Gajra Kottary

Rajani-kant of her times!

Flight of Feminism on TV

Turning Point Turning Tables

Move towards Social Issues

From Television Desk:
Who is that woman?

An Insight by Ms. Gajra Kottary.

Does TV reflect the reality of women in India ?

Over my nearly two decades experience in the TV industry, I have observed that whatever be the brand and colour of feminism we espouse, we women do tend to stick with each other. This is much to the intrigue, fascination and sometimes irritation ( I dare say ! ) of our male colleagues. The women characters we create for our TV shows may often be each other’s worst enemies. But we women in the television industry feel like such a united tribe — as we often proudly declare — that if the film industry is biased in favour of men, we have got our own back in the television business by simply overwhelming men!

Be it the length of roles and choice of protagonists, the sheer number of women characters, the storylines themselves and even the payments to them in comparison to the males, television is a woman’s medium.  Not just that, a visit to most of the GEC offices as well as those of prominent production houses, is a feast for the eyes in terms of the riot of colourful clothes that hit you right from reception itself. Yes, the behind the scenes scenario in TV too, is dominated by women.

So if this was a battle of numbers, we women would win our pretty hands down, any day. But alas it is not. Despite our strength of numbers, we have been able to do precious little for our tribe. Most media analysis sites and papers are full of lamentations of the regressive and anti-feminist content of television which is actually doing more disservice than contributing to the cause of women. And they are largely right in what they analyse, even though it hurts those of us practitioners who try so hard to bring some of our progressive thoughts for women to reflect in our stories and characters.

During the good-old days of Doordarshan in the 1980s, we had programmes like Udaan and Rajni that dealt with strong women who were an inspiration to all viewers, and especially to women. Even though they made diverse choices in being either career women or housewives, they chose to live their lives with independence, strength and conviction.  While in Udaan  the protagonist’s dream was of becoming an IPS Officer, Rajni was the female and television version of the angry no-nonsense woman who asked uncomfortable questions to everyone around her and extracted answers and confessions from all, including the high and mighty.

Udaan was inspired by the real-life story of Kavita Choudhary’s (the director of this series) elder sister Kanchan Choudhary who, after several hardships, went on to become the first female Director General of Police. Her rise against odds instilled in its female audience a desire for emancipation beyond the claustrophobic confines of domesticity.  Rajni helped housewives realise back then that they could be empowered, and could empower others too, earning rare respect for the unalloyed homemaker.

However, with the advent of cable and satellite television and the major upheaval following it, things rapidly changed. Yet we did see empowered and relatable female characters in Swaabhimaan and Tara in the mid- nineties.  The new millennium also saw the phenomenal success of  soaps involving family dramas like Kasauti Zindagi Kay, Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thhi to name a few.

Women wearing expensive saris, decked from head to toe in gold, holding a thaali containing fruits and flowers and praying sincerely for the welfare of their husbands and family, ruled the roost. This imagery became the typical portrait of a woman in serials; a perfect wife, perfect mother and perfect daughter-in-law who showered love on all her loved ones and was an icon of virtue and selfless-devotion for the audience.

Each serial portrayed how an ‘ideal’ woman should behave when myriad responsibilities are foisted upon her, be it in maintaining the happiness of her household, taking care of the children or even running the family business. Our much loved ‘bahu’ was expected to deal with everything thrown at her with a smile, while handling herself with the aplomb of a professional. If the woman was allowed to work, her character was often that of a vamp, who tried to steal the leading lady’s husband or children. She would be shown as a modern, stylish woman who was always scheming and plotting the downfall of the protagonist. It seemed like the makers were trying to reinforce the gender stereotype present in our society, ostracizing those women who choose to be recalcitrant and chalked out an independent path for themselves.

But the phenomenal success of these serials never obliterated the fact that they targeted a certain  economically privileged section of society where the main source of familial income was either inherited property or that which was amassed by business activities. This particular focus on such women who were married off to rich households often belonging to the well-to-do class, further alienated these serials from a larger reality — a reality that had changed over the decade.

So this was the period when our shows were really very far away from reflecting the emerging social reality in India where scores of girls — especially from the middle class — were studying, working and maintaining their work-life balance. Yet there were no stories to reflect their reality, nor that of rural or poorer women, let alone offering them inspiration ! 

There were a few exceptions of course. One of the bravest shows in the new millennium was Astitva, whose protagonist was not only a committed working woman, but also dared to marry, after falling in love, with a much younger man; all with her dignity intact. Yet Astitva, though it survived much longer than expected, did not exactly shake the TRP charts. The reason analysed was that Dr Simran was inspirational but not relatable to the average housewife and target audience, who were by now used to a staple of the less-thinking protagonist.

Even in regional TV serials, the most typical feminine aspects of a woman’s personality were extolled. The super hit Malayalam serial Stree initially portrayed the protagonist Indu as a feminist who was bold, stubborn and independent. It caused an uproar and led to the team of Stree having to change the personality of her character to that of a more quiet, submissive and sacrificing woman.

Towards the end of the first decade of the millennium, and just after the success of the then experimental Balika Vadhu, it became a trend to craft the themes of serials around social issues. Since most social issues in India involve girl children and women, it seemed for some time as if serials were finally going to reflect and therefore improve upon women’s reality, since they would increase awareness and sensitivity. To some extent this did happen, but as the waves receded after a flood of such shows, of late we are back to mindless drama and stunts to garner TRPs, as inter-channel competition is hotting up. So welcome to the daayans, ghosts, chudails and nagins. Can we get any further away from reflecting the reality of women?

Though it’s more acceptable to end on a note of optimism, I sign off on a rather shameful and thought provoking bit of data. A UNESCO report released in 2009 had described the common images of women in the Indian media: “the glamorous sex kitten, the sainted mother, the devious witch, the hard-faced corporate and political climber.” The report states that, at the current rate of progress on stereotyping women, it will take another 75 years to achieve gender equality in the media. Given the earlier stated fact in this piece about how women outnumber men in the TV industry, does this not sadly prove that ironic adage about a woman being another woman’s worst enemy ?

Gajra Kottary is a well-known Author and a Scriptwriter of Indian TV and Films.

This article is from the ISC4 Coffee Table Book. Soon we will have all the articles from the Book uploaded on the website for your reference. So keep checking www.fwa.co.in

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