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How is Prime Time Fiction Affecting our Lives and our Sensibilities


How is prime time fiction affecting our lives and our sensibilities? A recent study which aims to examine how gender is represented in TV, especially at a time when the family is at a crossroad and is struggling to maintain its traditional status in a post-modern age. The study aims to look at the larger picture of just how men and women are being represented in both satellite and terrestrial channels across India, Nepal and Bangla Desh.
The study titled `Towards Empowerment?’ was conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research(CAR), the Nepal-based media magazine Asmita, the Bangla Desh Centre for Development Journalism and Communication and the NGO Proshika. These organizations looked at 50 hours and 30 minutes of fiction shown over the satellite channels Zee TV, Star Plus, Sony as also 49 episodes over Nepal TV, Ekushey TV and BTV which are all terrestrial channels. (The latter two channels are beamed from Bangla Desh). Data on these serials was collected in the first few months of 2002.
The conclusions of this study have been divided into several subheads. The setting and milieu of the serials, the occupation, age group and marital status of the dramatis personae and the manner in which men are seen interacting with the opposite sex have all been carefully analysed. The serials looked at include Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kasauti Zindagi Kay, Koshsish, Kutumb, Kkusum and Kahin Kissi Roz.

The study found that the setting of the majority of these serials was urban, upper class and affluent with the domestic/family space providing the backdrop for this drama (terrestrial 79 per cent: satellite 71 per cent). The office provides a much less popular backdrop implying that the very affluent lifestyle being portrayed does not require the protagonists to be shown as engaged in any livelihood struggle. Interestingly, interaction at home seems to be the favourite activity of all the channel- Star (84%), Sony (56%) and Zee (53%) with women holding forth in up to 57 % of these interactions as opposed to men whose interactions average around 43%. The other most popular activity is talking on the phone, be it a mobile or a landline. This is especially true of Sony (15%) and Zee (11%). But while men appear to be predominantly modern in their appearance, women continue to dress more conservatively using symbols like a bindi, mangalsutra and sindhoor across all channels. It is for this reason that women are shown again and again restoring the core values of the family. Which seem to be always under some kind of threat.
In these serials, the family turns out to be the crucible under which the entire action unfolds. Akhila Shivdas, executive Director, CFAR points out, “The traditional family seems to be under threat and the resolution of this conflict often forms the central theme of these narratives. These conflicts invariably end up getting resolved by using traditional mechanisms. Many of these families consist of three to four generations living under the same roof as is the case of the Viranis in Kyunki.’
The joint families depicted remain a predominantly male construct. The women belong to their in-laws homes and are defined only in terms of their husbands families. The underlying presumption to these extended families is that the members of a joint family are usually rich and work in a family business (96%) while nuclear families in serials tend to be middle class. There are variations: in serials such Kohi Apra Sa, Justujoo and Mehndi Tere Nam Ki the main characters are professional.
The presentation of sexuality within the family construct presents a major challenge. While adultery has become commonplace in Hindi serials, these extra-marital affairs generally end up in failure. Usually, the dutiful wife plays the moral card and triumphs over her confused husband. Articulation of sexual needs is kept deliberately low key because of our cultural aversions to such depictions. More significantly, overt sexuality has no place within the dynamics of the joint family where the whole purpose of the sexual act is to procreate so that the children can carry forward the `vansh’ and the family legacy.
An extended joint family structure does not mean there is unity in such a household. The soaps thrive on generating conflict and then ensuring its eventual resolution Eighty per cent of these conflicts are between family members with 50 per cent of these relating to marital problems. It is another matter that most of these intrigues are resolved though the intervention of a family elder as is the case in Kkusum, Kasauti Zindagi Kay, Heena, Kohi Apna Sa and Sarhadein.
The report arrives at two major conclusions. The serials reassert that a woman’s place is in the home. The women protagonists end up spending 80 per cent of their time confined to the kitchen, living room, dining room and bedrooms. They enter the professional space only when they have to save their spouses or family from the clutches of some rival. But despite being home bound, these serials are a celebration of women power. Often, it is the male character who is forced to marry against his will or make other compromises.
Madhavi Mutatkar, president Zee TV, believes ,`If a saas-bahu tear-jerker is successful on one channel there is immediate commercial pressure to put another on air. In many ways, these serials have brought real empowerment to women. A housewife sitting with the remote in her hand is the queen of all she surveys with FMCG companies and the white goods industries vying for her.’
But Anna Leah Sarabia, executive director, Women’s Media Circle Foundation from Philippines expresses unhappiness with this trend. `Media and advertisers are using stereotypes as a technique for sending out messages. Stereotypes are symbols that are projected again and again on the audiences. And like a bad habit this creates stupid formulas,’ she says going on to add that ,` we need to receive constant feedback in order to find out how these programmes affect women who for centuries have been silenced by culture, by political power, by religion, by laws, by traditions, by superstition.’
Manju Thapa, editor of Asmita also regretted that none of these serials focused on less privileged groups or on rural society. Women were invariably shown as being submissive and passive homemakers but not a single male character was shown having a submissive nature.
Nargis Jahan Banu from Proshika felt that it was the lack of clarity on gender issues which had resulted in the promotion of these stereotypes. She believed that initiatives must focus on convincing media controllers to change the prevailing notions of both recreation and education.
Some of the conclusions drawn by the study highlighted the one-dimensional portrayal of men and women provided with outward trappings of modernity made these serials very limited. No family can exist in a social vacuum. Efforts had to be stepped up to portray the family within a social framework If television was to hold up any kind of mirror to society or represent a popular history of the times, it must become pluralistic and representative. Given the fact that we have stark social disparities, it is important that TV
Channels, sponsors and producers be sensitized to the ethical problems of presenting such lavish and irrational lifestyles. Whether this can actually come about is a different matter. Mutatkar pointed out that the main business of Hindi channels was to make money. With the rural belt now identifying itself with Hindi channels the content we are getting is basically created to suit the rural viewer.
In the final analysis, participants in the study believed that television with its daily soaps and fiction succeeds in creating a strong emotional identification with the characters being shown on the small screen. A well-packaged regressive attitude is a source of concern to women organizations and to professional women since they point out that these serials to do depict the kind of challenges women are facing. The real challenge for TV fiction would be to address the contemporary and real concerns of the Indian family, joint or nuclear, without showing characters to possess only an opportunistic of a criminal bent of mind.