There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
For Indians, this belief pervades so much of what we do and how we think. From “sat sri akaal” to “khuda hafiz“, our greetings and partings invoke our gods. We utter phrases like “लिखा हुआ होगा”; “बाकी ऊपरवाले की मर्ज़ी”; “किस्मत की बात है”, sometimes as a gesture of acceptance for that which we cannot change, but also (let’s be honest here) sometimes as a gesture of avoidance for that which we aren’t willing to make the effort to change. Our rituals – and we have them for every occasion, be it a festival or just going out to give an exam, symbolise acts of seeking blessings from a higher power. We even match kundalis and look for shubh mahurats as a means of seeking divine permission for our actions.
Since faith and spirituality are omnipresent in Indian culture it isn’t surprising that they hold an equally important place in the narrative conventions of Indian serials as well. Belief in fate dominates storytelling in Indian serials. Personal tragedies are depicted as the work of an inscrutable rather than heartless agency – one that softens the blows its dealt through means that may not be immediately apparent. तकदीर, or fate, is portrayed as something even its divine writer is unable to alter. Characters are asked to draw strength from their faith to accept hardships and stay true to their moral compass. Synchronicity, serendipity and other coincidences are unarguably attributed to divine orchestration; even when the characters don’t realise it, the significance of such instances is not lost on viewers. Through all such sequences, by substitution, Indian serials serve to reassure viewers that their own struggles serve a higher purpose — that they are not meaninglessly battling the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
One of the more unique examples in the long list of Indian serials that have used religious and spiritual themes in their narratives is that of Amanat (1997-2002). Characters often share a personal relationship with their gods in Indian serials. Divinity acknowledges or guides their circumstances usually in the form of implied symbolism. Beyond mythological serials divinity is seldom depicted “in flesh”. In Amanat, however, a character repeatedly encounters a divine figure who he interacts with “in person”. In the series, Sanskar, an aethist, regularly has intellectual and spiritual debates with the god Krishna. Significantly, Sanskar’s name is associated with ideas of cultural heritage and upbringing in modern Hindi and the word’s Sanskrit origin refers to certain rituals that serve as rites of passage. Krishna appears to Sanskar during a time in his life when he is struggling with seeking the truth about his father against the wishes of his elders. The role of divinity in the series, as depicted in the following clip, is to help the character through this emotionally turbulent time.
Screenwriter and director Habib Faisal (Band Baaja Baaraat, Ishaqzaade), recently noted that “old-world romance has almost vanished from Bollywood’s scheme of things”; urban rom-coms are the trend now, where the obstacles to a romantic union are situational or internal to the characters. Faisal notes that in contrast, one can more easily believe that in small towns “just the fact that someone is in love is enough to create conflict”. Unlike Bollywood, Indian serials have not yet undergone a mass transition from the ‘classic love story’ format to a ‘rom com’ one. This is perhaps because Bollywood producers consider urban or NRI youth, for whom falling in love is not taboo, a major target audience these days while Indian serials aim to cater to the ‘masses’.
For the mohalle waale, basti waale, middle class and upwardly mobile families, seen as the primary audience for Indian serials, arranged marriages are still the norm, societal conventions and power structures in the family influence everyone’s fate and romantic love is secondary to the honour and togetherness of the entire family. In fact, as Amir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayate (2012-) has demonstrated in most of its episodes, certain sociocultural issues are prevalent across the entire Indian society regardless of social class, economic status and region, and this includes the rejection of romantic love outside of a socially acceptable marriage arranged by the couple’s families. Indian serials, thus, tend to depict stories where characters in love undergo many struggles before they can unite. Even marriage or consummation of love does not guarantee that characters will be able to live the rest of their lives happily because love is constantly pitted against the priorities of other family members. Though most Indian serials can be classified as “family dramas” at heart they revolve around that “classic love story” lamented as rare in current Bollywood movies. When depicting a maahaul where romantic love challenges long-standing tradition and familial obligation Indian serials often draw on fate and divine blessings as an emotional cue to demonstrate the worthiness of maintaining the emotional bond, despite the oppositions faced.
In order to build intrigue around how two characters will fall in love many serials often start by highlighting the contrast between their lives. The characters seem to occupy different worlds, yet the narrative leads them ever closer till that moment when they first become aware of each other’s existence. This moment may happen in the very first episode or take months to materialise, but in both cases the build-up to it has an almost ‘cosmic countdown’-like quality. Characters may walk past each other, pray next to each other, or sanjog se, even be looking for each other or talking to each other, without realising that the threads of their lives are soon going to inter-twine, either dramatically or organically. These situations may seem like improbable contrivances, similar to the concept of a deus ex machina, however in Indian serials they function not as superficial solutions that challenge the viewer’s suspension of disbelief but rather as vehicles to signify ideas of fate and destiny.
In this clip from Hitler Didi (2011-) is an elegant example of such a narrative convention. In the introductory episodes various characters comment on the humourless and authoritarian disposition of the protagonist. Indira Sharma openly acknowledges the epithet “Hitler didi” and admits to herself that there is nothing in her life that can make her smile. However, says she, “दिल्ली में कई साल बारिश नहीं हुई, पर जब हुई तो इतनी हुई के जमुना नदी में बाड़ आ गयी – बस यही समझिये, एक दिन मैं भी हँसूंगी, और इतना हँसूंगी के सारी दिल्ली को अपनी हँसी में डुबो दूँगी” (It didn’t rain in Delhi for many years, but when it did, it rained so much that the river Yamuna was flooded – understand that one day even I will laugh, and laugh so much that all of Delhi will drown in my laugh). The cosmos is conspiring even as she defiantly makes this promise to herself. Rishi Kumar arrives into the capital city and drives right into Indira’s bitter challenge to the world: “हंसने को है ही क्या?” (What is there to laugh about?). While Indira hunts for a tenant Rishi finds himself in her locality at the office of Radhe, a real estate agent. The conversation at Radhe’s office is a charmingly poetic exchange where the characters acknowledge the role of fate in the narrative of their lives – Radhe welcomes Rishi with “आप तो अपनी किस्मत लिखवा के लाये हैं” (You’ve come here with your destiny already written) while Rishi declares himself unable to resist those souls “जिन्हें प्यास रहती है एक अदद हँसी की” (Who live in the thirst for laugher). How convenient then that he’s about to rent a room at Indira’s place.
Even the gods themselves are not exempt from the machinations of destiny. Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev (2011-) uses the narrative convention of a ‘cosmic countdown‘ often and masterfully. The anticipation generated through such a narrative convention is further amplified in a series like this which is based on Indian mythological stories as most viewers are well aware of where the narrative is heading. In the following clip King Daksh, son of god Brahma, refuses to allow the worship of Shiva in his civilisation as he despises the ascetic recluse. He keeps his daughter Sati in the dark about Shiva’s existence, despite knowing she is Adi Shakti’s incarnation and Shiva is her fated consort. However no one can deny destiny for too long. One day princess Sati comes across a dried rudraksha seed, a symbol associated with the god Shiva. Later, various circumstances lead to her becoming aware of Shiva and finally coming face to face with him, ironically, due to Daksh’s own arrogance..
Foreshadowing with religious undertones is also used to affirm the idea that “भगवान इनसानों को जोड़ियों में भेजता है (God sends people in pairs)”. The tapestry being woven by fate is impervious to the approval of society or family. The spiritual connection between two characters is repeatedly highlighted through symbolic physical connections. Priests will unwittingly bless the fated union instead of the one chosen by the characters or their families. Even when two characters have decided to separate they are continually reminded of their bond through rituals and other religious symbolism. In contrast, rituals pointedly go awry for characters that don’t belong together. In this manner the narrative justifies the thwarting of familial obligation and rejection of social norms, for fate is as inescapable as gravity and even the most self-sacrificing character cannot be held culpable for failing to fight such a force.
Places of worship play an integral role in the spiritual and emotional fabric of Indian serials. Nowhere is the connection between characters and their gods more stronger. Characters often find themselves drawn from their individual worlds to such locations. Sometimes they find the guidance they seek, but accepting the answers they get isn’t always easy. Prayers aren’t wishes granted on a whim after all: if sometimes characters are given what they ask for, other times divinity keeps its own counsel. Meaningful or momentous moments often take place in sacred settings, be it the faint beginnings of a ‘pavitra’ ehsaas or the revelation of long suppressed truths. Sometimes the setting is able to lend implicit credence to the truthfulness or purity of a character’s emotions. Other times the viewers are assured of characters being ‘watched over’ by divinity while they face a traumatic upheaval in their lives. Either way, the role of the setting is to allow divinity to act as साक्षी or witness to a significant moment in the life of the character.
Characters, in fact, often call on divinity to act as a witness to their promises. The promises characters make with divinity as their witness aren’t always well meaning though. This clip from Amrit Manthan (2012-) is set in a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. In the clip Agam thanks the goddess for the successful execution of his revenge against the arrogant princess Amrit. Kali is often seen as a destroyer of evil in mythology and the bitter Agam adopted her as his patron goddess after Amrit intentionally wrecked his life when they were children. While Agam considers his vow to pay Amrit’s malicious act back in kind akin to Kali’s role of destroying evil the narrative indicates his actions as morally questionable. Agam’s intention to use Amrit’s innocent younger sister as a pawn in his plan for revenge are proof that he is too blinded by his personal grievance to be objective.
The title of the serial Amrit Manthan (2012-) suggests the focal point of the serial’s narrative is the trial and tribulations that the self-centred and cruel Amrit needs to face before she can become “amrit” (literally the elixir of life but metaphorically probably a symbol of goodness). The story of Agam can be seen as a mirror to that of Amrit’s. Agam needs to break away from his bitter past in order to start truly living and the clip here beautifully symbolises the means fate has chosen to achieve this. The goddess Kali who is usually associated with destruction is also seen as a loving mother or protector in mythology. The goddess of time and change liberates her devotees from the cycle of death and re-birth and in this particular instance the kind-hearted Nimrit will be the agent of change in Agam’s life. So while Agam’s vengeance is probably not endorsed by divinity it is fated to be a catalyst in everyone’s life. Indian serials acknowledge that mistakes and misguided actions, such as that of Agam’s, have an important role to play in life – the consequences of such actions help characters understand themselves and each other better. Often as a result characters will find themselves growing emotionally closer to each other. Agam’s plan to humiliate Amrit by abandoning her at the mandap and marrying the sister she despises instead may be self-centred but brings all the characters one step closer to their destiny: Nimrit’s loving nature will help Agam become a better person, Agam’s strength and determination will help Nimrit forge an identity independent of her sister, while the insult of their marriage will be Amrit’s first challenge.
Since most serials frame their love stories as transcendental it is fitting that key moments that influence the togetherness of two characters occur in places that encourage spirituality, reflection and resolve. This is also the reason why characters often have moments of realisation in such settings. Dargahs, mandirs, gurudwaras and other sacred places allow characters the time and space for emotional clarity. In these locations hearts tormented by denial and dilemma are forced to be honest with themselves while even the most unaware dil is moved to self-reflection and acknowledgement, if not acceptance.
The following clip from Geet – Hui Sabse Parayi (2010-2011) is a sequence in this vein. In the serial Geet is depicted as a superstitious and anxiety-prone character, perhaps stemming from her oppressive childhood and the betrayal she faced in marriage. Geet and Maan find their lives intersecting on various occasions and at this point in the show Geet happens to be living in his house with his grandmother. After yet another heated argument between the two Geet declares that she never wants to see Maan’s face again, but soon after he leaves angrily for the dargah Geet starts regretting her hastily spoken words – worrying that they forebode an ill-omen. Geet frantically makes her way to the Nizamuddin Dargah in search of Maan with an increasing sense of terror. At the dargah on seeing Maan safe and at peace she is finally forced to examine the irrational fear that led her there. She realises that she has fallen in love with Maan, while Maan wonders whether Geet is now struggling with the same revelation that he has been trying to fight for a while.
Sufi song sequences, like the one featured in Geet – Hui Sabse Parayi (2010-2011), are becoming an increasingly popular trope in Indian serials. They instil a sense of sanctity to the bond between characters, thus elevating their romance to a transcendental experience. Sufi song sequences are often used to articulate the relationship between characters and divinity. Characters fated to be together are shown sharing the same spiritual space in order to equate the notion of love to the Sufi tenant of embracing divine presence in life by purifying the heart of its baser instincts.
As some of the clips featured in this blog post might have already indicated, Indian serials present a unified view of fate and spirituality. Selfless love is universally endorsed by divinity in Indian serials irrespective of religion. In Indian serials, as in real life in India, characters frequent all manner of sacred locations regardless of the religion they follow. This is not surprising given the country’s long and diverse history of religious traditions. Thus, it is not uncommon to see a Hindu character paying their respects in a gurudwara, a Sikh character participating in a Hindu festival, or characters seeking guidance at a dargah even though they aren’t Muslim.
For those curious about the demography projected by Indian serials, a quick summary: Hindu protagonists tend to feature most often in Indian serials; Sikh protagonists are also well represented; Muslim characters feature relatively rarely despite Islam being the second most adopted religion in the country; Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and other religions are not depicted often. Exploration of how inter-faith jodis are portrayed in Indian serials and why heroes in Indian serials are occasionally agnostic or atheist but the heroine is always spiritually inclined are also topics we can leave for exploration in another blog post for now because in both cases the depiction of fate and spirituality remains unaltered.
So what do you think about the manner in which fate and spirituality are depicted in Indian serials? Has the trope been overused to the point where such sequences seem merely mechanical or do some serials manage to successfully imbibe a sense of the spirituality that pervades the Indian sensibility? Is there an aspect of the narrative convention that you like more than others ie the ‘cosmic countdown’, ‘sufiana mahaul‘ or something else? Let me know – I love hearing about what works and doesn’t work for other serial viewers. If you have links to your favourite scenes, even better!
“The Science of Serial Romance” is a series of blog posts that intends to delve into the types of sequences serials often use to spice up their romantic narratives.