By Divya Chandramouli, Saheli Volunteer
When we think of Indian popular entertainment, what comes to mind first are the great film industries that dominate the cultural landscape – Bollywood, Kollywood, and Tollywood. Yet TV dramas, or ‘serials,’ as they’re called colloquially, have also been captivating audiences for at least a few decades.
For instance, when BR Chopra’s Mahabharat aired every week, the streets would be deserted, and people would be huddled in front of their televisions, enraptured by the dialogues of Hinduism’s epic heroes. In recent years, we’ve seen many dozens of dramas that depict the lives of regular women and men, detailing countless political tensions and domestic troubles. These stories appear to have quite a wide reach into popular culture as well; their plot lines have become reliable icebreakers in social gatherings (“Did you see yesterday’s episode? I had no idea Sundaram was Pavitra’s brother!”), while the dramatic melodies and facial zoom-ins featured in some of these shows serve as jokes for less-than-ardent fans.
Yet as entertaining as these dramas may be, we must understand the damage many of these shows are causing in our South Asian communities. It’s not simply that the multitude of terrible tragedies each character endures is enough to depress the spirits of any viewer. More so, many Indian dramas propagate highly problematic conceptions of womanhood. The impossible standards they set and the misconceptions they fuel are stunting our progress towards achieving a safe and equal society. Though these shows may not necessarily promote physical violence against women (though some certainly do), their storylines, deeply rooted in patriarchy, encourage other forms of control, violence, and discrimination against women.
I turned to the Tamil serials Deivamagal (“God’s Daughter”), and Vani Rani to better explore the harmful representations of womanhood these dramas promote. Deivamagal features a maddeningly “angelic” young woman, Sathyapriya, who has recently graduated from ‘Finishing school,’ an institution described as “the place where the princesses of our families are molded into responsible heads of households.” Vani Rani follows the lives of two twin sisters who live together, along with their families – Vani, a renowned judge whose stern personality makes her feared both at court and at home, and Rani, a bubbly, innocent housewife who desires only to bring happiness to her family. Both these shows contain three themes that reveal how the shows’ creators as well as the intended audience imagine, label, and expect women to act.
1) False empowerment of women
At first glance, it seems that these dramas are host to various independent, empowered women – women who excel in their professions and who are respected and loved by their families. Yet a closer look reveals that this ‘empowerment’ is rigged with specific constraints. For example, a female character’s professional career is respected as long as it does not disrupt her ability to be a caretaker within the home. In this regard, Sathyapriya appears as the ever-perfect woman partly because her education trained her specifically as a homemaker. In Vani Rani, Vani is celebrated as a powerful force in court, and her professional achievements give her an air of authority and independence. Yet early on, we learn that Vani’s son is a troublemaker, getting entangled in college fights, and subsequently earning a stint at jail. In the ensuing commotion, it’s not him, but his “poor upbringing” that is blamed for his bad behavior. Vani’s capacity as a successful judge is immediately undermined, her presumed inefficiency as a mother standing out foremost. This instance, coupled with Sathyapriya’s lauded efficiency within the domestic setting, demonstrates that for ‘ideal’ women, the home and the family must always come first; these are the qualities that society applauds most loudly, even if women exhibit other impressive achievements. This implies that a woman’s place is within her home, that she doesn’t belong as much in the public sphere; because of this mentality, when a woman does in fact appear in the public sphere, she often becomes the target of scrutiny, harassment or violence.
2) Selfless Sacrifice
A narrative of selfless sacrifice is woven through these dramas, producing the trope of the tolerant, stoic mother. A nurturing caretaker who sees the wellbeing of her family as paramount, she mediates the familial tensions that arise yet defers to the patriarch or a more authoritative female relative when significant decisions need to be made. In Deivamagal, Sathyapriya’s mother embodies this role, while Rani exemplifies it in Vani Rani. Interestingly, both women are depicted as innocent and even ignorant; when explaining certain business affairs to a partner, Sathyapriya’s father says of her mother, “My wife wouldn’t understand, she’s a typical gramathu (village) woman” (though he is a villager as well). In this regard, the selfless mother is demeaned while highlighted as a necessity in any family setting. Her more appealing counterpart, apparently, is the ‘modern woman,’ who is educated and efficient, yet still a “family woman” – Sathyapriya and Vani, for example, fit this imaginary better.
Alternately, authoritative women are automatically positioned as the antagonists. They are antithetical to how women ideally should be; their voices are deeper, scratchier, their intentions often morally questionable, and significantly, they’re often unmarried or widows. What is it that makes an unmarried woman, especially one who exerts authority, dangerous? Is it their relative autonomy that is so threatening? Ultimately, these dramas portray women who rarely exist in reality. Few women are as “perfect” as Sathyapriya, and unlike what these shows want us to believe, women who exercise their opinions can be powerful, intelligent leaders. Expecting women to fit neatly within these categories – the domicile housewife or the intelligent-yet-deferent professional – or imagining powerful women to be evil and errant, are all just ways of controlling what women can and cannot be.
3) Women to women rivalry
Finally, these dramas fuel the notion that animosity between women is natural. Women are portrayed as perpetual competitors – for good fortune, familial respect, or the affections of men. Deivamagal portrays Sathyapriya’s nemesis as the girl next door, who fumes with jealousy when Sathyapriya receives her Finishing School degree. In Vani Rani, due to some conflict unbeknownst to the viewer, Vani refuses to talk directly to her sister, despite living in the same house as her. Of course, tensions between human beings is part of reality, but that almost every drama centers its dramatic moments around women’s fights and furies enforces the misconception that women inherently do not get along. This discursively erases the many ways in which real women collaborate with, support, and care for one another; it denies the unshakeable, fulfilling bonds that exist between women, in friendship, in families, and in love. Women are expected to approach one another with skepticism and hostility, rather than cultivate camaraderie over shared experiences. By implying that women are ‘catty,’ ‘dramatic,’ or ‘manipulative,’ these dramas completely dismiss the possibility of a united front, of compassionate solidarity.
I ask readers of this article to then challenge these messages by recognizing their negative representations of womanhood– in our media and our conversations – and refuse to consume them as entertainment. Because even in imaginary circumstances on TV, these negative messages of what a woman should be like are far from benign.
About the Author:
Divya is a child of the south Indian diaspora, born in Chennai and brought up in the Boston area. Her feminist sentiments were nurtured at Mount Holyoke College, where she studied History and Anthropology, and discovered the value of strong, female friendships. She recently completed her MA in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, and is now the Conference Director for Youth LEAD, a non-profit that trains youth to engage across difference. She believes that with compassion, critical thinking and activism, we can overcome the violence of our world together.