojdis for scurrying over with saltless food, slapping them for standing around and kicking them for suggesting that the men take their drink outside the puja ghar. Now Pratigya and the eve teaser have been nominated for ‘Favourite Jodi’ at the Star Parivaar awards. 

This brazen turnaround from purported social activism to regressiveness and domestic abuse of the worst kind isn’t limited to Pratigya. Almost every show that went to town claiming it was going to declare war against social evils has done little than use them as yet another visual landscape. Balika Vadhu, a first of its kind that started off as a sermon to change attitudes towards child marriage, quickly displayed signs of selective amnesia. The role of the well-intentioned schoolteacher who spoke up against child marriage was phased out and the story became a sweet little tale about how the child couple were happy growing up together. 

Similarly, Bairi Piya, Ekta Kapoor’s tribute to the distressed farmers of Vidarbha, showed two drought-hit farmers commit suicide after being exploited by the local zamindar in the first few episodes. Now it is a horrifically perverse ‘love story’ between the same zamindar and a drought-hit farmer’s daughter. Na Ana Is Des Lado too started off as a show about an educated urban woman trying to bring about change in a small Haryana hamlet where every girl child was drowned in a pot of milk. She calls the police and the local MP but then falls in love with the son of the antagonist, the perpetrator of female infanticide. Every ‘issue-based’ show suffers from a twisted Stockholm Syndrome, in psychology a paradoxical phenomenon where the hostage falls in love with the captor. 

The channel heads of Star and Colors predictably refused to comment but Sharad Tripathi, writer for soaps Tere Mere Sapne and Jamuniya, says the Stockholm Syndrome is part of a certified formula of romance on television. “There are two kinds of romance on TV. One is love and the other is hate, but in both cases, passion is involved,’’ he says. The love-hate formula has worked since the days of Balaji’s Kahin To Hoga, says Tripathi. 

“Sujal and Kashish hated each other and that was a huge hit,’’ he says, forgetting to mention that Sujal and Kashish weren’t the face of any kind of social issue. 

According to television commentator Santosh Desai, to think that a television story will be about a cause in the first place is naivety. “It’s the same story being played out in front of new backdrop curtains,’’ he says. “Shows get jaded with one kind of setting and having an ‘issue-based’ storyline lets them explore newer visual landscapes. It is a great way to get press and ensure continued viewership.’’ Desai adds that with the new crop of issue-based serials, the importance of the woman has been ‘rescaled’ but she is not permitted to engage radically with any issue. “Shows are directed towards mainstream audiences, and this rescaling is merely a cloak,’’ he says. 

Sadiya Siddiqui, who played the 15-episode role of the schoolteacher in Balika Vadhu, says that whenever a soap starts off trying to tackle an issue, TRP ratings demand something else. “They boil down to the same saas-bahu story simply because that’s what the audiences want. This is evident from the TRP ratings,’’ she says. What can channels, producers or actors do?’’ Interestingly, however, Siddiqui says she was signed for just 15 episodes before the show even went on air, making the intentions of the channel and producer quite clear. 

Shanti Bhushan, writer of Pratigya, claims realism as an alibi. “I simply portrayed what goes on in small town North India,’’ he says. “No woman is asked what she wants; she always has to compromise. The story is about the irony of how an educated girl ends up with the man she hated. If the violence on the show irks someone, that is the idea. The fact is that this goes on in real life. I have not portrayed one incident that I have not personally witnessed myself.’’ 

Tripathi too says that ‘realistic’ shows like these bring about awareness and making women assert their identity. “These shows are portraying a real scenario and asking people to realise their mistake,’’ he says. “I am from Allahabad, and domestic violence is a reality in my own mama-mami’s home. My 11-year-old niece came up to me and said that if she sees domestic violence now, she will simply report it to the police.’’ 

We’re not sure if everyone is reacting to the subliminal messages of these regressive stories the same way as the 11-year-old. “Children and teens, who form a big chunk of the viewership of soaps, could grow up deadened to serious issues like domestic violence and female infanticide,’’ says a viewer, who relates how her 10-year-old giggled away while updating her mother on Geet Huii Sabse Parayi, in which a brother wants to kill his pregnant sister for carrying the child of her husband who dumped her. A South Mumbai MBA and Balika Vadhu fan says earnestly that she believes early marriage is the best solution to ‘adjust’ to a family. Viewers of Pratigya post messages on a fan page saying that Pratigya and her eve teaser Krishna are made for each other, some even enthusiastically referring to them as ‘Kriya’ (Krishna and Pratigya, Brangelina style). Well, so much for ‘social activism’, TV-style. 


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