Indian TV soap operas revel in superstitious and chauvinistic plot lines. We ask why
Indian TV: where men and monsters rule
It could only happen on Indian television. A new Hindi-language soap opera glorifying child marriage has been pulled off the air after a strong backlash from outraged viewers, but its producer continues to vociferously defend the series. Launched in July on Sony TV, Pehredaar Piya Ki (Husband’s Guardian) followed the lives of an 18-year-old woman (Tejasswi Prakash) and a nine-year-old boy (Afaan Khan) who are married. While the show has attracted criticism since the pilot, it was only after recent episodes made not-so-subtle references to a relationship of a sexual nature between the two characters that a petition to ban the soap was issued.
Forced to act, India’s Ministry of IT and Broadcasting brought in an independent broadcasting authority to review the show. But instead of rejecting it for inappropriate content, the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) suggested pushing the series from its weekday 8.30pm slot to 10pm. Sumeet Mittal, the show’s producer, blames “social media users” for his series’ “untimely end”. In an interview with Mumbai’s Indian Express daily newspaper soon after Sony TV announced that it was axing Pehredaar Piya Ki, Mittal became defensive, and revealed that he decided to pull the show not because of the objections to the content, but because it wouldn’t enjoy a prime-time slot anymore.
“We were really hoping that our show would remain unaffected by all the petitions and go strong,” said Mittal, who has not offered any apology or explanation for his show’s contentious plot. “After the BCCC issued a notice to move it to the post 10pm slot, we were heartbroken. This show was meant for a specific audience and it was best suited at the 8.30pm slot. We recently had a meeting with the channel where we put across our grievances and issues. We mutually concluded that it was best to pull the curtains down than air it at a wrong slot.”
While it may not show on national television anymore – the last episode was broadcast on August 28 – Pehredaar Piya Ki is now available on Sony’s web platform Sony Liv
Mittal has vowed that the show will return with a new season. The saga is emblematic of an ingrained problem within television in the country: in the race between production houses to secure high ratings, anything and everything, however controversial, is grist to their mill. Because TV is still the most accessible medium of entertainment, shows’ subject matter can have consequences. Catering to what is mostly a conservative, religious and superstitious audience, soap operas are still peddling conservative plots that revolve around shape-shifting women for example, such as the supernatural series Naagin (Snake). Shows that plot tales from Hindu mythology (Mahakali Ant Hi Aarambh Hai) and the fractious relationships that exist within large joint families (Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai) are also extremely popular.
It’s not surprising that in a survey by BARC TRP India last month, which measures audience viewing figures, of the top 10 shows on Indian TV, Mahakali and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai are in fourth and fifth place, respectively.
Ekta Kapoor, a TV and film producer, who is undoubtedly India’s ruling “soap queen”, was recently in the news for her role as the distributor of the progressive – and highly controversial – women-centric feature film Lipstick Under My Burkha, has been for decades producing what critics call regressive television. Her company, Balaji Telefilms, churns out long-running and convoluted family dramas involving dozens of characters and plot twists that include dead people coming back to life and normalised examples of misogyny, including physical and sexual assault.
At the same time, Kapoor is also behind progressive new online series such as Dev DD and Boygirl, all available on ALTBalaji (altbalaji.com), a new app that she launched in May.
When it comes to series broadcast on national television, then, “one size fits all” seems to be the diktat followed by her production company, Balaji Telefilms. But, ALTBalaji is meant for a different demographic: the streaming platform targets millennials. Like other popular apps such as TVF Play (TVFPlay.com), it offers alternative, on-demand and inexpensive fare that appeals to the younger generation’s more progressive values and views; in stark contrast to the melodramatic soap operas their parents and grandparents tune into faithfully every weeknight.
Kapoor continues to defend the traditional bent of her TV production company, while remaining true to her modern beliefs. For example, she successfully brought the film Lipstick Under My Burkha to cinemas, after the Central Board for Film Certification rejected it, even invoking her friendship with the new IT and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani. A close friend and one-time television actress, Irani starred in Kapoor’s hit television series Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because even a mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law), which employed every negative trope associated with this most conventional of genres.
Even in the face of accusations of hypocrisy, Kapoor is defiantly unapologetic. She has often said that Indian audiences are not ready for progressive dramas in their living rooms
“Somewhere, these stories connect [with the population],” she said in a recent interview. “Otherwise we wouldn’t keep telling them.”