In every era, the art of the times reflects how societies function, their values, state of affairs and collective beliefs. As films and television soap operas reach millions, these mediums really do reveal the public psyche. Unfortunately, the current forms of entertainment portray the degeneration of Indian societal ideals at large, as most soap operas cling to puritanical views, and moral policing and further perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
I honestly dare you to sit through an episode as it will be quite a ride, from witnessing mythical Naagins (shape-shifting snakes) in their own multiverse of madness to the normalised portrayal of the perfect Indian bahu’s (Daughter-in-law) gripped in the clutches of patriarchy.
It might surprise you to know that in contrast to today, television was not all bad back in the era of Doordarshan, a public service broadcaster that became a haven of artistic cultural gems. Families could sit together and enjoy meaningful content and strong female-driven roles dictated major storylines. It was where young Indians found relatable coming-of-age narratives that explored the many complexities of ‘adulting’.
The 80s and 90s were a time when soap operas explored nuanced topics with a focus on the human experience set in the Indian context. Back in 1987 Indian television was even tackling issues of drug abuse. ‘Subah’ based on the novel ‘Sivasankari’ follows the story of a young man joining a college that falls into the trappings of substance abuse. Similarly ‘Hasratein’ released in 1994, explored the societal strain placed on marriages in Indian culture.
The wholesome content covered a whole array of ranging subjects. ‘Malgudi Days’ that aired in 1986 was aimed at children and beautifully captured rural life. ‘Buniyaad’ (1986-87) dealt with the partition of India and its aftermath, ‘Fauji’ featuring Shahrukh Khan covered the training of the Indian army and shows like ‘Hum Log’ dealt with middle-class families, their hardships, and aspirations.
There was ample content targeted at young Indians that was vastly different from the reality television of today. ‘Campus’, which aired in 1993, was a college drama that portrayed the underlined reality of university politics, exploring youth as an Indian gripped by opportunist ideologies perpetuated by power-hungry politicians. The title track also became quite famous amongst young Indians.
Similarly shows like ‘Hip Hip Hurray’ were a hit amongst teenagers as they intelligently brought forward their hardships. The soap opera also explored themes of love, sexuality and peer pressure as well as the tumultuous parent-child relationships that are a reality in the lives of many young Indians. The empathetic portrayal is rarely seen on television today but OTT shows such as ‘Kota Factory’ and ‘College Romance’ attempt to capture real stories of academic and romantic hardships.
The soap opera of the bygone era also realistically portrayed Indian women, the storylines followed the complexities of being an Indian woman. While ‘Tara’ featuring Ratna Pathak was the first-ever Indian soap on contemporary urban women that explored female friendships and controversial narratives of the time, ‘Saans’ with Neena Gupta as the female lead shed light on the life of a single divorced woman who takes the route to self-discovery and independence.
‘Shanti’, which aired in 1994 followed a young female journalist played by Mandira Bedi, who unearths scandalous revelations from the entertainment industry. Questioning the moral fabric of a country that preaches Indian values and cultures, it’s indicative of the fact that over the years since the advent of the production houses, the landscape of Indian TV shows completely hanged.
While there is little hope for Indian television, OTT platforms are exploring the true forms of storytelling that Indian audiences sorely deserve once again. May it be gripping tales of social injustice revealed in narratives such as ‘Paatal Lok’ or lighthearted family productions such as ‘Yeh Meri Family’, our shows are moving in the right direction. These platforms have provided space for truly talented writers and directors who wish to entertain the country with wholesome content. We can only hope for more and more individuals to get introduced to these authentic storylines.
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