Hum Log: The Enduring Relevance Of India’s First Soap Opera

Hum Log: The Enduring Relevance Of India’s First Soap Opera

It is the day and age of OTT platforms’ supremacy. With countless shows and films at our disposal, our biggest problem is not what to watch, but finding the time to watch it all. As the world’s second-largest digital population, the media and entertainment industry remains on track for immense growth.

With so much progress and advancement across all forms of the media we consume, it is sometimes interesting to go way back when the term ‘TV show’ may not have held much meaning and sources of entertainment were far more limited. Recorded as India’s first soap opera is a show called Hum Log (We The People) that aired on Doordarshan in 1984. We are so spoilt for choice with various genres, languages, and formats of content, that it is difficult to imagine that there existed a sole show made for essentially everyone.

Then Information and Broadcasting Minister, Vasant Sathe, followed the footsteps of Mexican TV where they used entertainment to dissipate information in what is now called infotainment. Directed by Miguel Sabido, the Mexican show Ven Conmigo acted as inspiration. Sabido visited New Delhi, India in 1983 for a workshop where he suggested that TV shows must air for five days a week for it to achieve ‘desired effects’. Owing to the lack of resources for this, Hum Log received the screen time of a single day per week.

Written by Manohar Shyam Joshi and directed by Vasudev Kumar, the soap opera revolved around the lives of a middle-class Indian family, and perhaps, this central theme is what allowed the show to gain its mass traction of around 50 million viewers. The protagonists included Basesar Ram, who was married to Bhagwanti, and they parented Badki, Chutki, Lalloo, Majhli, and Nanhe.

It has all the makings of a typical Indian family and explains why so many people would drop their daily routines and sit themselves in front of their televisions as the show aired. Circumstances of confusion surrounding education, finances, relationships, and more were regularly explored. In 1984, the idea of nuclear families was just starting to come about, but the existence of joint families and their complexities was very much relatable.

Hum Log challenged societal pressures at a time when it was considered unacceptable to even discuss them at dinner tables. It showed a Hindu girl in love with a Muslim man and expressed the wishes of an individual to marry a woman from a lower caste. In a way, it is perhaps one of the only tools at the time that had the ability to remotely normalise these then-controversial aspects of society.

‘In those six or eight characters you had a set of new Indian values… a different approach to caste, eliminating the idea of untouchables,’ said Sean Southey, Director of PCI Media Impact, a US-based company that worked on Hum Log with Sabido. ‘This was a bold and beautiful vision of what India could be.’

Only about three decades post Independence, the TV show was hands-on in addressing the political, economic, and social environment. Patriarchy and misogyny were made more than clear through a strict fauji grandfather and his alcoholic son, who often mistreated his wife. It was also at a point in time where the young kids would want to explore individuality which often required straying away from norms and traditions.

In fact, it can also be said that Hum Log is still relevant. Middle-class families that aspire to be upper-class, with their complex personalities make up for a large chunk of the Indian population. The social issues the show touched upon are rampant even today. We may have made some progress, but the first Indian TV show, quite interestingly, mirrors the society of 2021 too.

The 150-odd episodes of Hum Log were unfortunately not recorded, making it impossible to rerun on any broadcast channel. Ask the elders in your family and they will fondly recall memories of gathering around their television sets and watching what was a first-of-its-kind soap opera that managed to relate to almost every aspect of their lives.

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