Here’s a breakdown of our beloved serials’ most-used (read: abused) tropes:
One-dimensional characters and ‘oh-come-on’ plots
The constant in an Indian soap opera – across all genres, is the uni-dimensional characters who are either entirely good or irredeemable villains. No matter how hard the show tries to make diverse shows ranging from the normal saas-bahu ones to bahus working in the police, each show somehow ends up repeating this age-old narrative of the good triumphing over the bad. The innocent character has to go through a lot of hardships and shadyantras (plots) laid out by the evil character, but eventually, well, you know what happens.
For example, Ekta Kapoor’s serial Kumkum Bhagya recently aired episodes of terrorists attacking a school and trying to hold children hostage. Now the lead characters not only saved the children but also beat up the terrorists – all before the ill-equipped policemen arrived on the scene.
I mean, how dumb do you think we are? We can somehow tolerate machismo and we get the masala appeal of unrealistic but exciting plots. But since when did we accept sheer stupidity as the norm? This is one of the highest rated prime-time television serials in India right now. Mind you, Kapoor is producing some kickass shows on ALTBalaji and some smart movies as well. So why do we underestimate the intelligence of our TV audiences?
In an industry led primarily by women, it is really sad to see actors stuck in the same cliched roles – the good woman or the vamp.
This kind of flat representation of either being a super-messiah for the family or a bitch takes away from a lot of other things that women in our country really represent. Women have their own inhibitions, their own insecurities and their own ambitions and achievements. We need someone to capture these nuances, and we need to expect this from our television shows.
Each episode, the same format
Extremely crisp and compelling editing is a major part of these shows’ successes. The 30-minute episodes are masterfully edited with each break timed to add more suspense to new plot twists. It is almost like the shows are written to fit in ads within an episode’s arc. And with divine perfection, each episode develops into an editorial work of art – leaving you wanting more even as you realise how ridiculous it is.
All hail the visual effects
No shade, but do we talk enough about this? Naagin and especially some other mythology-based serials show us how wackily the producers treat these shows. We understand that it is ridiculously expensive to create something like Game of Thrones, but at least we don’t deserve a poorly designed naagin transforming into Mouni Roy.
An endless format
The standard format is that a serial will run until audiences kind of give up on them. This format can’t possibly be good for the writers’ creativity. Can you imagine constantly having to make up increasingly preposterous plots to keep audiences hooked?
One major drawback of this endless format is the lack of a particular theme for these shows. The shows have now tried to diversify culturally and include characters from different states with different accents. However, real people are still absent from our screens. Shows like Reporters on Sony Television tried to show the lives of mass media reporters and did an extremely good job of it. Young people that are used to American shows like Homeland, The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, Suits, House of Cards etc. seem to enjoy intelligent Indian soaps too. There are so many other types of storylines to explore other than domestic politicking in people’s homes.
We don’t want these saas-bahu shows to go away, we need some guilty pleasures as well. But all we are saying is, we don’t want only this.
Comedy: Not very funny
Another big issue is comedy. Humour should be based on circumstances and situations, not rooted in ignorance and stupidity. It’s only possible to find our ‘comedies’ funny if we ignore a lot of other problematic things in these shows. Bhabhiji Ghar Par Hai is funny only if we assume that the women characters are so dumb that they just do not understand when other men flirt with them.
‘We show what the people like to see’
One of the major arguments that TV producers always use to defend themselves is that they show what the audiences like to see. But our tastes are constantly evolving and we need something fresh. Also, making intelligent TV does not mean making ‘ultra-modern’ shows. Diverse shows with diverse backgrounds can be engaging and entertaining without being petty and repetitive.
Another argument being pushed forward is, ‘This is pure entertainment, you don’t need to dissect each part of it’. This could be true, we can just dismiss all this as junk if we don’t like it. But it’s hard to dismiss something that reaches out to so many people and has the influence it does. These serials shape our culture, and I don’t think they reflect our diverse society.
And, you do not have to make it intense like 24, but anything that has a little bit of rationality attached to it is fine for us.
Movies are slowly catching up and creating good content, but sadly TV isn’t. We cannot allow this kind of nonsense to be served to millions of Indians daily. Can we? Or can we not? We shall find out in the next episode!
Mandar Gupte, 24, is currently working in an Adivasi community development organisation called Disha Kendra. He tweets at @gupte_mandar and you can find him on Instagram at mandargupte93.