Scenes from Junoon
It’s like one big bubble bath. Bombay, that is, with its soap opera factories working round the clock to churn out serials as if there were no tomorrow.
There are almost 500 pilots of soaps in search of a channel. About 19 soaps are being aired on Doordarshan and satellite television. Scores of others are in the pipeline.
Even TV serials such as Ajnabi, Rajani (round two) and Junoon have been transformed into soaps by throwing in sub-plots, relationships, and that tantalising hook at the end of each episode. The reason: soaps are forever, especially in the days of satellite television and a national television desperately seeking software.
We are obviously in the Age of the Soap. And not only are the story lines similar, but many of the actors are the same. Actor Vikram Gokhale is in about nine soap operas. Anju Mahendru, every producer’s idea of the urban sophisticate and avatar of ambition, is next in ubiquity.
Even the locale is often the same: starved of studios and time, producers move from one hotel front along Juhu to another with their group of actors.
India is even exporting soap operas: UTV has dubbed two of its soaps – Shanti, its new daily soap, and Lifeline – in English for public broadcast stations in Canada and Japan and the inflight services of a number of international airlines.
But what is significant about this recent eruption of soaps is not their numbers, though we are in mega-serial land with soaps such as Pritish Nandy’s Yudh and Mahesh Bhatt’s Swabhiman, scripted by Shobha De, geared to go past 500 episodes and handled by producers who have taken over an entire floor in Film City and have another studio floor elsewhere. It’s the content.
|Extramarital affairs, women flirting with younger men and the
confessions of a homosexual, that’s the stuff these soaps are made of.
If there’s a Brave New World in India, it’s in soap opera land. There’s a quiet little revolution taking place on the small screen.
Extramarital affairs (almost all the soaps), teenaged girls slapping their father’s friends (Tara), illegitimate children (Kismet, Scandal, EL TV’s new soap); women – desi Mrs Robinsons – having affairs with lovers the ages of their sons (Asman Se Aage); even confessions of a young gay man in Tara are the stuff that soaps are made of. And accepted.
“India needs a change of attitude. And soaps are perfect vehicles to prepare people to break the walls of inhibitions and question everything,” explains screen writer Kamlesh Pandey, of Zee TV.
Pandey feels that they have to “add more shocks” to keep up the startle-level. “Tara broke lots of rules and shot dead a lot of holy cows.” But the beer-swilling Amita Nangia in Tara and the extramarital affairs in many of the other serials are now accepted as “routine”, according to him.
Popular cinema has rarely handled the subject of adultery – especially if it’s to do with a married woman. Even parallel cinema usually tiptoes round the subject with the few exceptions of Arth and Dhrishti. But women having their bit on the side on the small screen has not caused more than a few ripples.
Navneet Nishan’s open flaunting of her adulterous affair in Andaz doesn’t make her a villainous out-caste. Many viewers actually admire her guts. Life after Mills and Boon, “the sweet sixteen image has gone, it’s boring,” says Karuna Samtani of EL TV and one of the brains behind the success of Zee TV.
One of the reasons for the differing standards on the big and small screen, producers explain, could be the fact that TV viewers are more educated and liberal than those who flock to cinema halls. It could also be that American soap operas such asThe Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbaraand, of late,Dynasty have paved the way for this volte-face.
Not only is it keeping up with those American Joneses, it’s keeping up with your own neighbours on the channel Zee TV opened the floodgates.
Even the producers of the more staid Junoon, which has recently become the most popular soap on Doordarshan, have felt the need to add some oomph. Director Sunil Mehta is bringing in actress Shashikala back from the cold to play a Joan Collins-like manipulative, bitchy figure as in Dynasty.
Tara: preaching is out as the simpering, sacrificing woman gives way to the confident woman of substance
The sea change on the small screen is, however, more than just skin-deep, or even sex-deep.
The real change is attitudinal. Many of the soaps are about the changing woman in India. The woman of the ’90s. “My Lajoji was a strong woman but she was a family-bound woman. Today, they are career-oriented,” says Ramesh Sippy, whose Buniyaad was among the first soaps.
The modern age is also the age of the woman of substance. It is an Anju Mahendru in Asman Se Aage, or in any number of soaps playing the middle-aged woman who runs a huge corporation and uses her brains and smiles to keep her empire.
In Ved Rahi’s Rishte, Sharmila Tagore plays a woman who left her poet-husband and now heads a huge group of companies, while her indulgent second husband (Saeed Jaffrey) carries on with polo and snooker.
“She has become a woman of the world and the serial shows how she deals with her juniors. With peons, or the security guys who wait for her morning and late night smiles,” says Samtani.
If most of Bollywood is about the simpering, sacrificing side of the archetypal Indian woman, men are now getting their comeuppance on the small screen. “Women are now talking eyeball to eyeball,” says Pritish Nandy, who is producing Yudh, a big serial about corporate wars in six languages with over 500 episodes planned. “The karma dharma is over. Women want to do something with their lives.”
Interestingly enough, there’s even an upbeat rural soap opera, Shiela, which subtly gets across the message of the need to educate young girls. Scripted by Vinita Nanda – who also writes Tara, has three more soaps on the anvil and is considered the Queen of Soap – the serial doesn’t preach.
Through its web of relationships and the protagonist’s use of more indirect methods to change hide-bound attitudes, it manages to advocate change. Which is the original raison d’ etre of soap operas.
In answer to the male bonding of the big screen is the female bonding in serials such asTara orBanegi Apni Baat. One reason for the strong female characters is the fact that women comprise the largest single segment for the advertisers. In fact, the advertisements being made now project a woman who knows what she wants and gets it.
There is, however, a reversal of roles at a far more fundamental level. The young are tripping the old, the women are showing up the men, and traditional values are being offloaded to make room for the new. In the post-liberalisation era, greed is good, and the meek shall not inherit the world.
Kurukshetra: Corporate wars are in
And it is not for nothing that at least five of the soaps now being shown deal with corporate wars:Parivartan, Kurukshetra, YudhandParampara.
Pandey, who has scripted Kurukshetra, believes that the soaps are only mirroring the hugely altered social landscape in which greed is among the strongest motivating forces today. “Greed is here, and we now acknowledge it openly. Even accept it. If you are not greedy, you can’t succeed. And life is governed by success.”
Karma, then, is for the birds. And has to do with the aspirations of a growing middle class. New money is pushing out the old, and with it, old values as well.
Most of the soaps are closely monitored, and the characteristics of the protagonists changed according to the audience response. For instance, Vinita Nanda explains that when her character Tara cries a lot, “the TRP (television ratings) goes down. She is supposed to be a fighter, and if she cries, not in public”.
People also identify with the dishonest characters, if they are successful. Says Anand Mahendroo who is producing Asman Se Aage and has directed Dekh Bhai Dekh. “The honest and nice one is referred to by viewers in letters as a chhakka, impotent. In fact, one of my characters says that she is the keep of a rich man and the audience loved this kind of honesty.”
|There are almost 500 pilots of soaps in search of a channel and score of others in the pipeline.|
If soaps do mirror society more faithfully than do films and TV sitcoms, then it’s obviously the youth who are now pulling the carpets from under tradition and the older generation.
“We should accept the young as they are. We should follow the young; they are the generation of tomorrow. Not Gandhiji ne kaha tha,” says producer Raman Kumar who is behind Tara, and has several soaps in various stages. Some of the new soaps are predominantly about young people such as Labellas, revolving around a university canteen.
Soaps, in fact, seem to be the preserve of the young. And they are certainly the new schools for training TV writers, actors and directors. Kushan Nandy, who directs Yudh, for instance, is 21, and not a university graduate. Tanuja Chandra who is directing many episodes of Plus Channel’s Zameen Asman is in her early 20s. As is Imesh Reshmaiya, screen writer and one of the producers of Andaz.
The young breed may have taken over soapland and infused it with energy. But soap operas are still being churned out on a hit and miss basis, with scripts being written on location, locations being found at the last minute, and cassettes being ready moments before the flights to Delhi.