My mother is an octogenarian. Though otherwise very active, she is predominantly confined to the four walls of home and spends most part of the day alone. Old age coupled with isolated existence can be a potent cause of many psychosomatic problems. Doctors have, therefore, advised her to keep the TV/Radio switched on so that the flurry of voices movement and music proxy the much needed human company. My mother has thus naturally fallen prey to the glitz and glam of the soap serials aired 24 hours on TV which easily replace her earlier interests in theatre, movies and books. I am citing this very personal example to highlight the importance of television in our lives as such and especially the quality quotient of social soaps telecast.
The Indian TV viewers got the first taste of soap opera inHum Log (1984). Soon Badki, Cchutki, Majli, Bassessar, Dadi and other characters (played by veteran theatre personalities) of the serial became household names. Hum Log centred on the daily strife and dreams of the middle class. The quick recap at the end of each episode by Dadamoni Ashok Kumar was the added attraction. Incidentally, the serial was the brainchild of the then I&B Minister Vasant Sathe. Next came the block buster Buniyaad (1987-88), a saga based on Hindusthan-Pakistan divide and the post divide survival of the uprooted middle class. It showcased heart rending performances by ace actors/actresses e.g. Aloknath (Master Haveliram), Anita Kanwar (Lajjoji), Kiran Juneja (Veerawali), Vijayendra Ghatge and others. These trail blazing serials were directed by veteran film makers, P. Kumar Vasudev and Ramesh Sippy respectively and scripted by none other than Manohar Shyam Joshi. No wonder that both the serials boasted of finesse, strong story line, script, dialogues, performance, consistency and focused continuity of drama. These were followed by Tamas, (by Govind Nihalani, director par excellence), a gripping and harrowing tale of an estranged couple (Om Puri and Deepa Sahe) in the communal riots staged by political aspirants/activists. These were serials of substance in terms of thematic concepts and overall influence on the masses. Subsequently, a few more serials were made based on the novels of Bimal Mitra, Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay R.K. Narayan (Malgudi Days), Gulzaar (Terah Panne/Mirza Ghalib), to name a few. The common thread of these serials being their limited episode editions and diligent adherence to the basic story line.
It was simultaneously during this period that the “corporate sponsorship” of serials was initiated at first in gradual measures soon giving way to full fledged commercialization. Enter the period of long drawn serials running into hundreds of episodes like Shanti, Swabhimaan, Junoon, Tara and the likes wherein script, story, characterization etc were conveniently sacrificed at the altar of prolonged duration. It was with the advent of private channels, TRP ratings and investment of “big” money in television that soaps, with the exception of a few, witnessed a steady degeneration in terms of content and concept. The invasion of Balaji Telefilms culminated the bizarre chronicle to perfection with its head honcho's obvious initial K fascination (Kkusum, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, Kasam Se,Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, moving on to the more current non-K titles like Bairi Piya, Tere Liye etc.).
Nowadays we live in an era of over-hyped costume dramas of larger than life size characters pioneered by Ms. Ekta Kapoor & Co. Generalization befits as all seem to be mass produced at the same factory & specifications overruled as all are cast in the same mould. (Those which do not subscribe to the patent formulae are smirked at as positively down market). These serials not only thrive on and promote but also loudly justify all social aberrations - extra marital flings, bigamy, polygamy, feudal debauchery, familial conflicts/conspiracies, illegitimate relations, the quintessential mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law discord, scandalous affairs, sexual impotency with covert hints at homosexuality, the list is quite exhaustive. A gourmet garnished with half truths; a bouquet of obsolete, medieval values as fringe benefits to go with it. For example, the oft-flaunted Achilles Heels of joint family systems, blatantly overlooking the fact that joint families do not only symbolize divides and disputes but are also founts of emotional & social support & security. Randomly watching a few of these serials, I realized that these are more stress inducers than stress busters. When you expect an outburst or quick reflexes from the protagonist, the camera pans interminably on his/her dead pan/tear smeared face. The over-glamourized vamp always hogs the limelight while the personification-of-all-virtues female lead(s) suffers silently for aeons (read episodes). Neither of them age even after their grand children are married off. The characters change colours (from good to bad to good again) overnight giving a massive inferiority complex even to the chameleon. What to speak of thethree jhatkas to hyphenate a milestone in the macabre twists and turns of the non-existent plot. It is no surprise, as contrary to the earlier trailblazers directed in its entirety by one director, now every episode has a fresh director and writer. I am given to understand that the Hindi pulp fiction writers (with due respect) are roped in to punch in the masalas to sensationalize each episode. Story jaaye bhaad mein! As a result, the plot/script in the 100th episode of the serial goes off on a tangent to that of the previous episodes. The half an hour time span is unequally divided with ad-breaks, leaving may be a miniscule quarter for the serial. The corporate money is invested majorly into heightening visual opulence (with regard to looks, attire & sets). There is no advancement/innovation in so far as technique, presentation or camera angles etc. are concerned let alone the story, script, plot etc. Ms. Kapoor has gone on record (in Koffee with Karan) stating that she generates employment by prolonging a serial. Very noble deed (read guise) indeed! But is it adequate justification for the over sentimental trash in the garb of social drama that the viewers are compelled to gulp down with dinner every night?
More worrisome is the fact that these regressive serials enjoy direct intrusion in our drawing rooms where the entire family including children robustly eat, drink, belch them. With globalization hugely impacting the television, it is more than apparent that the permissiveness advocated by these serials, is a blind Photostat of the West (of the league of Bold And The Beautiful etc.). Sociologists are still divided on the issue whether we are ready yet to digest the same. But what irks more is when these corrosive convolutions spill out on the open (street, alleys, parks et al) hurting the sensibilities of the elders and scarring the innocence of the children. Wish Ekta Kapoor and her compatriots introspect a little more on that!
Interestingly, the serials derive the name soaps from the early radio broadcasts (1930s) which were predominantly sponsored by soap manufacturers to arrest the attention of their niche customers, the housewives to their products. Nowadays these are called soaps because they are too slippery to “reach out” and grasp!