Media Focus: Much ado about a name

BY B S Chandrasekhar| IN Regional Media | 03/02/2003
A Kannada serial changes its title after it created a storm, but its amazing content bothers nobody.



B S Chandrasekhar



A Kannada mega-soap purported to be dealing with issues connected with women was in the eye of a storm for the last two months because of its title. With the producer, though very reluctantly, agreeing to a new name the controversy may end soon. The fuss provides an opportunity to look into the status of `women-oriented` popular serials in regional languages like Kannada.


It all started in November 2002 when Udaya TV, the successful Kannada channel of the Sun Empire started `Daridra Lakshmiyaru` (DL) produced by Phani Ramachandra, in its prime-time band. Ramachandra is a veteran of many popular Kannada soaps and earlier his `Dandapindagalu` (Wastrels) had topped the popularity ratings for a record period. the title of that serial too had become controversial for calling unemployed young persons as  `wastrels` but the producer got away easily. 


When DL started, many took objection to the word daridra used in the title in conjunction with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Interestingly the opposition was not because it hurt religious sentiments but because referring to women as daridra was considered an insult to women in general.  Many viewers and perhaps, a larger number of non-viewers wrote letters to the editors and a women`s organisation even filed a petition in the High Court.


In the beginning, the producer and the channel ignored these objections but all of a sudden, the popular Kannada film star Vishnuvardhan joined the fray by issuing a statement that this title was an affront to the womenfolk of Karnataka and called upon the Kannada naaris to beat the producer with broomsticks for this insult.  (Note that the star considers women are not capable of using more lethal weapons than broomsticks!) Vishnuvardhan is the number-two star in Kannada next only to the great Rajkumar and his entering the arena the intensified of the debate with many tabloids using this issue for their cover stories.


In Kannada the word, daridra has two meanings; it means poor and it also means ignoble or the lowly. In association with Lakshmi, daridra cannot be poor as Goddess Lakshmi is the embodiment of wealth. She is not only associated with wealth but many other good things like health, beauty, fertility, prosperity etc. There are temples for Astalakshmis (eight Lakshmis) at many places with the one in Chennai being the most famous. Lakshmi is not just the Goddess; all newly married girls are considered Lakshmis by the orthodox. (In a way, it may be the acceptance of a reality as such girls bring with them a fat dowry to many families.) There is an interesting gender difference here; politicians always proclaim that they are serving the daridranarayana (the poorest of the poor). Nevertheless, the same Narayana`s consort Lakshmi cannot be daridra!  


Both the opponents and supporters of the existing title oozed with sympathy towards the `unfortunate` women. The only point of difference was whether they thought the title sympathised with women or it ridiculed them. The producer was naturally very angry at the criticism of Vishnuvardhan; he put in a personal appearance in one of the episodes vehemently supporting the title quoting the usage from ancient writings. He announced that he would not be cowed down by such threats, proclaimed that he will respect only the opinions of his viewers and started a public opinion poll.


 A few days later, he had to appear again to announce the decision to change the title to `Sahasa Lakshmiyaru` (The Valiant Women). While accepting defeat, he had to appear to be brave; he said he was right, 88 percent of his viewers did not want the title changed but still he is acting only to avoid unnecessary controversy. The interesting point through out the controversy was that nobody bothered to consider the contents of the serial and their only objection was to its title. 


DL is the story of five young women who get a raw deal mostly within their families. Their fault?  One has a black complexion, another is born under the influence of a bad star, the third is accused of bringing  ill luck to her in-law`s house. The other two are twins who with their mother have to undergo humiliations because the mother has failed to produce a son. The serial proclaims in its title-song its sympathies for these girls these, daridralakshmis, the unfortunate girls who suffer for no fault of them. In the story line, the only escape for most of them is marriage (what else?) and for being able to get married, they perform poojas, keep vrats and even take the help of black magic.


The poojas and vrats are not the ostantetatious celebrations normally seen in the productions of Balaji Telefilms but are in the form of self-abnegation and suffering self imposed punishments. Some of these punishments even take the form of undergoing personal indignities A particular vrat, it appears prescribes that the performer, for the period of the vrat, should eat on the bare floor, without using plates or (plantain) leaves. Watching a young girl eating in such a way must be nauseating to at least some viewers. May be one has to be grateful for small mercies; The floor the girl eats is not cow-dung smeared but has cement concrete!


In the first 35 episodes, all the vrats bear immediate results and it appears that the soap is conveying the message that the only salvation for such people is following obscurantist practices. However one has to be careful in drawing conclusions as in such soaps there is always an `undo` button which could de-construct the story built up carefully over months.


It may be unfair to pick up any particular soap for such detailed content analysis. DL (now under a different title) is perhaps, as good or as bad as the other popular soaps. On the other hand, a film star attacking a television serial is also nothing but  the pot calling the kettle black. Everyone knows how women are depicted in popular films and one could question how a film star, however big he may be, could assume the role of the moral police.


 The controversy is likely to end shortly and in the final analysis, the whole thing may turn out to be just a storm in a teacup. But it does reflect the sorry state of `women-oriented` dramas on Indian television, how far we have moved away from Humlogs and Udaans.




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