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The Best In Television: That’s Right, Indian Television

When was the last time you saw a film with a woman cop?

Don’t dismiss Indian Television so easily. There’s some interesting stuff happening at the periphery of your daily soap.

BaalikaVadhu

It has become a source of pride for young urban Indian’s to download the latest Game of Thrones episodes on the sly, and to turn their noses up on desi Television. But – as we’ve discovered over the last few weeks- there’s a lot to admire about the soap factory.

For one, they continue to respect their women actresses -especially those over 30- much more than the big shiny cousins in Bollywood do. Then, so many theatre actors have found late-career fame playing slightly OTT snivelling vamps and villains on the small screen. And also, any day spent watching Hindi television will help you answer the questions that keep you awake at night. Whatever happened to Ayub Khan? Is that Zarina Wahab? Why did Vatsal Seth‘s career not survive Tarzan: The Wonder Car? Isn’t an occasional detour into the world of Television well worth it just to help you with these pressing queries?

A quick wathc- through of the biggest and bestest of Hindi TV leads us to declare these 5 definite positives in a barren landscape

Working Women

Quick.  Think of your favourite Hindi movie from last year, and now tell us what the heroine played in it. Chances are that she either played a club dancer, or someone who didn’t work at all. But the women on television are often portrayed as women with careers and aspirations. Among all the seriously wonky gender politics in India’s biggest show- Diya aur Baati Hum, it is worth remembering that at its core, the show is about a woman who worked hard to become an IPS officer with the support of her halwaai husband.  Just this year had a longish story track about Sandhya (the protagonist) getting over her inhibitions and excelling in the gruelling training required to become a police officer. And while the husband’s large family interferes with her career in a million ways, it IS refreshing to see a lead who is so driven by her ambition, with a partner who -instead of feeling uncomfortable with her success- roots for her every step of the way.

In another popular show Yeh Hain Mohabbatein, the female protagonist Ishita plays a paediatrician even if this is tempered by the dramatic irony (ohh my stars) of her being unable to having any children of her own.

Strong female protagonists

It is also a pleasant change of pace to have a medium that is driven almost entirely by what women want (that’s why its the men who are always just coming out of showers or taking off their shirts). But really, a lot of television portrays matriarchal families with mothers ruling the roost. One of Indian Televisions most likeable protagonists Anandi may have begun the show as a child bride, but over the course of the last three years has delved into tricky social issues such as widow remarriage, her own remarriage to a better man when her childhood betrothed had an affair with another woman, her coming into her own as a social worker and village sarpanch, and her refusal to blame the victim of a sexual assault.

Yes, when the show began, its message against child marriage was diluted by the immense cuteness of the child stars, which made audience condone their relationship instead of rooting against it. But in the last year or so the serial has made admirable strides in presenting a slightly-saintly but fundamentally strong woman protagonist.

Religion and Minorities

Indian Cinema doesn’t do minorities. There is always a namaaz reading or cross-bearing side actor in Karan Johar movies notable for her piety, but stories built around people from other religions are rare. One may argue that modern Bollywood is truly secular in that the religion of protagonists almost has no bearing on the stories but that would be overlooking the fact that our Rahuls and Karans and Jais far outweigh Anwars and Alis as the leads. In last year’s top 10 grossers, when a character’s Islamic roots was remarked upon (in Raanjhana’s Zoya), it was also clumsily implied that this somehow made her less trustworthy and reliable. 

But Indian Television is seeing some sort of a Muslim social renaissance  Over the last few months, we have intermittently become deeply invested in the saga of Asad and Zoya in Qubool Hai, a show which has Muslim protagonists who wear jeans and make up, have complicated family relationships and run vast business empires. That kind of unremarked Islam is rare in Bollywood, and the success of the show has led to a couple of recent wannabe shows such as Beintehaa.  A large reason behind the success of these shows is the nous of Gul Khan, a producer/director who with her Mills and Boons based plotting and lavish productions is giving the queen bee Ektaa Kapoor a run for her money.

Sony’s Effort With Weekly Dramas

 There IS one complaint about Indian Television that we completely sympathise with- its absolute inability to handle the weekly show format.  Sony has occasionally tried to change this with first its tie-up with YashRaj Films to produce one-season hits like Powder and Mahi Vey, and with its long running pulp franchises like CID and Adaalat. The former failed miserably, but the later- in spite of being of questionable quality- chug on merrily.  Unlike almost all hour long drama formats (including the much feted 24), the only one hour shows that the Indian audience seem to have the time for are those from the CID family.  Their combination of shlock, twists, gore and stock characters remain the rare soap-free excursion on Indian Television.

It is because of this commitment to look for ideas outside the conventional soaps, that we wish Sony TV all the best with Yudh- a new Amitabh Bachchan starred helmed by Anurag Kashyap. After all, AB made entire families spend their weekly entertainment allowance on a quiz show!  Mayhaps he can interest them in a show with a  finite story line?

The Reality Shows

No there’s nothing there. From Jhalak Dikhla Ja to Dance India Dance to Entertainment Ke Liye.. these remain dreck of the worst kind. Overproduced, garish, with little sense of continuity and drama , and an over reliance on film stars going through the motions while promoting the latest movie, we have nothing good to say about them. And all we can hope for is some way to save the divine Madhuri Dikshit from judging this trash.

While we wouldn’t advise getting addicted to one of these television programs (trust us, we live from episode to episode of Ek Hasina Thi at this moment), we do recommend that you occasionally seek out local television shows. At their worst, they are reductive, have regressive gender politics and are interminable. But at their best, they shine a light on those aspects of Indian life that the mansions in NRI’d Bollywood blissfully ignore.

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