India launches its first Muslim soap opera
If there is a habit common in all of India, it is whole families glued to the TV watching the evening soap operas. Hindu, Parsee, Sikh, Christian and Muslim families all watch them avidly, whether they live in palaces or slums.
Yet the soaps always feature Hindu characters. None of the religious or cultural minorities has a central role, even though Muslims, for example, form 15 per cent of India's 1.2 billion population.
The director Gul Khan is changing this with her new serial Qubool Hai (I Agree), portraying a Muslim family in Bhopal in Central India. As a woman who has been in the television industry for a decade, Khan noticed that none of the protagonists was ever a Muslim, nor was the milieu portrayed Muslim.
Soaps showed Hindu customs and festivals such as Diwali and Dussehra, but Muslim festivals were invisible. Muslim culture was rarely seen on television.
But instances abound of Muslims being negatively portrayed, if not in entertainment programmes then in the news, where stereotypes flourish.
If the police arrest a Muslim man on suspicion of terrorism, they wrap his face in a kaffiyeh to avoid identification, conjuring subliminal notions of "militants" in the eyes of Indian viewers.
Muslim women tend to be shown in subservient positions. News channels sometimes project them as having no rights and no education.
In contrast, Zoya (played by Surobhi Jyoti), the main character in Qubool Hai, is a woman rooted in her faith and rich culture but liberal, progressive and very conscious of her rights.
"I wanted to clear up these misconceptions about Islam and the position of women. I hope my show, which represents a mix of traditional and contemporary themes, will remove those misconceptions," Khan told The Indian Express newspaper.
The series, which started on October 29 on Zee TV, explores the life of a young feisty woman through her relationships with two men, Ayaan and Asad, who are brothers and who are both attracted to her.
She is shown as a curious woman who questions dogmas and expectations and has strong opinions that she is not shy of expressing.
This unorthodox approach to life is the result of Zoya being abandoned by her father and being brought up by her cousin and brother-in-law. Ayaan and Asan, though, are more conventional.
"This is true of Indian society as it goes through rapid social change - women, whether Hindu or Muslim, are changing earlier attitudes and questioning society's expectations much faster than men," says Nadira Kureshi, an activist with a New Delhi women's rights group.
Jyoti says the role has been easy for her in that she and Zoya have many similarities such as a weakness for playing pranks and being untidy. "I am pleased that for the first time in a long while, the social setting is Muslim and there is none of the says-bahu [mother-in-law daughter-in-law] stuff that you get in most soaps. It makes the show very different," she says.
"Qubool Hai is like any other Indian soap in showing overdressed blingy women living in homes bigger and grander than the White House and amateurish acting, but the fact that Muslim culture is showcased - and in Bhopal, too - makes it fresh for Indian audiences," says the commentator Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.
About 30 per cent of Bhopal's 1.8 million population is Muslim - higher than most Indian cities - because it was ruled by Muslim nawabs for more than three centuries and by Muslim women rulers known as Nawab Begums for 100 years of that period.
This Muslim influence can be seen in the architecture, art, cuisine and customs of the city.
In fact, making Bhopal Zoya's home works perfectly as a vehicle for showcasing Muslim literature, music and language - the characters speak Urdu, the language spoken by many Indian Muslims.
"It's been fascinating to show the culture and costumes of a city like Bhopal but through the story of very contemporary Muslims who are like any other youth in India: cosmopolitan and modern. For me, it's a very realistic show," says Sukesh Motwani, the head of fiction at Zee.
Zoya ends up marrying one of the brothers and moving into a much more traditional family than she had hitherto known. This is when her struggle begins.
Updated: December 3, 2012 04:00 AM