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Dear Indian TV soaps, Where’s the Woman?

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Rasode mei kaun tha” – the video that took over the internet like a wildfire and gave hilarious meme-worthy content to Indian netizens, grabbed attention primarily for its funny, musical portrayal of an angry mother-in-law from a typical Indian television drama.

The viral video eventually lost popularity. But let us ignore the musical version for a second and focus on the original show. The depiction of the protagonist shouldering expectations of being an obedient daughter-in-law, wife and mother bound by family virtues and societal norms raises an urgent question on the small screen’s portrayal of Indian women. When Gopi Bahu meekly tolerated the questioning of her mother-in-law, viewers came across a common instance of regressive representation of female characters in Indian soaps.

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The world of Indian TV drama has been famous for its traditional “good bahu”, “bad bahu” saga with dramatic storylines, reaching a viewership of millions. With a number of these shows airing globally, they hold a significant impact on people. It’s ironic that a majority of these serials, despite being woman-centric, present very skewed narratives of womanhood.

Female Leads and their Roles

The world of female leads revolves around a gazillion roles that she is required to fulfil to please her kin. The pilot usually showcases a young woman’s parents with the sole aim of marrying off their “homely” daughter. This daughter seems to meet all major societal beauty standards. Her marriage is finalized with a boy belonging to a “good” family where she is expected to live “happily ever after”. In the very next episode, the girl seems to happily, unquestioningly agree with the decisions being taken on her behalf. That’s where the concept of individual choice completely gets sidelined.

Skewed Conceptions of Beauty

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The notion of beauty is now becoming more inclusive than ever before in wider society. However, Indian serials remain obsessed with fair skin and slim bodies as the key traits of a “beautiful” woman. A similar storyline was observed in “Bidaai”- a serial portraying the lives of two sisters. One of the sisters was dark-skinned and hence was shown getting rejected by most of the potential grooms.

Ideals of Behavior

Next comes the cliché portrayal of the married Indian woman. The ideal portrayed is of a highly submissive woman; an epitome of sacrifice, and most importantly a great cook. She is defined as an “ideal” housewife only when she prioritizes people’s interests above her own. From Tulsi in “Kumkum Bhagya” to Akshara in “Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai”, makers have actively commercialized the subservient image of Indian women.

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Even when some of these soaps have tried to endorse the idea of empowered women, they have taken a tokenistic approach towards an issue that requires much more thought and attention. When the protagonist is shown as a working woman, little emphasis is laid on her achievements on the professional front. The amount of effort she devotes towards her family life is instead glorified.

The famous TV soap- “Diya aur bati hum” that aired from 2011 to 2016 was centred around the life of Sandhya- an aspiring IPS officer who didn’t give up on her dreams after getting married into an orthodox household. She was portrayed as learning household chores while balancing her studies and religiously obeying her mother-in-law. Sandhya ended up accomplishing her dream of being a civil servant. But the show highlighted that her fulfilment of familial duties made her the “perfect” Indian woman.

Motherhood is a must, but where is the Father?

Motherhood is yet another major aspect of the storylines adopted by the Indian small screen. This leaves us wondering- where are all the dads?
The role of a father is often portrayed as secondary when it comes to raising the children. The female lead questioning if she’s a “good mother” the moment anything goes wrong, is indeed a common sight in these daily soaps. In a nutshell, the onus of ensuring a good upbringing of her children rests solely upon the mother.

Why Is It Problematic?

An important question arises here-

Why does our small screen need to adopt a different, perhaps newer version of the Indian women?

As per BARC’s Broadcast India 2018 survey, out of 836 million viewers of Indian television, 429 million are male and 407 million are female. Daily soaps occupy a major chunk of this viewership. It’s not only women but young children who watch these shows daily. With their regressive portrayal of women, these serials propagate the normalization of  Indian women being naive and unrealistically selfless. Each episode airing with the sole objective of garnering TRP numbers sells perpetually flawed notions around womanhood to the viewers. This becomes extremely problematic when women living in remote and rural regions watch these shows. They further tend to relate with the characters and embrace the patriarchal values that are inherently pre-rooted in their surroundings.

In reality, there are more aspects to a woman’s life than being an obedient daughter-in-law, an ideal wife or a caring mother. Her beauty transcends the dominant norms of fair skin or a particular body shape. The modern Indian woman is empowered. She is breaking free from the shackles of societal norms that once held her back.

The question remains, when will the Indian small screen shift from its portrayal of docile, “homely” women? When will producers focus on storylines with women depicted as liberated, strong-headed and essentially having more layers to their lives beyond the domestic front?

To read more editorial pieces at DU Express, click here.

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