In a recent article in the avowedly “upper-class” Mint, columnist Vir Sanghvi wonders why television in India speaks to PLT (People Like Them) and asks the readers of Mint, People Like Him, why “so many of us (readers of Lounge, for instance) thrill to masala Hindi movies while remaining resolutely unmoved by the appeal of the mega-serials that have much of middle India so completely enthralled?” He writes:
As much as you may have enjoyed Om Shanti Om or even Saawariya, do you watch Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? When you flip from one Hindi entertainment channel to another, can you really tell the difference? Isn’t there a certain stultifying sameness to the manner in which over-made-up, overdressed women waddle around lurid and garish sets, pausing every five minutes or so for an extreme close-up, accompanied by loud and, frankly, disturbing explosions of music? Do you really find the jokes on the many stand-up comedy shows (spawned by the success of The Great Laughter Challenge) genuinely funny? Can you understand why Navjot Singh Sidhu laughs so hysterically at every weak gag uttered by each aspiring comedian?
It’s a strange thing, but even as Hindi cinema has become the great leveller, television has become a world unto itself, carving out a solid constituency in the lower- to middle-middle class (look, I’m sorry if this sounds snobbish, but there’s no other way to say it), while almost completely ignoring the upper-middle class and the elite.
Given that these shows remain highly popular and continue to draw the highest ratings points, it is rather easy to imagine what Ekta Kapoor, the architect of many a saas-bahu television serial, might say to Sanghvi and People Like Him. But it is not as easy to brush aside Sanghvi’s assumptions about taste, class, and the expectations of a medium like TV – in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that academic culture is yet to take saas-bahu serials seriously. I have heard nothing but dismissal of shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law) as regressive and that they do little more than reinforce gender stereotypes. But is this all we have to say?
Does the study of TV begin and end with this all-too-easy ideology critique? Would it not be worth exploring how Ekta Kapoor, a young woman, managed to become one of the most important figures in the TV industry? What about looking closely at how writers on this show think through characters like Tulsi Virani (Smriti Irani)? Do we have nothing interesting to say about Smriti Irani’s move from a TV soap into the realm of politics? And tempting as it may be, are we really prepared to call women and men (yes, men watch these shows too) across India who enjoy these serials cultural dupes? Without falling into the trap of 80s-anglo-american-style “resistant reading” ideas, would it not be important to explore the politics and pleasures of these TV serials in relation to everyday life?
In many respects, this piece by Vir Sanghvi reminded me of the discussion about taste cultures in the context of television scholarship/writing in the U.S., and the fact that there is hardly any “ideological and cultural diversity within television studies per se” (more here). Talking specifically about discussions at a conference (Flow), Henry Jenkins picks up on Greg Smith’s question – why JAG, a popular show never gets the kind of attention that a cult hit like Buffy does – and writes:
I would argue that our inability as a field to write intelligently about shows like JAG has something to do with our sense of cultural isolation from those people who live in Red States. One challenge may be to broaden our object of study. An even bigger challenge may be to expand who studies television and what kinds of perspectives are welcome at our conference. Very few folks at the Flow conference rose to defend JAG as a worthy object of study. My bet though is that there are people out there reading this blog who regularly watch JAG. Indeed, it was one of my late father’s favorite programs and I found watching the program with him helped me to understand how his generation saw the world.
Along the same lines, while I cannot bring myself to watch a saas-bahu serial, I did spend many hours watching a Tamil-language saas-bahu show with my mother. This was right after my father had died, and I was with my mum in Bangalore for a couple of months. At one level, the ritual of watching TV, quite simply, provided great solace. And for my mom, these shows with their strong (and yes, in some ways regressive) women characters were almost a balm for grief. During those weeks, I was, in Sanghvi’s terms, PLT. The “saas-bahu” question needs to be framed differently and not just in a banal isn’t-it-regressive vein.