My family once had a house party a couple of years ago. We invited all the uncles and aunti-jees we knew. It was pretty big, around forty people in a small suburban home. We even got a local Indian band that played tabla and harmonium and sang. Guests arrived around 6:30PM and went into the basement where the band played. At about 8:30PM, a dozen of our guests sneaked out and went upstairs. When I went to see where they went, I found them sitting around our big screen TV watching an Indian television drama called Kkusum.
Indian drama serials constitute around 75% of the programming in India. Indian people in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. don’t just watch these shows; they time their lives around them. They’re addicted to these shows. Shows like Bandini, Do Hanson Ka Jodaa, Jyoti, Ghar Ki Baat Hai, Kkusum, Sasural Genda Phool, Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, Mata Ki Chowki, Who Rehne Waali Mehlon Ki etc and so forth. If you’ve never seen any before, search one on youtube. Whole episodes are up online with television networks like Zee TV and Imagine doing nothing to crackdown on uploaders. Why? Because their audiences are assured. My parents, in their mid-forties, the prime audience, never miss an episode of their favorite shows and rarely use youtube.
My father says he watches them because they keep him in touch with what’s going on back home. I decided to find out what made these shows so addictive. In a two part article, I’m going to present my findings. In part one, I will critique Indian serials from a second generation born in Canada NRI’s perspective. In the second part, I will explore what these shows mean to Indian immigrants abroad, particularly the relationship between their ideals, beliefs, and dreams and how these reflect from the shows.
After watching around 12 hours of Indian serials, this is what I experienced.
Indian dramas illustrate all the qualities you’d normally find in an addictive drug. They’re fast. They’re short. And they never leave the user satisfied.
They’re fast. Production companies design Indian serials to provide a fix for their customers. Just by viewing the shots and the camera cuts, it becomes clear that they prey on viewers’ short attention spans. Quick paced shots. Fast cuts. Rapid zoom ins. Scenes designed to kick viewers out of their seats. In every scene of Bandini, the most insignificant piece of dialogue will mark a sudden jolting sound effect and each character’s reaction, no matter how insignificant, will be displayed.
They’re short. Most episodes total 15-17 minutes of filmed footage. The rest of the half-hour is composed of commercials advertising pundits and hair products from New Jersey to the U.K. The short lengths of the episodes make it possible for the cast and crew to film and air through the week. When compared to the North American television shows – which usually air once a week for half an hour to one hour shows – Indian shows are the perfect business model, with the addicted, hungry, salivating, viewers getting a fix five days a week. The ABC series Lost ran from 2004-2010 over 6 seasons totaling 121 episodes. Imagine TV’s Bandini has been running for just over a year and already totals 400 plus episodes.
They never leave the user satisfied. These short doses are designed to make the viewer come back for more. The plot is purposely kept under a lid and every episode ends on a cliffhanger.
This brings me to my next point: the plot. Most Indian shows do not have a discernible plot; the plot is left to the writers to develop over seasons (I should say years because the concept of a season seems non-existent). A year from its inception, a show’s plot can be completely different. Most shows adopt a situational philosophy. They present situations to the viewers. They’re plots are more basic and abstract. Like situational comedies, Indian dramas progress like stretched out situational dramas, sit-drams, where the plot moves at a snail’s pace. If you watch any Indian drama, you’ll see that the writers will introduce new situations for their characters. The characters will deal with the situations in some fashion. After the problem has been dealt with, another situation will be introduced. Really good shows like STAR Plus’ Mann Kee Awaaz Pratigya develop the characters with each and every situation. Bad shows don’t, and they lose consistency.
I saw this in Bandini. The show is about a girl named Bandini who ends up marrying a ruler of a village and must deal with the “situation” of living with his high class family, his kids from a previous marriage, and with the fact that she isn’t too well-to-do. The character of Bandini hasn’t changed much since the advent of the show in January 2009. She’s taken up a larger role in the family, for one thing. But the show has introduced different, inconsistent, and highly implausible situations. The plot has went from a character murdering her son, to a conniving doctor joining the family (how?) after revealing to Bandini that her unborn baby has some defects… or something. Even the show’s wikipedia page is a mess, with two paragraphs devoted to events that happened months ago, and a third very long paragraph detailing the last couple episodes, all of which will be condensed to a line or two (more or less judging on significance) in the next couple months.
The most overused situation in Indian drama is the daughter-in-law moving in with her in-laws. Her relationship with them becomes the focus. These shows include Bandini, Kkusum, Kutumb, Sasural Genda Phool, Pratigya… I could go on.
Characters. Most shows run all throughout the year with no period of intermission signifying a season change. The concept of the season seems non-existent. This lack of intermission hurts the viewer’s perception of the acting; since these characters are on screen five days a week for practically the whole year, outstanding acting (if there is any) is usually lost in the monotony of every day poor episodes where the characters do little to nothing. We aren’t allowed a week of intermission for the acting to settle in. Most of the time, actors must find it wise not to give powerful performances because they have to top themselves in the following episode. Instead they opt to maintain consistency. Since we witness the monotony of these characters’ lives five days a week, the significant character developments are lost and the characters and plot aren’t allowed to germinate in our heads.
With daily episodes, mediocre ones are common. The directors apparently have a gift to stretch insignificant moments to fill in the time. This is why most Indians I’ve talked to cannot remember a particular serial of artistic brilliance. Some remembered Jassi Jaise Koi Nahin and Kkusum but only because they were vastly different from the others at the time. For Indian serials, syndication is rare.
“I just watch them to pass the time. They’re interesting,” said one woman from my local mandir.
My dad told me “what they show in these shows actually happens in India.” In some senses he is correct; Indian dramas do address the main themes and culture that most Indians face. On the other hand, just by looking at the shows and how they portray India, it becomes evident that a “fantasy” of India is being sold. The dramas don’t show India in its true sense at all. India has one of the largest populations of poor but you’ll never see a character play a beggar in dirty stained clothes. Instead, most plots revolve around rich families living in secluded mansions with characters wearing jewelry and lush colored saris on days where nothing particularly exciting is happening yet they look like they’re about to be rushed to the ball.