18 Sep 2021
In his book Sach Kahun Toh, Indian actress Neena Gupta tells how her TV show was suddenly taken off the air, after achieving huge success in Saans (Star Plus, 1999).
Ekta Kapoor Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was launched and things changed overnight.
“It had a new format, it tapped into a new kind of market (and audience mindset), and its shows were every day of the week instead of once a week,” she writes.
“I used to be Star’s sweetheart and now I’ve been fired without even a proper explanation,” she adds.
Similar scenes were playing out around this time in other conference halls in Mumbai, with Vinta Nanda Tara (1993) was taken off the airwaves of Zee TV when Chandraprakash Dwivedi took over.
It was the top rated show when it was canceled, along with Raahat, the first daily series on satellite TV, Ummeed and V3Plus.
All of them were capturing eyeballs and doing very well.
All of them had strong female protagonists.
Dr Dwivedi told her that his kind of woman “didn’t deserve to have a place in the media” before asking staff to escort her out of her office. Overnight, her business, Traciname, which she had built brick by brick collapsed.
Has television let down India, especially Indian women?
Kitu Gidwani was the star of the highly regarded Doordarshan soap, Swabhimaan (1995), where she plays Svetlana, the mistress of a business tycoon, who dies leaving her to take care of an extended family of fortune hunters.
She describes the past two decades as the “lost years of television” with executives hiding behind their desks and their bottom lines.
His argument is clear: why would we deprive the middle class that once saw itself reflected on television?
Why are progressive shows like Swabhimaan and Shanti: Ek Aurat ki Kahani (Doordarshan, 1994), epics such as Buniyaad (1987) and Tamas (1988), disappear from Indian television, with stellar writers like Manohar Shyam Joshi and Shobhaa De, and acclaimed directors like Ramesh Sippy and Govind Nihalani?
The short answer is numbers. Once Star TV discovered its successful formula of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and Kyunki, others followed. The television gained momentum, not depth, as satellite television increased its penetration and brought the woman firmly back into the house.
Domestic politics have replaced social causes, and Saas-Bahu relations have replaced all others – romances, friendships, working relationships.
Anil Wanvari, CEO of IndianTelevision.com, points out that as television spreads to small towns, the notion of regressive regression changes.
Additionally, TV is family viewing, while OTT is personal viewing.
OTT is mainly consumed in urban centers; especially the originals.
They can be consumed whenever you want as they are video on demand, while TV shows are viewed by appointment, in which the content is curated for specific audiences.
Even in OTT, there is growing concern about social and political violence, which has led to calls for regulation.
But on TV too, the woman slowly comes out of the confines of the kitchen, to assert her independence and regain her freedom.
One of the most popular shows on TV right now is Anupamaa where the protagonist rebels against years of being put down by her husband for filing for divorce.
Adapted from the Star Jalsha show Sreemoyee, it features Rupali Ganguly as the eponymous Anupamaa who decides to stand on her own by creating her own dance academy and becoming a restaurant owner, becoming a successful businesswoman even as the career of her husband collapses.
Another popular show, also adapted from Bengali, is Imlie (Star Plus, 2020) where a young villager is forced to marry a young journalist, she takes refuge one night but then learns what her rights are.
The soap opera and reality show format, represented by the continued popularity of long-form shows such as criminal patrol (Sony, 2003) and India Saavdhaan (Life OK and Star Bharat, 2012) – seems frozen in time on TV, from the days of KBC and K-soaps on Star Plus.
Surely 21 years is not enough to make a change?
Of Oudan (Doordarshan, 1989), where a young woman, Kalyani, fulfills her dream of becoming an IPS officer; in Tulsi, the daughter of a priest who keeps the Virani family united through thick and thin, fishing for morality even when it comes to shooting her own son in Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Star Plus, 2000): to Anandi, the child-bride-turned-sarpanch-daughter in Balika vadhu (Colors, 2008): and now Anupamaa (Star Plus, 2020), an older woman learning the value of economic independence, although late in life Indian television may well come full circle in giving women back the self-reliance they once reveled in.
Don’t hold your breath, however. Like Gupta told me when I asked him to do it again Saans now a TV station wanted the show but kept asking it to rewrite and focus on the younger generation. “And I kept saying that the story was about Priya and her relationship with her former husband, Gautam. But they didn’t want to listen.”
This couple have never met.
(The author is a seasoned journalist and author, most recently of The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India)