The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 4, 2001

A question of female identity
By Tamanna Kanwar

THE vampish "other woman" Manisha in Saans or the quintessential Indian bahu Parvati in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki; the conniving saas in Kyunki.... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi or her evocatively named daughter-in-law Tulsi; the darling of the masses, the ever smiling didi of the blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? or the rebellious wife in Kora Kagaz, both incidentally played by the same actress — will the real woman please step out of these stereotypes and stand up?

Serials like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi perpetuate gender stereotypesSuch are the binary paradigms within which a woman’s role is subscribed till date by our society. The adjectives used to describe the "real" woman or her reflections in media consist of baffling pairs of opposites — passive-aggressive; possessive-self sacrificing; frigid-lustful; materialistic-spiritual———either a Madonna or a whore. The only thing that such contradictory descriptions have in common is that they are both clichéd and that the standard of measurement used is that of men. Men are the norm; women are subsidiary.


The parameters used to define the ideal or real woman or tradition or moralities are laid down by men; women it seems have little or no say in the matter. So is the case with what we often laud as Indian culture and family values exemplified at its best (or perhaps worst) in movies like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? and serials like Kyunki... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. What we see in such works is nothing but a hierarchical and patriarchal set up that perpetuates stereotypes. Whether this is synonymous with what we put under the blanket term "Indian tradition" is highly questionable. Cultural conditioning is the means by which injustices against women are perpetuated and sustained. Unfortunately for us, the media instead of fighting such sex role stereotyping serves to further reinforce them thus becoming a part of the problem instead of helping us fight them.

One doesn’t need to be an avid TV viewer to realise the truth of what is being referred to. Almost every channel has its own rendition of the eternal family saga, a variant on the basic theme of a joint family presided over by a Maaji or a Babuji and the trials and tribulations therein with the eventual triumph of tradition. If Star Plus has the immensely popular Kyunki... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Zee has Amanat, while Sony has Kanyadan and Ghar Ek Mandir. However it is Star Plus, intent on wooing the desi audience, that leads the way. In a host of confusing names like Kalash, Shagun, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, it is Balaji Telefilms’ Kyunki..., launched in last July , that rules the roost. Being the second-most watched programme, the now famous Virani khandan has aptly been often called "Family Number One".

The basic plot of Kyunki... is a usual run-of-the-mill family saga. As the title indicates the underlying conflict is between the saas, Savita, and her bahu, Tulsi. This saas however has her own saas as well. The elderly Ba, having suffered at the hands of her three bahus, is now one with Tulsi, encouraging her to hold on to her own without succumbing to the pressures and manipulations that are all pervasive around her. The extended family the serial portrays has enabled the use of all the stock devices that one can possibly think boy marrying a poor girl against his mother’s wishes; the benevolent grand parents; the "other woman" trying to lure someone else’s husband; an unmarried pregnant cousin who, once married, is rather unwilling to adjust in the house of her not-so-well-to-do in-laws; another cousin who is bringing up her husband’s illegitimate child from a pre-marital relationship; still another cousin who is determined to marry the girl of his choice against his mother’s wishes......clichés abound and so does confusion.

As in all such family dramas, there is a clear demarcation between the external world of business and economic affairs that belongs to the men and the internal world of domestic affairs (read intrigues) where women reign supreme. Even a seemingly innocuous event like a birthday has immense scope for all kinds of moves and counter moves. This is a world in which men are conspicuous by their absence. When they do make their presence felt it is either as unwitting participants in some plot hatched by one of the women or as guardians of the family name. Women justify their existence by decking themselves daily in expensive sarees and jewellery, adoring their foreheads with sindoor and trying to outwit each other to best of their abilities. All that they have to show by way of a life beyond the four walls of domesticity is an apology of a dance school for one of the senior bahus, coming rather late in the day in any case. Incidentally, it is the offshoot of one of the many plots and just opens up a Pandora’s box in as much as it offers endless scope for more intrigue. When it comes to the question of khandan’s pratishtha, men are the unequivocal wielders of authority. All hell breaks lose when one of the numerous cousins is found to be pregnant before marriage. That her future is in jeopardy, the tremendous turmoil she herself must be going through, is least of anyone’s concern. All the mayhem is about the family name, izzat, that is at stake. And it doesn’t take much for her hitherto doting father to write her off mentally...his anger and anguish can be understood, but him turning his back on his beloved daughter when she needs him the most, is disconcerting to say the least.

Not surprisingly, no one in the family seems to have any independent existence of any sort least of all the women who exist simply as appendages to the men. Privacy being a concept that is alien to such households, you cannot be blamed for confusing one son with the other or mistaking one cousin for the other. Doors are always open not only to each other’s room but also to each other’s life making way for easy interference. Sharing, caring and supporting each other is one thing; being a shadow participant is quite another. In fact all the characters are subsumed by the all-pervasive "Virani" tag.... take that away and you are left with mere puppets without any life.

And now the eldest son, Mihir, has died. However one cannot rule out the possibility of his coming back from the dead, as it were — the face of the body was charred beyond recognition, thus leaving immense scope for dramatic comebacks, if need be. The attempts to create a family plunged in grief and shock simply fails; the melancholic music, the slow zoom-ins, the nostalgic flashbacks and the impeccable silks replaced by equally impeccable whites notwithstanding. Duniya ujdi ek suhagan ki... jeevan bhar rona is now her fate we are told, the contrast made all the more stark with Tulsi clad in bridal red surrounded by white and then clad in white herself. Not that one trivialises her grief and trauma but is a man the sine qua non of a woman’s existence? If not her husband then the newly born son now has to give meaning to her otherwise futile existence. Is there nothing in the life beyond for a widow except tears and misery and pathetic attempts at defining her life through another man — her son? The guardians of patriarchy would like it to be so.

Sadly Kyunki... is not the only serial that covertly upholds and promotes such subversive traditions. The difference between it and others serials of the same genre is of degree rather than kind. What is perhaps more disturbing is the difference we find in the way women are portrayed in the serials depicting Indian households and those aired on Star World. The women in Ally McBeal or Friends are nothing like those in Kahaani Ghar... or Kyunki.... Professionally competent, in control of their lives they are not to be held back by any stereotypical demands made on them.

Unfortunately for us it is Kyunki... that is the second-most watched programme across all channels after KBC. Perhaps one of the reasons for its success is the strong element of empathy it evokes.... what it depicts is probably kahaani ghar ghar ki. If art does indeed mirror life then this is a very sorry state of affairs to be in. We may be well into the new millennium but seem nowhere near to breaking the rigid moulds that society has cast women in since time immemorial. It seems quite pointless to blame the producers for giving us such specimens of anachronistic thinking. Such programmes are not only made but also do well because this is what we want. What a famous literary critic had pointed out regarding the English stage a long time back is quite in place in this context as well....

"The stage but echoes back the public voice Drama’s laws drama’s patrons give..."

If these movies and serials are mega hits it is a sad comment on the audience who after all give the laws that govern the box office. One can only hope for some kind of a self-imposed sense of responsibility by the media. But for them it is a matter of making a living so that the responsibility eventually rests with the audience. The question that Madhuri Dixit teasingly asked "Hum Aapke Hain Kaun?" points to a more fundamental question — "Hum Hain Kaun?" When the identity of the self is so indeterminate, how can its relation to others be defined in any meaningful way?

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