Small is big
Indian soaps and sitcoms rediscover the power of tales of ordinary folk set in real milieu as the old order is eased out of the frame, writes
Soaps like Bidaai narrate stories that explore the trials and tribulations of girls in the context of India’s age-old patriarchy.
Recession or no
recession, the show must go on. It does. The Indian television
industry has always managed to devise ways to stay afloat. But
no matter how hard it tries to keep the effects of the global
economic slowdown at bay, keen observers of the game can detect
a clear shift in the strategies and approaches of the leading
broadcasters in the Indian satellite television space.
In the topsy-turvy
world of Indian television where viewer loyalty is fickle and
you are only as good as the last episode of your number one
show, the key players — producers, advertisers and
broadcasters are invariably driven by their survival instincts
— have gone in for a complete overhaul of programming and
The old stars of
the small screen have given way to a phalanx of new faces. The
glitzy interiors of wealthy urban households have been replaced
by the more modest environs of rural or semi-urban dwellings as
the five top Hindi general entertainment channels — Star Plus,
Colors, Zee TV, Sony Entertainment Television (SET) and NDTV
Imagine — slug it out on a weekly basis for market leadership.
The likes of Aman Verma and Shweta
Tiwari have been forced to reinvent themselves as stars of
Ad spends have
declined sharply in the last eight to 10 months and naturally so
have television production budgets. The changing rules of the
game have compelled the key players, both broadcasters and
producers, to look for programming ideas that ensure the highest
mileage in terms of viewership at the lowest cost. Today, the
industry pays its actors and technicians much less than it did
about a year ago.
The result: many
actors who ruled the roost for years riding on the popularity of
Ekta Kapoor’s ‘K’ serials are now either out of work or
are being forced into reality shows of various hues. The likes
of Aman Verma and Shweta Tiwari have been forced to reinvent
themselves as stars of reality television.
to take any major risk anymore," says Dheeraj Kumar of
Creative Eye, a television software production company that has
been in the business since the mid-1990s. "In today’s
economically shaky situation, you can’t afford to be different
simply for the sake of being different`85 So you have to come up
with ideas that have an instant connect with the audience."
revolution that is unfolding before our eyes today actually
began well before the global meltdown kicked in. Balika Vadhu,
a serial that had no known stars, premiered on a new-fangled
entertainment channel, Colors, in July last year and went on to
push long-running shows like Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kasauti
Zindagi Kay off the air. It also rocketed the channel to the
top within nine months of its launch.
Despite well-known names in the cast, many serials like Sujata (Aman Verma and Indrani
Haldar), Waaris (Ashish Vidyarthi and Iqbal Khan) and Kahani Hamari Mahabharat Ki
(Ronit Roy, Sakshi Tanwar and Hiten Tejwani) flopped.
themes and backdrops underwent a transformation in the wake of
the runaway success of Balika Vadhu, several big-ticket
serials found the going tough. Despite well-known names in the
cast, shows like Sujata (Aman Verma, Indrani Haldar and
Sheeba), Waaris (Ashish Vidyarthi and Iqbal Khan) and Kahani
Hamari Mahabharat Ki (Ronit Roy, Sakshi Tanwar, Hiten
Tejwani and Anita Hassnandani) flopped. "It was a mystery
to all of us," says a writer involved with the production
of Waaris. "The serial had a great cast, a fantastic
script and a prime-time slot. It had everything going for it.
But it just didn’t take off."
failure of Kahani Hamari Mahabharat Ki - it was from the
Balaji Telefilms stable — caused a chain reaction and Star
Plus, which was banking on another big Mahabharata-inspired
serial being produced by Bobby Bedi — backed out of the deal.
Balaji Telefilms, which was planning to launch a channel of its
own after its bitter differences with Star Plus got out of hand,
had to defer the plan.
A wave of panic
hit the television industry. Many serials went back to the
drawing board — characters were killed halfway through, some
were packed off to mental asylums and storylines were changed
wholesale, all with the purpose of reducing costs and enhancing
viability. But these knee-jerk responses, made more out of sheer
desperation rather than in response to any well thought-out
damage control plans, were doomed to failure.
characters have to be real," says Purnendu Shekhar, the
writer of successful serials like Astitva, Saat Phere, Balika
Vadhu and Jyoti. "And to make them real and tangible
you have to place them in real and life-like situations.
Rambling dialogues and ridiculous camera angles do not work
anymore. Your serials must have something to say."
The result is
there for all to see: the general entertainment television
channels have moved away from escapist storylines about the
filthy rich to embrace themes that revolve around real social
issues that were once the preserve of the national broadcaster,
Doordarshan. Serials like Balika Vadhu, Na Aana Iss Desh
Laado, Agle Janam Mohe Betiya Hi Kijo and Bandini,
which variously tackle themes like child marriage, female
infanticide, dowry harassment and women’s empowerment, have
found instant takers among viewers and advertisers.
like Bidaai, Jyoti, Dehleej, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Saat
Phere and Betiyaan narrate stories that are rooted in
recognisable milieu and explore the trials and tribulations of
girls in the context of India’s age-old patriarchy.
Television in this
country of over one billion people now looks and feels very
different from what it did early last year. The artificial glitz
of the ‘K’ serials has been jettisoned, hopefully for good.
While pure entertainment has moved into the domain of reality
television, the fictitious worlds, being conjured up by the
soaps and sitcoms, are drawing their inspiration essentially
from the social environment that we live in. A recession does
have its uses for it forces a change in pace, often for the
Balika Vadhu, a soap with no known stars, premiered on a newly launched Colors, in July last year and went on to push long-running shows like
Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kasauti Zindagi Kay
off the air. It also rocketed the channel to the top within nine months of its launch.
believe that the metamorphosis has stemmed from the fact that
the urban upmarket television channels have realised that
viewers in the big cities are no longer as committed as they
once were to the predictable fare that they were dishing out on
prime time. They have numerous other entertainment options
unlike viewers in the smaller towns and semi-urban areas that
are now being pulled into the orbit of influence of the
frontline Hindi entertainment channels. So, as scriptwriter
Purnendu Shekhar points out, "clutter-breaking ideas"
are in vogue and "a credible cultural and social feel"
has become a must for television serials.
As a consequence,
Balika Vadhu is set in a Rajasthani village, Na Aana Is
Des Laado is the story of a Haryana hamlet and Jugni
Chali Jalandhar travels into the heart of the small-town
Punjab. On the other hand, reality shows like Rakhi Ka
Swayamvar, Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao, India’s Got Talent, Dus
Ka Dum and the controversial Sach Ka Saamna, among
numerous others, use generic entertainment devices to keep
audiences across the country hooked to the antics of ordinary
people looking for their 15 seconds of fame as well as
celebrities and film stars.
Even as Rakhi
Sawant has the entire nation in thrall as she goes about
choosing a bridegroom for herself on a widely watched television
programme and Salman Khan delights his fans with his
no-holds-barred demeanour on a game show that thrives on the
presence of celebrity participants, region-specific stories have
emerged as the order of the day in the sphere of television
fiction. Viewers now have the best of both worlds.
Even on an
all-comedy channel like Sab TV, the focus is on ordinary folk.
In Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chasma, viewers are treated to the
highs and lows of the lives of a disparate bunch of people who
reside in a cooperative society. Though it isn’t a terribly
original idea in terms of its theme, the sitcom works because it
never tries to outreach itself and stays within the parameters
of the genre. The idea is to know what works and what doesn’t
- the recessionary trends have served to cut out the flab of
Asit H. Modi, the
producer of Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma, says:
"Budgets have been squeezed all right, but channels don’t
usually compromise with respect to quality. They do not baulk at
spending money on shows that are delivering the goods, but they
waste no time in tightening the purse strings when a show doesn’t
click." It is easy to see why opulent sets and elaborate
costumes are out of favour at present.
A freshness of
ideas is sweeping through the cash-strapped television industry
also because the budgetary constraints have motivated
broadcasters to turn to smaller production houses and
independent software producers "who offer good quality at
lower prices". And that is also precisely the reason why
broadcasters are investing in new talent to drive the next phase
The likes of
Smriti Irani, Sakshi Tanwar, Shweta Tiwari and Sangeeta Ghosh
dominated the scene for close to a decade. Today’s female
television stars are a totally fresh lot - Avika Gor and Vibha
Anand of Balika Vadhu, Sneha Wagh of Jyoti, Hina
Khan of Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai and Ratan Rajput of Agle
Janam Mohe Betiya Hi Kijo, Parul Chauhan of Bidaai,
Aastha Chaudhary Baabul Ka Aangan Chhutey Na, among a
host of others.
But there seems to
be one warning signal: the Indian television industry has got
over its ‘K’ fixation only to be gripped by another. ‘B’
is the new ‘K’. Consider the slew of titles that begin with
the second letter of the English alphabet - Balika Vadhu,
Bidaai, Betiyaan, Baabul Ka Aangan Chhutey Na, Baa Bahoo aur
Baby and the upcoming Bhagyavidhata. The list is
rapidly swelling. Viewers who want variety - these are the very
people, whose growing distaste for Ekta Kapoor’s fluffy
fabrications, was instrumental in bringing about a dramatic
change in focus — would be hoping that the new fixation does
not go beyond what it is at the moment — a mere numerological
obsession. If it does, we might witness the beginning of yet
another avoidable rut.