Sunday, November 30, 2003

Return of the ordinary

Television soaps started off on a realistic note to provide wholesome entertainment to the masses but slowly headed for an estrangement from the lifestyle of the common man. The divorce from middle-class realities perhaps got the final seal with Ektaa Kapoor’s lavishly mounted, upmarket dramas bombarding the tube. But the popularity of shows like Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin, Office Office, Khichdi, Astitva…, etc, symbolises the small screen’s remarriage to realism and a reassertion of middle-class identity, says Chetna Keer Banerjee.

Just when small screen soaps appeared to have reached the end of the road, having nothing better to do than flashing images of an elitist, opulent India into predominantly middle-class living rooms, a crop of different serials have given them a new turn by taking the common man’s living room to the tube instead. Slowly but surely, a handful of soaps are bringing about a reassertion of middle-class realities and values into a medium whose icons were increasingly flaunting flashy, upper crust lifestyles.

And more than anyone else, it has taken one ordinary-looking countenance to strip away the layers of artificiality from the greasepaint and gold-laden faces that the existing slew of soaps were beaming to the man in the street. Yes, the leading lady of the serial Jassi Jaisii Koi Nahin has come as a turning point for Indian television. This success story along with others like Office Office, Khichdi, Astitva`85Ek Prem Kahani, etc, have infused a certain amount of credibility into idiot box sagas which had virtually turned their face away from the everyday realities of an average viewer. Television soaps did start off on a realistic note but slowly headed for an estrangement from the lifestyle of the common man with the coming of the satellite channels. But the divorce from middle-class realities perhaps got the final seal with the ‘K" factor bombarding Indian television. The saas-bahu kind of ‘K’ serials churned out by Ektaa Kapoor did for television what the IT explosion did to the job market. Her Balaji Telefilms first fed the masses with an unrealistic, gilt-edged portrait of the Great Indian Family with its Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi genre of soaps. Other production houses even stepped in to create a hunger for a place in this affluent, ‘other’ India with shows like the high-profile Amitabh Bachchan-hosted Kaun Banega Crorepati. The more such vignettes the average Indian craved for, the more lavish and grandiose became the scale of the images being offloaded on the public psyche. The bubble grew bigger as the likes of Kasautii Zindagi Kay, Kutumb, Kahiin Kissii Roz, etc came riding the airwaves.

And it has probably taken not even a gust, just a whiff, of reality and freshness to make this bubble burst. The growing popularity of shows that mirror the dreams, aspirations and frustrations of middle-class India symbolises Indian television’s remarriage to realism and credibility. The tube appears to be witnessing a resurgence of a middle-class identity that had once ruled the airwaves in soaps like Hum Log, Buniyaad, Rajni, Udaan, Lifeline or Wagle ki Duniya.

Indian soaps have seen several phases of transition, sometimes reflecting contemporary social realities, sometimes exaggerating them. From the simple soaps and mythologicals of DD days, to the arrival of variety with satellite channels to the glut of soaps on family intrigues and dynastic squabbles with the intensification of channel wars—-the idiot box has crossed many a milestone. Also, it has thrown up many role models, some as easy to identify with as the detergent-endorsing Lalitaaji and some as far removed from the Maruti-driving middle-class India as its Opel Astra-riding heroes.

Reality darshan

In the days before the satellite revolution, it was Doordarshan’s sole prerogative to bring colour into the common man’s living room. Maybe out of lack of competition, due to budgetary constraints and revenue considerations that were not then dictated by blatant consumerism, the soaps on Doordarshan were never too door from real life. Nor were their settings so lavish as to border on extravagance or the exotic. This was, in fact, the phase of wholesome family entertainment. The dada and dadi of an average household could identify as easily with the characters of Hum Log or Buniyaad as a middle-class girl could with Kalyani of Udaan or a housewife with Rajni. The collective imagination of the youth took wings with Mungerilal ke Haseen Sapne but these dreams did not make them cross into the frontiers of the absurd . A stray Khandaan was then the common man’s only peep into the bedrooms or boardrooms of the rich..

MTV (de)generation

The satellite channels brought with them a role revolution. As TV images shed their staidness, even prudishness, much in the way skimpily-clad hostesses on MTV or Channel V discarded their clothes, soap protagonists too went the way of the Bold and Beautiful. Protagonists of soaps now shed their inhibitions and staid look and took to power dressing and designer wardrobes. This may have been reflective of the impact middle-class girls were making into real-life boardrooms. Afternoon soaps too came into their own with the lunchtime dose of drama and intrigue offered by Shanti, Swabhimaan and so on.

But the stridency and bitchiness of most of these new reel models stinked of negativity instead of mirroring women’s empowerment in a positive light. This was the stage of the MTV (de)generation.

Saans to saas

The power these female protagonists were shown wielding in boardrooms began translating into greater choices in the bedroom. Thus sprung up a rash of soaps that glamorised adultery and bed-hopping. Roles became less meaty as characters flaunted more flesh. Soap icons offered less inspiration and more insipidness. Reel characters swapped partners more rapidly than one could switch channels. Neena Gupta’s Saans breathed a whole new dimension into family sagas by bringing middle class infidelity out of the bedroom into the living room. Serials like Hasratein, Heena, Kora Kagaz, etc, glamorised the new code of morality wherein extra-marital relationships were not the exception, but the rule. Just when viewers had begun wondering where this spouse-swapping would lead, television discovered a fresh leading lady in Ektaa Kapoor, who made ‘k’apital out of an average housewife’s interest in kitchen politics.

The ‘K’ revolution

Ektaa’s slew of ‘K’ serials not only unleashed grossly overdressed and bedecked images of womanhood on the viewers but also made vamps come into their own. If her heroines—the bhabhis and bahus—-were swathed in the best of silks and crepes and the classiest of jewels, her new crop of vamps too flaunted upmarket wardrobes, designer sindoors and oodles of snobbishness and perversity. For every overdressed Parvati or Prerana, there was an underdressed, shrewish Pallavi or Komolika. The middle-class viewer never before got a taste of affluent India from such close quarters, right in his living room. The pre-Balaji brand of saas-bahu muqablas like Tu Tu Main Main were downmarket in comparisan to Ektaa’s lavishly mounted intrigues taking place in sprawling, fluoroscent-hued kitchens or behind mammoth stained glass-fitted doors.

The Jassi phenomenon

But then, the average viewer realised that this window shopping of affluence and grandeur didn’t translate into goodies in his bag. He tired of these tantalising images which only drove home the starkness of his own downmarket reality. Television was again at the crossroads when a middle-class girl tripped into a tired and bored public psyche and jolted the middle-class Indian out of this unreality-induced stupor.

Not that in pre-Jassi days there were no attempts to glorify the girl next door. Kkusum and Sanjeevani had started out as a celebration of the grit and spunk of a common girl in the face of odds. But somewhere along the way, their protagonists too got entrapped in the power games being played out in the drawing rooms of the rich and infamous.

But there have lately emerged a genre of soaps whose storylines don’t hang on plush, velvety curtains or on a brocade parade but on the props of credibility. Office Office and Shri Sifarishilal have enabled the common man to see corruption in a lighter vein. Astitva`85, Khichdi and others have emerged winners despite defying the ‘K’ formula because they explore the relationships of the common man or woman realistically without frills and melodrama.

As Jassi has come to symbolise the tube’s return to simplicity, it is up to the viewers to choose whether they want to live with the fresh face of middle-class India or hanker after the hard-to-get, flamboyant and opulent reel mirage.