It may not be fashionable to say it, but the Hindi soap operas — Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, for instance — actually might be doing us some good. Now if you are like me and flip through channels, hear overly dramatic music and change — don’t. Cable TV might be succeeding where government policy didn’t. Changing the way Indian women see their world.
How exactly does that happen? First off, this isn’t new. Back in the days when the public service broadcaster — Doordarshan (DD) — was launched, one of the guiding thoughts behind it was that the media can actually be used as a tool for development. It’s a simple premise. The visual image leaves a lasting imprint in our minds. And especially for those who cannot read, television is an effective tool for communication. Wilbur Schramm, author of Mass Media and National Development, was the proponent of this — what we now term ‘development communication’.
Instead of the government forcing changes in lifestyle, the population would become aware of a need that was not satisfied by their present behaviour. And then they would borrow behaviour that would come closer to meeting those needs. And so based on soaps in Latin America, Hum Log was the first Indian soap to try out this concept, with a good measure of success.
Post-liberalisation, TV channels have been flourishing. Some 112 million households in India own a television. Of those, 61 per cent have cable or satellite service, according to the National Readership Studies Council, 2006. And the casual observer may think that the role of educating through entertainment has been relegated to DD alone. To its credit, DD is living up to its mandate. Health shows like Kalyani, and their positive effects on rural populations, have been documented by external agencies. And now, it appears, cable TV is not too far behind.
A new study by Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago has revealed that cable TV has had a distinctively helpful effect on women in rural India. Among their findings, conducted over a three-year period in five states (Bihar, Goa, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Delhi), is that gender attitudes have been positively affected. Women don’t think their husband beating them is as acceptable now, son preference has gone down, female school enrolment has gone up, and birth spacing has increased. Now, there may be other factors contributing to these changes, no doubt, but one thing is for certain. Soap operas are changing the way women see their role in society and in families, and TV has a part to play in it. And changing expectations is the first step to changing reality.
Examples. When Tulsi (of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) finds out her son raped a woman, she sides with the victim. In the end, she shoots her son. It may be a tad dramatic (we are talking about a soap opera, after all), but she stands up for what is right. In Saloni Ka Safar, a girl’s complexion is symbolic of the Indian bias against dark skin.
You are allowed to raise your eyebrow at this point. Really, you say, are those overdressed women in the prime-time Hindi soap opera world are changing rural India? Yes. And you know why? Because, for the majority of the country, television is the window to the world. And while the city folk may want to ape the lavish lifestyles of their on-screen heroes — some people partly blame the big fat Indian wedding phenomenon on these serials — rural women admire their independence. Think about it. At their basest levels, studies have shown that exposure to television in rural areas have had an effect on latrine building and fan usage. And even more amazing is a mother welcoming a girl child because she learnt on television that she too can grow up to be a powerful, independent woman. And that education is key, so she sends her daughter to school with her brothers.
But what is it about chiffon-clad city women in particular that appeals? Because underneath the make-up and diamonds, the problems are common. Rich yes, but the women of Indian soaps are deeply traditional. Some work, but many are full-time homemakers. The problems — inner wheelings and dealings of joint families — strike a chord. They go to the temple, hold havans, they even observe Karva Chauth. And millions all over the country cheer them on as they fight for a place of respect within the family.
That’s just it. A click of a button and they take a walk around the world to ease their troubled minds.