Tuesday, September 27, 2011

All Extended Families Are Psychotic

So I’m watching the riots and Eastenders and Vanessa GoldnotTaniaTurner going MeNtAl and rubbish moaning Zainab consistently FAILING to approach anything like the terrifying matriarchs I have known and then Coronation Street and insipid awful AWFUL Sunita telling her trademark comedy Asian interfering Aunties to “Shut Up*” in some whimsical aside and I’m thinking Nnghhhhhhhhhhhhg and reading this sneering, excessively exclamation-marked blog about soap operas in India (http://www.littleindia.com/news/125/ARTICLE/8175/2011-07-12.html) and I find myself perplexed by the writer who seems to be under the impression that soap operas in India represent some sort of bold march of wimmins rights against the patriarchy. Because he is almost right but hopelessly wrong about why.

"Last time..."

First, the basics. Indian Soap Operas are hardly ever about places (Walford, Wetherfield) but instead focus on individual families, or more usually a single female. Is this a hammer blow for feminism? Hardly. Since it’s mainly women who watch soap operas you wouldn’t expect swaggering 40-something men pretending they’re still teenagers. The other trope is that soap titles must either:

a) consist of a single word title (Bandini, Devi, Ardhangini, Kunku) or 50 (Waqt Batayega Kaun Apna Kaun Paraya, Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai).

b) Feature the female protagonist, moping in the title credits. Extra points for a single
slovenly tear rolling down her cheeks as she contemplates her cruel fate.

An additional obsession is with titles consisting of the letter K. You really cannot write an article about Indian soap without mentioning the strangle hold of numerologist loon Ekta Kapoor and Balaji Telefilms on the format. More later.

Sweet GOD the women in Indian soap operas are pathetic. I could attempt some incoherent Laurie Penny impersonation at this point and blither about some giant conspiracy and squeak about patriarchal zzzzzzzz but that’s bollocks. No. Instead, acknowledge the grimly insatiable appetite that nicely brought up young women have for masochistic fiction depicting other young women SUFFERING. Those familiar with the works of Tammy Comics (Child Slaves of War Orphan Farm!) should agree.

Off limits

The other thing you can kiss goodbye to is any attempt at character development. Most soaps concentrate on the saas-bahu (Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law) warfare endemic in all joint families.
There will never be a character as conflicted, as headstrong, self-destructive and wounded as Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street in Indian soap purely for the reason that she is a middle aged woman who has a love life after having had children. Forget about anything approaching Kat Slater in Eastenders unless she is an out and out embittered harridan constantly seething with jealousy there to torment a more doe-eyed newlywed.
This is Indian Soap remember: Once you complete childbearing, your hymen grows back. There is no complexity in this genre. You will either be Gail Platt or Ena Sharples. There IS no middle ground. Indian Soap Awards however cannot bring themselves to brand these characters as pantomime angels or devils. Instead you get awards for ‘Best character in a negative role’. Pitiful.


1) Physically assaulting women is Fine and Dandy as long as it is done by the matriarch, male authority figure and is in response to set-pieces revealing the nefarious deeds of aforementioned shameless woman. And such is the emotional manipulation of these dramas, that they actually make you want this to happen. Indian Soaps make you violent. You. Are. Being. Manipulated.

2) Your sister-in-law is trying to kill you, possibly through poisoning, and is engaged in an intricate tarantella to shape events in your household to turn everyone against you in order to obtain a share of some property you are assumed to be due to inherit.

3) Praying to a porcelain replica of a deity in your household prayer room WORKS.
Wife of sadistic landlord is beaten in punishment for perceived sleight to family prestige for being seen within 50 yards of unrelated male at village gathering. Instead of doing what every right thinking woman in British Soap would do and plunging a knife through the fuckers chest, she decamps to beseech idol for mercy. Next day, she is beaten but her assailant hurts his ankle slightly. Glory Be to God in all her infinite mercy.

And so the procession of woe and misery unfolds. A helpless young girl is either
a) never to be married due to duty to support her ever-expanding feckless needy over-entitled relatives (despite sneering at the shame of sending their daughter out to work) or: b) married in some sham wedding to someone she weally weally wuvs but who is spineless in the face of his family.

Life is dismal and unendingly cruel. Soaps, then, do at least attempt to illustrate the fate awaiting couples after the standard Bollywood Film ending. But there are only so many permutations of this plotline available (no sexual intrigue allowed, remember). So producers have resorted to increasingly desperate angles to wrench Every. Last. Drop. out of the fantasy. Girl protagonist is persecuted because she is:
dark skinned (Saloni Ki Safar),
Poor (Agle Janam Bitiyie Hi Kijo),
Single mother (Kunti),
pretty (Aradhangini),
wearing blackface makeup and monobrow (Laagi Tujse Lagaan),
careworn eldest daughter (Jyoti),
Dwarf (Baba Aisa Var Dhundo),
illiterate village girl (Bandini, Kunku),
female (Ne Anna Is Des Laado). Etc etc

Having exhausted the saas-bahu conflict the next seem to mine became child exploitation. It started with Child-bride soap Balika Vadhu on Colors. You’d like to think Serious Drama Making A Point is meant to highlight problems to persuade people *not* to copy this. Questions were asked in the Indian parliament. The furore even managed to rouse the cursory interest of the BBC.

Instead it triggers a Paed0 jailba1t arms-race amongst the other networks once they realised ch1ld cruelty is RATINGS GOLD.

*This would NEVER happen in real life. There would be blood and hellfire to endure.

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