Rural market shapes serials

BY SUNETRA NARAYAN| IN Media Practice | 20/01/2014
Consumerist imperatives ensured that realism and experimentation took a back-seat to saccharine and neo-conservatism in the portrayal of women in Indian soaps.
But regional channels still permit some different portrayals of their female characters, says SUNETRA NARAYAN in a new book.

An excerpt from Globalization and Television: A Study of the Indian Experience, 1990-2010’ by Sunetra Narayan; published by Oxford University Press; Pp: 328; Price/hardback: Rs 945 

While non-fiction and reality television programming have proved to be popular, in 2009-10, fiction still continued to be the staple diet for Indian viewers. Hindi general entertainment channels have also targeted regional language channels. The regional general entertainment channels are also showing high viewership figures in 2009. The genre of news has also lost ground to the Hindi general entertainment channels in the race for ratings in this year (PwC Report 2010).  

Another trend discernible in entertainment programming in 2010 is that viewership volumes are now coming from middle and small town India, as a result of the demography of television becoming more heterogeneous…. Out of 134 million television owning households, 70 million are in rural areas, according to the TAM Annual Universe update in 2010. Rural India is embracing new technologies such as DTH and mobile telephones. As a reflection of these newer audiences, characters are sometimes being portrayed in a more realistic fashion, themes are including social issues such as female infanticide, and child marriage, and so on, and many of the stories are set in non-metro India. Viewership ratings suggest that programmes which have more progressive aspirational characters are finding a resonance with the audience. It is predicted that in the next decade, rural audiences for television will be truly large….  

A lot of daily soaps have lead female characters. In general, the portrayal of women has changed over the decade 1990-2000. Sadly, the emergence of private broadcasters had not led to a more emancipated portrayal of women on television in this decade. While serials such as Tara on Zee in 1993 permitted a more realistic portrayal of Indian women in the 1990s, things changed for the worse in 2000. In spite of having female lead characters, one media analyst commented that the spate of soaps especially on the Hindi channels had actually been regressive: In the 1980s tele-woman was striving to break traditional moulds, new millennium television is hell-bent on taking the big leap backwards and transforming the country into a nation of bahus (daughters-in-law) where marriage is the raison d’être of a girl’s existence. Getting married or staying married: these are the only motivations for the female species on the small screen…. The success of the extended ‘parivar’ (family) series seems to have totally blocked the path for avantgardism and slice-of-life realism….  

The tradition-bound, stereotypical roles that women have been playing in soaps (especially on the Hindi channels) have recently lead to a convergence in the image of the Indian woman in the new millennium: she is one-dimensional, wears Indian clothes, sports Hindu symbols of marriage such as the bindi and the mangal-sutra, aspires to be a home-maker, and embraces traditional values including patriarchy and the preservation of the extended family and marriage. The high TRPs garnered by soaps which portrayed women in this fashion, implied that the MNCs and advertisers were backing these programmes in the year 2000. Peter Mukerjea, the CEO of STAR in India commented on the current spate of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law portrayals of women on STAR Plus, ‘We are transiting from an English channel to a local channel, so there are some basic ingredients that go into making a channel successful. And quite honestly for us, to go into something radical, in the first instance, would be much too risky’….  

It would appear that the consumerist imperatives ensured that realism and experimentation took a back-seat to saccharine and neo-conservatism in the portrayal of women in Indian soaps. Is it a contradiction that the liberalization of broadcast media has turned full circle where the portrayal of women on Hindi soaps is concerned? Have audiences voted for the neo-conservative portrayal of women on television in 2000 in part fuelled by renewed family values Hindu style? Is it just a marketing strategy that the family image with a subservient woman character is currently selling well? One suspects that this portrayal of women is a phase that will pass as others have done before it.  

While the regressive portrayal of women in soaps has been particularly marked on Hindi channels such as STAR Plus and Sony, regional channels still permit some different portrayals of their female characters. For example, the Marathi serial Damini had a female protagonist—an investigative journalist who exposes corruption in high places. This serial had the ability to pull in high TRPs even after airing over 700 episodes (Bannerjee 6 May 2001). Women characters had also dominated Kannada serials in the previous decade. While many serials portrayed women as being employed outside the home, they were simultaneously shown as still endorsing the traditional values of marriage and motherhood.  

Some portrayals of women have been different, for example, S Narayan’s Parvati and T N Seethram’s Mayamriga which won critical acclaim (Hiremath 2001). It is indeed interesting that a domestic broadcaster, namely Zee has been associated with a popular soap (Tara) which portrayed women in a more progressive and nuanced fashion in the early 1990s. In a surprising volte-face, the global players STAR and Sony have been associated with a spate of soaps such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in the latter half of 2000, which have reverted to an unrealistic and conservative portrayal of female characters. In fact, many of these serials, aired on different channels such as STAR Plus and Sony, have been produced by the same local content provider—Balaji Telefilms.  

This company has been very successful in producing soaps for television, with many of them being woman oriented. According to one estimate, Ekta Kapoor the head of Balaji Telefilms was associated with over 20 serials in four languages, airing over 10 channels in April 2001 (Kapoor 2001). Thus global channels, which are competing with each other as well as the national channels, are utilising programming from a common local source projecting similar values. This is yet another example of the surprising ways in which the global/local dimensions of broadcasting can be configured. 

(© Women's Feature Service)

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