Over summer I spent a considerable amount of time hanging out with my grandparents watching TV. My grandparents are wonderful and supportive people but language and generational differences mean that there’s only so much we can talk about. Enter Star Plus, a channel full of “daily soaps”, dance competitions, award shows, “world television premier” movies and one great movie review show.
The central programming on Star Plus are daily soaps. It’s like 24 hours of Shortland Street, only centered on extended families, with exquisite saris, overdone makeup and full of heavy examples of the patriarchy.
Old people watching Star Plus is a bit of a running joke in the Indian diaspora. Up until this year I thought it was the most ridiculous tragic programming a person could watch. I’ve softened my approach mainly because I found it provided a really good way to connect with my grandparents. We would sit in the lounge, compliment the clothes, critique the overbearing mother in laws, the overdramatic sister in laws and the husbands that needed to stick up for their wives.
It provided us a way to celebrate the parts of Indian culture that we love but also to examine the parts that we are glad we don’t have to contend with anymore or at the very least are challenging. I’ve also found it refreshing to watch bodies that look like close to mine on television for the first time although I’m well aware that they are all relatively “fair” and overdone.
Most feminists consume media with a keen eye to unpacking the patriarchy. That’s the approach that I take to my slightly guilty consumption of Indian soaps. My grandparents don’t know the word patriarchy but I’ve found that they’ve been able to pick up and critically discuss gendered oppression with me through the medium of daily soaps.
I watch two on a semi-regular basis, missing episodes here and there. Like Shortland Street missing a week isn’t really a big deal.
The first, Dhiya aur Bhati Hum centers on the character of Sandya, the oldest daughter in law in a very traditional Rajasthani household controlled by an overbearing mother in law. Sandya’s dream is to become a police officer, a dream her deceased parents supported but is difficult to achieve in her position as a daughter in law.
The second Ek Veer ki Ardaas focuses on a single Punjabi mother, Ratan and her two children, Ranvir and Veera. Prior to the timeline of the series her husband Sampooran left the family in unclear circumstances and hasn’t returned for five years.
Both series center on struggling yet strong women with varying degrees of independence.
Sandya is seeking her own independent path, sanctioned by her parents and her husband but obstructed by her mother in law. She is bright, talented and has a knack for investigation. She’s also cast as the dedicated daughter in law who is torn between her personal ambitions and the grief it is causing her mother in law. Her turmoil is what makes her a respectable character that appeals to more traditional viewers.
Despite how awful her mother in law is to her (by actively seeking to destroy her dreams), she still maintains a sense of loyalty and care for her. She remains the “ideal” self-sacrificial Indian women. In a seemingly paradoxical way Sandya is challenging the patriarchal notion that women should not be police officers and in a position of authority outside the home while sensitively negotiating her place within a patriarchal home.
Sandya’s negotiation is fascinating to watch because it makes her a sympathetic character that old Indian people will approve of but also relates to how many women actually live their lives, pursuing their goals whilst negotiating patriarchal structures in often quite bemusing and complicated ways. Most of the time you want to shake her and tell her to stand up for herself.
In Ek Veer ki Ardaas, Ratan and her son Ranvir challenge gender roles. Because of her husbands absence Ratan has had to take responsibility for their family farm and is the only women in the village that can drive a tractor. She is lonely and pines for her missing husband, often reflecting on the life that they shared. Despite her somewhat irritating longing she is impressive in her ability to get on and live life albeit with less colour and more mood swings.
Complicated circumstances mean that Ratan is unable to be fully care for five-year-old Veera meaning her son Ranvir takes on the parenting role, being like a “mother” to Veera. However news of Sampooran’s death has meant that he has taken on the role of the family patriarch with a shift from breaking gendered stereotypes to feeling like he needs to embrace them for the sake of their family.
Both shows have interesting feminist threads that are wrapped up in difficult cultural and familial contexts. The characters have found themselves in complex negotiations and are making the most of their situations. In the case of Sandya her nat ural talents should be given an avenue for expression and for Ratan and Veera, circumstance has forced them to reimagine their gendered roles within the household. They struggle and sometimes behave badly but ultimately are doing the best they can with what they have. I’ve found them admirable to watch with the stories complementing my own personal experiences of feminism.