Indian serials are an unstoppable force in television with
their over the top yet addictive dramatics. Families gather to soak up the latest offering of conflict most often between famed nemesis saas aur bahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law). And while I think about the implications for women portrayed in stereotypical roles I can’t help but also obsess over what will happen to ‘Sandhya in Diya aur Batti Hum’ or if Anandi will make it through in ‘Balika Vadhu’.
The disagreement, drama and action is a near perfect mix for a daily dose of entertainment provided by many serials but can we relate to any of the lead or supporting female characters? Let’s also note the giant heteronormative backdrop for these serials where the plot almost always surrounds marriage. Whether it’s about a woman who’s about to get married, dealing with being newly married, has been cheated in marriage, or is trying to find love for eventual marriage- the elusive M word is the end goal! Right?
So who are these characters? What are they telling us about women? And why do we watch them?
A staple in every serial, the plot just cannot be a plot without sneaky Saas or the mother-in-law. This character is seen as an all-powerful matriarch in Indian families, one whose word is literally the last word. It’s an attractive concept for women to hold
such power in their homes however. Sadly, the implicit message is not quite positive. Sneaky Saas is often shown to be the villain in the house misusing her power, guided by emotional insecurities and threatened by younger women. Sad and not true. While in reality tension in families, especially extended families is normal, it’s hardly the by-product of one sneaky, scheming matriarch. Mother-in-laws are more than often immense supports in families and contribute to managing homes, childcare, and elder care.
Oh, the burdens. Bahu or daughter-in-law usually depicted as the self-sacrificing, burdened, loving and all round sita-esque character is another staple. Stories revolve around this character loaded with family burdens often created by Sneaky Saas. Much like a new pledge in some awful American sorority, Bahu is constantly tested and made to prove her worth. Her many burdens include cooking, cleaning, keeping her husband happy and just generally everyone in the home happy. (Of course, if everyone around her is happy, Bahu will also be happy right?). Oh, and Bahu also has to maintain herself and ensure she always looks pretty with her Colgate smile- in that Stepford kinda way.
So can we relate? Apart from these characters being largely one-dimensional, they also seem ridiculously removed from reality as they go about their daily business draped in the finest Kanchivaram saris and the equivalent of their weight in gold.
Relationships with family are always complicated. The lesson in these serials, much like the lesson about being a ‘good woman’ that so many of us grew up with, is about always putting others first and by default thinking of ourselves last. I personally struggle with the guilt of my ‘selfish choices’. And by selfish choices, I mean ones that are just good decisions for my life that my family might not like or might disagree with. With this perspective, watching these serials can be infuriating because of the implicit message of a woman’s role or the ideal she should model.
Being aware of all these issues makes the dramas my guilty pleasure. But the characters speak to me in some odd way and I get excited when they break out of their traditional mold. And I continue to watch just so that I can celebrate with them! Like when the female lead in Diya aur Batti is able to negotiate her familial roles with her job in the Police Force! So despite their prescriptive nature (which we should watch out for!), they can be entertaining and sometimes encouraging.