x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Indian TV branches out with raunchy subject matter

The first scene depicting sex between a husband and wife recently hit Indian television screens, a sensational move for the conservative country.

The characters Priya, left, played by Sakshi Tamwar and Ram, right, played by Ram Kapoor, were the first on-screen couple to portray a sex scene on Indian TV. Courtesy Sony TV
The characters Priya, left, played by Sakshi Tamwar and Ram, right, played by Ram Kapoor, were the first on-screen couple to portray a sex scene on Indian TV. Courtesy Sony TV

The truth is, the female characters in the nightly soap operas that tens of millions of people across India watch every night have not had the time to be intimate with anyone, what with all the scheming, plotting, disparaging and fighting that typically goes on among the large casts that portray typical Indian joint families.

That all changed last month though, when the first scene depicting intimacy between a husband and wife hit television screens on Sony TV's popular show Bade Ache Lagte Hain, which debuted last year and follows a couple who fall in love after they marry. The scene has made Indian TV history, although by western standards, it was very tame.

The situation takes place after the character Priya (Sakshi Tamwar) emerges from a breast cancer scare. Soon, her portly, double-chinned husband Ram (Ram Kapoor) pulls his wife of several months towards him and they kiss. The pair is next shown in a candlelit bedroom, a slushy Bollywood track playing in the background.

A middle-aged married couple having consensual sex in their bedroom without any nudity or explicit shots is not exactly trailblazing, but for conservative India, it was sensational. The country buzzed with talk of the scene, which attracted 279,775 hits on YouTube.

Yet, besides two or three complaints, the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council was not bombarded with angry protests. It shows that Indian television soap producers such as Ekta Kapoor, known as the "Queen of Television", are pushing into new territory by portraying emotions and situations never before shown on TV - and finding acceptance. The reason seems to be that the timing is right; that Indian audiences are now ready to experience this new approach.

Kapoor and others who have caught a whiff of this new zeitgeist are trying to embrace the social change India is currently undergoing. The earlier serials were one-of-a-kind: Walt Disney-style sets with baroque palaces as homes played shelter to overly made-up women in heavy silk saris and enough shiny jewellery to light up a small town, and who would viciously interact with evil in-laws while untuned violins screamed in the background.

These days, soaps tackle new themes such as child marriage, homosexuality, female foeticide and colour discrimination. But perhaps the biggest new theme is the nuclear family unit - its intimacy and the emotions and lives of its members, as opposed to the dramas of a large joint family spanning different generations and who all live under one roof.

"There is a whole new movement towards looking at couples, their emotions and intimacies, at conjugal sex and at individual relationships," says the television critic Shailaja Bajpai. "This reflects what is happening in society, how people are living in nuclear families now rather than joint ones."

The findings of a census last month showed a dramatic change from just a generation ago when the joint family was the norm. Seventy per cent of households in India consist of only one couple.

Remarriage is another taboo subject that, due to divorce being on the rise in India, is beginning to be featured on a serial called Punar Vivah on Zee TV.

The protagonists are a divorcee and a widower who each decide to remarry for the sake of their children. The soap then examines how they each deal with the complexities of their situation as they go through life.

Having acknowledged these attempts by television producers to explore new subjects, Bajpai adds a caveat: "Yes, some of it is very experimental but in a very middle-class sort of way," she says. "So the setting is invariably marital, never premarital or to do with infidelity, and the characters are always respectable middle-class people."

This is perhaps inevitable, given that the vast majority of Indian serial viewers are middle-class and lower-middle-class women. However, the sensibilities of this demographic are also changing dramatically.

"Viewers are prepared to have fixed ideas challenged and to be shocked, largely as a result of hugely popular reality shows which have pushed the limits of what is acceptable," says the media analyst Satish Jacob.

On these programmes, boyfriends "set up" their girlfriends to see if they are cheating on them in Emotional Atyachar (based on the American show Cheaters); people misbehave with abandon on Big Boss; and very ordinary folk confess to corruption, embezzlement, adultery, threesomes with prostitutes, neglect of their children and parents and the betrayal of relatives and friends on Sach Ka Saamna (based on the American show Moment of Truth).

"I think the popularity of reality shows and these new soaps is a backlash against the immature, juvenile stuff that Bollywood dishes out, as though we can't cope with the dark, complicated things that happen in real life," said a New Delhi soap addict and schoolteacher named Jyoti Anand. "People recognise themselves in these shows and that makes it gripping."