Newlywed Indian couples immigrated to Canada and the United States in the 1980s. There they gave birth to people like me, the Harold and Kumar generation of overachievers and slackers, born and raised to earn top marks or put the family name in shame. We were born in an environment of conflicting, contradicting, and crashing values, one set of values coming from our parents and the other from our friends and teachers.
So it’s reasonable if we can’t understand the Indian TV dramas our parents watch. Don’t get me wrong; some of my generation (alright a lot of my generation!) watch these shows, many with a passion. But to those like me who’ve historically had a hard time understanding the mass appeal of Indian serials, I’ve made a two-article mission to find out the secret to their success.
I established in part one of “The Sit-Dram Phenomenon” specifically what it was these shows did to keep Indian people coming back; I talked about how the shows were designed to provide a fix for their addicted viewers; they’re fast, short, and never satisfy their audience. In part two, I will explore what Indian serials mean to Indian immigrants, particularly whether these shows reflect their ideals, beliefs, and dreams. As I sat down to write this piece, I asked myself: what is the Indian dream?
Americans have the American dream and most other nations have a set of “on the hill” ideals they program their lives around; a set of ideals and themes that mark their lives. But what is the Indian dream? For the Indians living in Mississauga, Canada, most came to Canada looking to start a family and find success. Such themes of family maintenance and sustenance are ever prevalent in Indian dramas.
The trials and tribulations facing the characters in Indian serials frequently mirror those faced by most Indian families, regardless of where they live. The most frequently appearing themes in Indian serials are as follows: the parent-child relationship (Pratigya), Eastern-Western friction (Sasural Genda Phool), family power struggles (Bandini, Pratigya, Kkusum…), staying pious (Who Rehne Waali Mehlon Ki), family shame (about every show deals with this in some way), and the overdone daughter-in-law-mother-in-law relationship (Bandini, Pratigya, Kkusum, Sasural Genda Phool, Mata Ki Chowki, Saas Be Bahu Thi...). The latter is the theme I will speak most about in this piece, for it centers around two entrenched Indian traditions: that of the arranged marriage, and of the Hindu custom of the wife coming to live with the husband and his family. I wouldn’t be wrong when I say that most Indian immigrants who came before the end of the millennium came to fulfill a future of employment for the man, and a future of casual meandering from job to job to full time housewife status for the woman. Sure, Indian families back in the day put their daughters through college but their degrees (most of them Arts for a reason!) were never meant to be applied after they married and moved in with their in-laws. In Indian traditional marriage, as depicted in these shows, it’s like surrendering the reins of control over your daughter to her in-laws after they’ve tied the knot. This is depicted especially wickedly in the show Pratigya, where a young girl must live with her gundey (gangster) in-laws and gunda husband. In many scenes of the show, her in-laws publicly disparage her in front of her parents for her shortcomings, and her parents don’t utter a word, their heads hanging in shame.
This particular theme of the daughter-in-law and in-laws appears in most of the shows and its not surprising that it reflects the Indian condition, especially abroad. In my family’s specific circle of friends, the live-at-home unemployed wives live off the earnings their husbands make and dream that someday their children will provide for them and they won’t have to work anymore. The part of not having to work anymore will only be fulfilled when their children marry and the new wives move in. For some Indian mother-in-laws, this is indeed a dream. The life of an Indian housewife, especially one educated and teased with the prospect of having a professional future, must come with some resentment. This leads me back to the Indian serials, which frequently depict a mother-in-law disparaging her daughter-in-law. It’s no surprise; when another takes her place, she’s going to make the bahu’s (daughter-in-laws) life a living hell.
Does art mimic real life? In some cases yes. One woman I interviewed at my local mandir offered me insight into her experience living with her in-laws. The woman – who chose to remain anonymous – claimed that her mother-in-law frequently looked down upon her, ridiculed her cooking, made her clean the house, and generally had a strong dislike for her. She judged her until the day she died. When I asked her whether Indian dramas depicted mother-in-laws accurately, she laughed and claimed “they do but they exaggerate them a bit too much. I mean they’re human too. They’re not monsters. What they do they do out of love for their sons. They don’t show that in Indian serials.”
Deepa Mehta depicted the plight of the bahu in the 2008 film Heaven on Earth starring Preity Zinta. Although this phenomenon of the stay at home housewife having to deal with her in-laws seems to be curving away as Indian audiences get more independent and modernized (a term I’ll use loosely to avoid debate), the bigger question is how do Indian women abroad feel about the depiction of women in Indian serials. The female characters in these same shows are depicted as docile and subservient while the men are strong and confident. This archetypal relationship must be one thing that attracts Indian audiences to the show, as Indians see the male as the head of the household who’ll continue the family name, not the female.
“I agree, they’re depiction of women is very traditional and conservative. Anything else is either to contrast or introduce the Westernization of India. But that’s what the majority of Indian audiences want. Indian audiences are very traditional,” said Nitu Agarwal, a housewife and frequent mandir-goer in Mississauga.
Alka Seth, an educator for special needs children and the beautiful mother of this writer, is a bit more optimistic.
“I think these shows show the torture of women. In the opening credits, the show’s producers say they do not condone anything that happens on the show. If they show something bad happening to a woman, they always write at the bottom, scrolling across the screen, that they oppose this type of behavior.
“In a way they’re making people aware that these things are wrong. They’re telling the audience that this type of behavior is not right. They’re trying to get women aware that this type of behavior should not be tolerated.”
Whether the audience is getting it or not, they always tune in. This type of message seems ironic when you consider the fact that the major hook these shows give to non-resident Indian viewers is a vibe of nostalgia for India, especially in their sets and costume design. Luscious red saris, rich vibrant verandas, the teeka and sindoor on characters’ foreheads, golden jewelery. These fantastic images attract viewers with their loaded ideals of India. Producers seek to keep the shows looking very conservative, traditional, and old fashioned. Most dramas hide and limit Western culture to ideas rather than visuals. You will rarely see western culture depicted visually; the odd girl wearing blue jeans or a red dress. The only show to actually push boundaries in the past six years was Jassi Jaisi Kohi Nahin, about an independent nerdy girl lacking beauty but making up for it in her genius.
The Hindu religion plays a big role in many shows, with frequent sequences of the main pious daughter-in-law openly praying to God for things to go right. And the biggest evidence for the above assertion remains in the fact that almost all of the shows I watched on my twelve-hour binge had no Muslim characters at all. India, having one of the world’s biggest Muslim populations, has no Muslims (or Christians, or Parsis, or Jews) in its Indian serials!
Whatever the case may be, I’ll end by saying that Indian serial dramas reflect the ideals of Indian immigrants very well and Indians here in Canada agree. They’ve lived the shows already. It’s no wonder they love watching them.
“They’re a fantasy of India. That’s why we keep coming back. It’s the easiest way to stay in touch,” says Alka Seth as she goes back downstairs to cook dinner.