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muft ka gyan, serial conventions

Ek Chutki Sindoor vs Female Agency


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”.

sindoor collage

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?

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Ek Chutki Sindoor vs Female Agency

  1. A friend wrote to me after reading this blog post and questioned the necessity of bringing in item numbers out of the left field in the last sentence when the rest of my post had nothing to do with the topic.

    Valid question I thought, and I like a healthy debate so here’s my perspective.

    To me, the Ek Chutki Sindoor Problem and Item Numbers stem from the same place. They reveal a lack of awareness or concern for the female’s place in the world, other than in terms of the man.

    So in a Noble Ek Chutki Sindoor track the man automatically assumes the role of the protector, as though the female has no other choice. And worse, we cheer for him when he does so, because at least that will save her from being subjected to unjust societal slander simply because her personal actions or situation in life challenges the conventions of “propriety”.

    Then you have the Nefarious Ek Chutki Sindoor tracks where the woman is either meant to be shown her place by the offended man or she is merely a pyaada, a tool by which the man can lash out at her male relatives. Unsurprisingly that’s the sort of mentality that you see associated with acts of violence like rape and honour killings.

    Item numbers also tie the existence of women solely to the desires of men – in this instance their desire to objectify, just like Ek Chutki Sindoor sequences tie the existence of women to men’s desire to protect or use them. In item numbers the woman is sexually available as an object for lecherous men and/or the hero to lust after. And…that’s all there is to her. Where is the narrative of her own feelings? Questions of consent and female agency are not depicted as being disregarded per se (unlike Ek Chutki Sindoor tracks) but neither can we say that they are being regarded. The personal pleasure or pain the “Item Girls” are experiencing during their “natch gaana” are of no consequence, the entire sequence is about an entertaining performance for the male and is shot as such for the male gaze. But like with everything, I’m sure there are exceptions to the norm, instances where Item Numbers have been taken beyond their usual function in the narrative. I’d be interested in hearing about any such examples that people can think of.

    The sad thing about Ek Chutki Sindoor tracks and Item Numbers is that they aren’t some huge conspiracy designed to purposefully reinforce a particular gender bias – they simply exist because our society has been conditioned such that the problematic implications behind them don’t even register. My aim in writing the blog post was not so much to outrage about the lack of female agency in a fictitious setting or moralise about the presence of item numbers in Bollywood, but rather to request folks to critically evaluate the conventions they use. Why? Not because the ubiquity of these conventions are the direct cause of oppression or degradation of women in our society but because they are symptomatic of it. And if those people who shape narratives for pop-culture consumption can think beyond TRPs and ticket sales and transform their apathy into constructive reflection, for whatever it’s worth, we’d be making progress in some small measure.

    Posted by Nakhrewali | April 23, 2013, 8:56 pm
  2. Great write-up on this troubling serial trope. It is indeed one that needs serious examination, or rather re-examination. You’ve laid out exactly and concisely exactly why this trope is problematic and needs to be re-examined, so there isn’t much to add on my end.

    I do, however, want to point out that Madhubala – Ek Ishq Ek Junoon (MEIEJ) seems to be subverting this trope. Because it’s a long running television daily serial, it took months for the show get to where it is today–and what it is today seems to be a clever take on the so called Dark Love Story, with the Dark Prince; but instead of a story where the Dark Prince and (good and innocent) Heroine will eventually become end up happy and together, the audience are given hints and sometimes hit over the head with exactly how dangerous, unhealthy and outright abusive this Dark Love Story is.

    Let’s go back to MEIEJ’s own handling of Ek Chutki Sindoor. The makers cleverly made sure to give their “marriage” a question mark from the very beginning by making use of the Bollywood-ised Saat Pheras. (That a Hindu marriage has seven pheras is not universal, the pheras vary from three, to four, to seven.) Leave aside that such forced marriages of compulsion wouldn’t or shouldn’t be considered valid, that the groom was drunk, and was making a mockery of the rituals and of the institution. MEIEJ created a situation in which the basic phera ritual was left incomplete, thus making it a plot point within the story itself that the marriage is an incomplete marriage i.e. not valid. (Let me point out that even though the number of pheras differ according to community and tradition, it doesn’t make RK’s and Madhubala’s incomplete ritual complete. One can’t just complete three pheras in a ritual that is meant to be four pheras and expect validity. Just as one can’t complete four pheras in a ritual meant to have been seven pheras.)

    But the Heroine out of compulsion lives this life as the Dark Prince’s wife, all the while the audience are reminded of the incomplete marriage. The idea, of course, is that the Dark Prince’s ego will shatter, his love–the result of her love, her goodness–will make way for the Dark Prince to complete the last three pheras which requires him to follow his bride around the fire, something he had refused to do earlier–follow rather than lead for the last three pheras.

    A love story is built up. The Dark Prince is shown to be falling for the Heroine. The Heroine, too, falls in love with this Dark Prince, so much so that she, like the good Heroine, defends her husband and takes his side over her beloved stepfather. The Heroine had become achieved epitome of goodness, shown her Dark Prince the depths of her love and how he is above all for her.

    Then the love story comes crashing down. The Heroine is thrown out, humiliated, and the Dark Prince publicly celebrates his victory and breaks her and destroys her. Still, a love story is shown. The Dark Prince is a tortured soul, a man whose fault is his ego. But then slowly, the unhealthy aspect of this relationship becomes more and more clear and difficult to deny: he is possessive, he is manipulative, he is obsessive, he is abusive, he is unrelenting. The Dark Prince cannot see the Heroine move on. Despite his ending the relationship, despite his throwing her out from his life, the Dark Prince stakes his claim on the Heroine when he senses another man’s proximity to the Heroine.

    And here, MEIEJ and the Dark Prince make a handful of meta-references about the Hero, Heroine, the love story, and how in the end the Hero and Heroine always end up together. While some in the audience may view this as foreshadowing, in actuality the Dark Prince’s story is one of an unreliable narrator’s, dripping with dramatic irony.

    The Heroine realizes she will never have peace from the Dark Prince, and so goes back to him. She tells him she will fight for his love, fight himself, his ego, herself and whole world, for afterall, they are fated to be. She then reveals to her worried mother that she is back with the Dark Prince to teach him a lesson, to beat him at his own game, to show him he is not God, and that he cannot claim her, discard her, and claim her again as he so wishes. And thus we have the current track.

    Where this goes, we shall see, but here I want to point out that the Dark Prince doesn’t seem to be fooled. He has his own suspicions, and the Heroine seems to be playing a dangerous game. Right now MEIEJ seems to be playing the extension of the Ek Chutki Sindoor trope: the Heroine fights back, teaches the hero a lesson, he apologises and redeems himself–and with this comes the slight implication that he may become the man worthy of her love, a love which she will readily give. Also within this process, in this dangerous game, the Heroine herself just may become grey, making her slightly less of a victim and more of a player in this Dark Love Story.

    MEIEJ plays with all of this brilliantly, showing this “Dark Love Story” as both tempting and appealing at times, and absolutely detestable at other times. We see how the Heroine may be somewhat swayed by the charm of the Dark Prince: it’s the stuff of fantasies, of novels. And then just seconds later, or at times simultaneously, we see the truth: the man who is an egomaniac, a man whose “love” is about possession and obsession–and even this aspect is shown in a glamourised way, as the Dark Love Story.

    And it’s a brilliant way to subvert the trope. The goal is to portray both sides to this “Dark Love Story,” showing the appeal and magnetism and enigmatic nature of it, while also unmasking the truth behind it: it’s an unhealthy, dangerous, obsessive and abusive dynamic and relationship–one which should never end up an Epic True Love for the Heroine, happy or tragic.

    This is not to say that dark love stories should never be shown as Epic True Love (they are often tragic, never happy, these dark love stories even if they are Epic). But those stories work when both the Heroine and the Hero (the Dark Prince) are grey from the offset.*** Such is not the case with MEIEJ because the problem once again goes back to the idea behind Ek Chutki Sindoor: Why should the Heroine accept any man who trapped her into a marriage of compulsion? That too in such a cruel way? It was horrible to watch Madhubala break down as she recalled how RK flaunted the contract and her trap of a marriage in front of a bedridden Shamsher.

    On social media I’ve read the complaint that RK is now shown as a villain, the character’s been mangled, the grey is giving way to black. But in actuality, what RK did, how he “married” her, it was never excusable and was not much better than the RK who discarded her and is now acting obsessive and possessive and outright abusive. Rooting for RK and Madhubala to end up together after the way he “married” her, it is no better than still rooting for Madhubala to accept in the end, forgiving and forgetting all that he had caused her post “marriage”. The only difference is that it was easier to ignore the start and foundation of this “Love Story,” this “marriage.” It was easier to be swept into the romantic notions of the Heroine’s goodness and love triumphing and winning over the Dark Prince’s Ego (ego is the least of his faults actually, but expanding on it will just make this reply more verbose). The only difference is that it’s not so easy now to overlook, to ignore, to forgive/forget….

    At this point, I would also like to add that because of the incomplete marriage, the marriage that isn’t legal anyway, the Dark Prince and the Heroine are pretty analogous to an unhealthy and abusive relationship, and perhaps volatile on both ends depending on how this dangerous game the Heroine is now playing goes. The Dark Prince and the Heroine are akin to a tumultuous relationship where after breaking up, the man’s obsessive, possessive behaviour takes over when the woman tries to move on. He comes back to claim her as his own, never acknowledging that the relationship had been broken. She of course for some reason or the other ends up going back to him. It’s basically a live-in relationship, but the characters term and talk of it in marital terms. The only thing missing here is the sex. (And that’s probably another topic regarding serials. The regressive and ridiculous portrayal of sexuality in serials, especially female sexuality. In your post you mentioned the shows which introduced more sexual liberation, but then it seems to have regressed since.)

    And keeping all this in mind, the possibility emerges that the Junoon in the title may itself be a subversion of the trope. The Dark Prince’s behaviour has never been simply Junoon. Such stories where the heroine is forced out of compulsion, treated harshly and like trash, it’s never just Junoon. It’s just the start of an abusive, unhealthy dynamic and relationship. In that respect, yes, it’s an ugly side of Junoon (obsession, not passion).

    In conclusion, this is just my take on what MEIEJ has done and is doing. I could be wrong, and this could be some Grand Love Story of the Dark Prince and the Heroine. If so, then I am the fool for giving the writers, producers and creatives so much credit.

    ***The Heroine can very well turn grey. In fact, it would be welcomed and much needed. However, the Dark Prince isn’t going to change and become her True Love. He shouldn’t. Even if he were to change, no way she should accept him. Not after the foundation of this Dark Love Story started with Ek Chutki Sindoor.

    Posted by Gattaca-Six | April 29, 2013, 2:17 pm
    • Because it’s a long running television daily serial, it took months for the show get to where it is today–and what it is today seems to be a clever take on the so called Dark Love Story, with the Dark Prince; but instead of a story where the Dark Prince and (good and innocent) Heroine will eventually become end up happy and together, the audience are given hints and sometimes hit over the head with exactly how dangerous, unhealthy and outright abusive this Dark Love Story is.

      I’ve only started following Madhubala – Ek Ishq Ek Junoon recently, when it’s starting to seem like perhaps the show isn’t glorifying an unhealthy relationship as some epic love story after all. Like you, I’m hoping that the show is using the romantic facade of a tale about a troubled, dark “hero” and the good-hearted heroine with the intention of questioning the desirability of a partner who is obsessive, possessive, self-centered and territorial, no matter how much he/she may claim to love you.

      And here, MEIEJ and the Dark Prince make a handful of meta-references about the Hero, Heroine, the love story, and how in the end the Hero and Heroine always end up together. While some in the audience may view this as foreshadowing, in actuality the Dark Prince’s story is one of an unreliable narrator’s, dripping with dramatic irony.

      In a recent episode Deepali tells RK something along the lines of both being cut from the same cloth and I thought that quite an accurate statement – there are similarities between their definitions of “love”, only Deepali is depicted at least as being aware of her status as a “vamp” while RK, being the unreliable narrator that he is (as you pointed out), remains under the delusion that he is Madhu’s “hero”. I guess only time can confirm for us whether all these meta references are foreshadowing or dramatic irony, but for now I’m inclined to agree with you that they are the latter.

      MEIEJ created a situation in which the basic phera ritual was left incomplete, thus making it a plot point within the story itself that the marriage is an incomplete marriage i.e. not valid.

      Yeah, I have to commend the makers for this one. As I mentioned in my blogpost, a marriage without the consent of both parties is in fact not a marriage but a crime, however our serials have seldom acknowledged this in the past, choosing instead to have the heroine nibhaao her “patni dharam” of taking care of the in-laws and the husband, even if she despises aforementioned husband. But even if in some twisted world where marriage rituals without the consent of one partner are suddenly considered to be binding not just for life but saat janam, by leaving the rituals themselves incomplete MEIEJ is surely trying to convey something about the nature of the marriage, the nature of the man in the marriage and the nature of the one-sided emotionally subservient relationship he’s expecting, and continues to expect, from the female in the “marriage”.

      And it’s a brilliant way to subvert the trope. The goal is to portray both sides to this “Dark Love Story,” showing the appeal and magnetism and enigmatic nature of it, while also unmasking the truth behind it: it’s an unhealthy, dangerous, obsessive and abusive dynamic and relationship–one which should never end up an Epic True Love for the Heroine, happy or tragic.

      And it’s a subversion that is sorely needed I have to add. Redemption is not an appropriate narrative choice for every single “dark and dangerous” “hero” in a love story and it certainly doesn’t seem remotely acceptable in the case of RK and Madhubala. As I mentioned here, given that Nautanki Telefilms was in some way involved behind Sapno Ke Bhanwar Mein, I feel like it isn’t a stretch to say that Brij Bhushan Pandey and Pooja Tiwari were precursors to the concept of RK and Madhubala. This scene of BBP’s seems indicative of the same mad malady of delusion that RK suffers from. BBJ lovingly claims to adore Pooja and wants to “protect her”. This after marrying her without informing her that he is already married, getting her fetus aborted when she is lying comatose in the hospital after a suspicious shoot-out, trying to cover up not only the initial shoot-out but also another attempt on her life at the hospital, and framing her friend and her sister in the entire shoot-out case by kidnapping Pooja and threatening harm to her.

      On social media I’ve read the complaint that RK is now shown as a villain, the character’s been mangled, the grey is giving way to black. But in actuality, what RK did, how he “married” her, it was never excusable

      Word.

      Interesting points about the relationship on MEIEJ being more a live-in relationship, and about the show perhaps making the viewers confront the uglier side of Junoon.

      Posted by Nakhrewali | April 29, 2013, 11:21 pm
      • You’ve brought up interesting points on RK Deepali comparison, as well the comparison with SKBM.

        I also want to add, I do think it’s quite possible for the Heroine to be taken in by the Dark Prince again during this dangerous game, however it may happen since there are a few varying possibilities. The key is what happens during and after her latest cycle of falling for the Dark Prince, and how it is depicted.

        Posted by Gattaca-Six | April 30, 2013, 8:23 am
        • Yeah, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Madhu’s being “taken in” again won’t be completely unrealistic – so many people get stuck in some vicious cycle of an abusive relationship which they can never seem to break free of. The problem would be if the depiction was done in a manner that validated that all that abuse was “worth it” due to the eventual redemption of the “hero”. Because then what sort of message would that be.

          Speaking of subliminal messaging, I’m now curious about how MEIEJ has employed the common serial convention of divine approval, especially in terms of RK and Madhubala. I know the serial started with Madhu’s mother managing to escape her abusive husband and his lackeys because of a durga procession – a clear indication of divine intervention. But what about Madhu – have there been any divine indicators in her tale so far?

          I do find it interesting that Sultan’s background theme is quite spiritually inclined – ofcourse the whole “Deva Deva” chant fits in well with his Mumbai background (since Mumbai folks have a strong affinity with Ganesha, in particular during Ganesha Chaturthi) but one can’t overlook that another interpretation could be that he is a “godsend” in this story.

          Posted by Nakhrewali | April 30, 2013, 11:19 pm
  3. This reminds me of Fringe discussions ❤

    Posted by Frivolous Thoughts | May 28, 2013, 9:24 pm

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