Modernity a far cry for women on small screen

New Delhi Independent and bold women characters are no more taboo in films, but one wonders why television serials have failed to come of age as far as realistic portrayals of Indian women are concerned. The makers of these serials say TV gives as good as it gets - women are usually appreciated by audiences as subservient, overtly loyal and moralistic or evil, conniving and home-breaking characters. That's the reason why the holier-than-thou Tulsi Virani of "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" and and Parvati Agarwal of "Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii" ruled the roost for more than a decade. They seem to have passed on the baton to the evil Ammaji of "Na Aana Iss Des Laado" and heartless Dadisa of "Balika Vadhu" that are popular today. "Television cannot be about superwomen. It has to be about the average Indian women; otherwise it will lack identification," Ekta Kapoor, the creator of India's most wanted 'bahus' Tulsi and Parvati, told IANS. "For me, 'power' for a normal average Indian woman living in a country like ours with so many social and family pressures is survival in itself. So if a woman survives, the different travails she has to go through, the legacy of belief that she has to accept and at times when she stands up and survives as an individual - for me that's woman power in itself... "That's just how we show our characters standing up against oppressive mothers-in-law or characters in small town India standing up against the social mindset," she said. Prior to saas-bahu sagas, TV spoke the lingo of the middle class in the cities, especially women. Shows like "Hum Log" and "Buniyaad" were the pulse of the nation in the 1980s, but TV content took a quantum leap when Subhash Chandra launched Zee TV, the country's first privately-owned channel in 1992. Women were shown smoking, drinking and wearing provocative clothes in shows like "Tara", "Banegi Apni Baat" and "Hasratein". These shows - that even touched upon subjects like extramarital affairs and live-in relationships - caught more eyeballs from the urban class than from the rural populace. Cut to the 21st century, and Indian television became larger than life with Kapoor's mega shows "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" and "Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii". Despite their rich milieu, the soaps spoke of middle class values and the ethics of a traditional Indian woman. With the launch of Viacom18's flagship Hindi entertainment channel Colors, shows with rural setups highlighting issues like female infanticide, child marriage and forced marriages found prominence on the small screen. Today's hit soaps like "Balika Vadhu", "Na Aana Iss Des Laado", "Bairi Piya" represent women residing in small towns and villages. "TV content deeply depends on who the audience is and where the audience is. You cannot expect a movie like 'Karthik Calling Karthik' to do well in Jhumri Talaiya, can you? Similar is the case with TV," Shailja Kejriwal, executive vice president (content), NDTV Imagine, told IANS. "Today the maximum viewers are either from small towns or from villages. TV penetration in rural areas has deepened and its accessibility on price point increased. So we have to create localised content according to their interests," added Kejriwal. Purnendu Shekhar, the writer of shows like "Balika Vadhu" and "Saat Phere", agrees. "Recent research regarding TV content has revealed that women in places like Kanpur, Jaipur and other such small cities don't mind watching a career- oriented woman on screen as long as she doesn't do anything morally wrong," he said. STAR Plus is trying to change the definition of the "good Indian bahu" with its new show "Sasural Genda Phool" where the daughter-in-law, played by Ragini Khanna, will be shown adjusting her lifestyle to suit her in-laws' simple and modest living. But she won't wear heavy Kanjeevarams or dab cakes of make-up. She will try to be the face of the "modern bahu" - in terms of dressing and thought but still adhere to Indian ethics. "We are trying to redefine the 'Indian bahu' on TV with this show. But when it's about a commitment to the family and how fiercely protective this bahu should be towards the family - that is something we wouldn't want to change. Those values must always resonate and be constant and yet getting refreshed and replenished by the experiences of today," Gaurav Banerjee, head (Content Strategy), STAR Plus, told IANS. Will it trigger a chain reaction for more modern bahus to step into the TV industry? Many would hope so. (Radhika Bhirani can be contacted at