Many things have been said when arguing about whether serials are regressive or not. Pseudo-intellectuals dismiss serials offhand without investing much time in understanding the immersive nature that its grammar and structure allows, while zealots choose to champion their favourite serial as being the paragon of excellence, as long as it focuses on the love story of their preferred jodi. Everything from clichéd content, to desperate plot twists, to out of character moments are questioned, and rightly so. Equally, everything from highlighting social issues, fostering emotional engagement, and building layers of characterisation are praised, and rightly so. But certain alarming traditions have been seeping into the storytelling of our serials that certainly don’t merit praise but surprisingly have not been questioned much either.
When we talk about serials the topic of female empowerment is never far behind. The origin of our serials can be traced back to the State’s objective of disseminating social education through entertainment, by highlighting issues such as female education and family planning via Doordarshan shows like Hum Log, Rajani and Udaan. Later, with the introduction of cable tv came an even more evolved image of empowered women – Tara, Shaanti, and Savitri (Hasratein) introduced moral incoherency and sexual liberation to the previously straight-laced and staunch narrative of feminism seen thus far on our small screens. Subsequently, the ‘k’ountless Balaji serials that dominated the small-screen airwaves had their own, admittedly more home-bound & family-oriented, brand of iconic female heroines, in contrast to Doordarshan’s nation-serving ones. But what image of female empowerment defines the leading ladies on television today?
A quick glance at the currently airing serials presents us with a cacophony that perhaps reflects the diverse female narratives that have always existed in our society. From homemakers (Parvarish), journalists (Kya Hua Tera Vaada, Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha), restaurateurs (Amrit Manthan, Kya Hua Tera Vaada), cops (Arjun, Shapath), aspiring IPS officers (Diya Aur Baati Hum), intelligence officers (2613), businesswomen (Pyar Ka Dard Hai), farmers (Veera), teachers (Saraswatichandra), hairstylists (Madhubala) and dog trainers (Chanchan) to girls who are yet to discover the existence of life beyond discussions of their marriage (Amita Ka Amit, Bani, Junoon), or married women whose sole occupation in life is firefighting family conspiracies and feuds (Saath Nibhana Saathiya, Sasural Simar Ka, Uttaran), or vamps whose aim in life is to ensure the heroine never has a happy one (practically every serial these days) – the small screen features them all.
However, underlying this variety are certain unwritten rules for the serial heroine that we only occasionally have the pleasure of seeing broken in the GEC space. The virtues of sahansheelta and sacrifice seem to come inbuilt with every model heroine since the ascendance of Balaji Telefilms’ fortunes. Piety and faith are also pre-determined fixtures in the heroine’s character map – no room for agnostics or atheists here. Desi attire seems ubiquitous, except in some few refreshing cases (Chanchan, Kya Hua Tera Vaada, Qubool Hai), while intentional alcohol consumption is reserved mostly for the males. As an avid viewer of serials I’ve grown accustomed to these characters traits that remain consistent across all GEC serials. But there’s one increasingly accepted trend that I feel needs serious re-examination! I call it the “Ek Chutki Sindoor Solution”.
Remember that scene where the innocent heroine is being unjustly slandered and the chivalrous hero grabs a chutki of sindoor, dramatically fills her maang, and lo they are married (Kya Hua Tera Vaada, Pyar Ka Dard Hai, Sapon Se Bhare Naina, Sasural Simar Ka); or that track where the heroine has slighted the hero (rejected his advances maybe or questioned his entitled behaviour perhaps) and so he takes revenge by marrying her under duress (Ruk Jaana Nahin, Madhubala); or the one where the hero misunderstands the heroine’s intentions and to punish her or control her activities marries her forcefully (Is Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon?, Laagi Tujhse Lagan); or the one where the hero refuses to accept that the heroine is in love with someone else and manipulates circumstances such that she is coerced into marrying him (Rab Se Sohna Ishq). Whether depicted as noble or nefarious, that one act of “ek chutki sindoor” is indicative of the patriarchal culture that is endemic in our country.
Marriage is shown in the above circumstances as either the only solution to the slings and arrows of societal censure (even if that censure itself is unjustified!), or the easiest means by which a man can show a woman her ‘aukaat’. It is immaterial that the impromptu marriage has happened with ‘the right person’ or with the hero who will no doubt be eventually reformed and redeemed by love. The truth is that these Ek Chutki Sindoor sequences subconsciously either legitimize the assumption that a woman is safe only once she is under her husband’s protection, or that a woman’s consent to marriage is irrelevant next to whatever the man’s wishes are. I think we are all a bit more aware of how problematic such thinking can be. Especially since these days it is obvious to even the most indifferent person living in India how widespread such misogynistic tendencies are and what kind of depraved form these tendencies can take.
At this point, it is pertinent for me talk about the idea of “female agency”. The concept of “agency” in sociology refers to the capacity of people to make choices and achieve desired outcomes in the social structure they are situated in. Female agency, then, refers to the degree of autonomous thought and action that a female has the capacity to practice in the context of her situation in life. Circumstances in serials which lead up to the Ek Chutki Sindoor sequences I described earlier are then cases where the heroine is stripped of her human rights – her autonomy (independence) is seized in that moment by a male that either wants to protect her or harm her, and that to me seems a reprehensible concept. For an industry that can boast, far more than the country’s film industry, of featuring women-oriented stories it seems a bit sad that the television industry is yet to become self-aware enough to critically examine the implications behind what it thinks of as merely a plot device.
There are instances where the concept of Ek Chutki Sindoor has been somewhat subverted. Recent examples include Phulwa, where the dacoit heroine decides to trick the police officer hero into marrying her to avenge the grievous harm that he and his corrupt family caused her loved ones over the years. A reverse Ek Chutki Sindoor, if you will. Not that the act is any more acceptable when imposed on the man! Then again, the same show earlier had an unfortunately long track where Phulwa as a child is forced into marriage with someone thrice her age as part of a revenge feud against her brother. So I am, to be honest, still unsure whether the reversal of the track was some form of clever social commentary or simply an intriguing twist. Another example of subverting the norm comes from Ruk Jaana Nahin where Indu Singh forcibly married Saanchi Maathur at gunpoint. Saanchi, her father, and, despite it conflicting with her traditional way of thinking, her mother, refused to accept the marriage as legal or binding for a long time, until circumstances (as they always do) ensured that Saanchi and Indu end up falling in love. Personally I was waiting for no such thing to happen and the marriage to be nullified, but hey – one step at a time I guess. Until Saanchi’s story I couldn’t think of a single instance where the heroine doesn’t end up in her so-called sasural. In Ruk Jaana Nahin Saanchi and her family at least made an attempt to resist the shackles imposed on her under duress. Finally, someone voiced what I’d been thinking all along: “isse shaadi nahin, gunah kehte hain”! Without the mutual consent of both parties it’s not a marriage – it’s a crime.
Serials of this decade have seldom been a work of literary realism, opting instead for a more romanticized or stylised presentation instead. So it can be argued that having the heroine suddenly thrust into a marriage with the hero is not intended as a social commentary on female autonomy but merely as a means of moving the plot along – after all the hero and heroine need to be thrown together into close quarters so there can be takraars, and eventually pyaar. Besides, this is only a tv show! But while excuses such as “this is only a tv show” may be valid reasons for relying on the suspension of disbelief of viewers, or working with a heightened sense of reality, there is still something called social consciousness that should detract from frivolous usage of Ek Chutki Sindoor tracks. So how do you measure frivolous vs reasonable use? Well, if your story does not effectively critique or address the implied patriarchal overtones of marriage without the female’s consent then it is, no doubt, the former. After all, given that most of our serials are escapist and build covet-worthy worlds populated by aspirational lead characters, is it appropriate to depict a “marriage” in which the female’s right to choose her life partner was disregarded leading to a happily married life?
So here’s my challenge to the writers, creative directors, channel heads et al of our television industry: next time you decide on “ek chutki sindoor” as a high-point or plot twist for your show, please stop and consider for at least a minute. Is there an alternative you can think of to this impending “marriage”? One which either subverts the Ek Chutki Sindoor Problem or one where female agency is not compromised? Or will you at least suitably address the deep-seated societal gender bias this morally and legally inexcusable act implies? Is that the cogs of your creativity I hear turning? Good. Because item numbers and Ek Chutki Sindoor sequences have some things in common – they are indicators of lazy writing, herd mentality, and the kind of indifferent thoughtlessness that India needs less of.
Well that’s my opinion anyway. What’s yours?