From Buniyaad to Pehredaar: My India on TV

Pop Culture

From Buniyaad to Pehredaar: My India on TV

Illustration: Juergen DSouza

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was recently watching Ishqbaaz when I felt a sharp stab of disappointment. The series airs on Star Plus – they who promised us in their re-branded campaign, “Rishta Wohi, Soch Nayi”, to upgrade the level of thinking on Indian soaps. Ishqbaaz features veteran TV actor, Mahesh Thakur, as an ageing industrialist desperately in need of a razor, who is having an affair with his secretary, Svetlana, who was also briefly engaged to his son. I’m not sure what nayi soch this plot line promulgates but that’s not what disappointed me. What disappointed me was Mahesh Thakur.

The first time I saw the actor on the small screen was as the hapless husband caught between the playful saas-bahu characters, the late Reema Lagoo and Supriya Pilgonkar in Tu Tu Main Main. However, it was his performance as the sensitive, loving husband in Ravi Rai’s Sailaab (1995) that I primarily remember him for. Exploring the reconciliation and extramarital affair of two former lovers, Rohit (Sachin Khedekar) and Shivani (Renuka Shahane) and how it wrecks the lives of the people around them, including Thakur who plays Shivani’s husband, the weekly show displayed the multiple shades of grey to the relationship through quotidian moments and conversations. I never cared much for Shahane’s bhabhi act in Hum Aapke Hain Koun!! but her luminous performance as a woman caught between her past and present has remained with me ever since.

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I was living in Oman at that time and Indian satellite television had only just arrived in our midst in 1994. Prior to its arrival, my father would make weekly trips to the videocassette library in the nearest town and bring back tapes of latest Hindi films, Mahabharata episodes, and Pakistani serials. We consumed home – or what was almost-home – one reel at a time. Back then, the only TV series you could watch were those like Hum Log or Buniyaad, produced for Doordarshan with a specific, nation-building purpose (Hum Log, for instance, was coded with a family-planning agenda).

The arrival of Zee TV, Star Plus, and Sony TV meant that home was no longer a sea journey or a flight away. Where I’d be profusely homesick on the flight back to Muscat once our annual trips to India were over, I now consoled myself with the thought that it was but a click of a remote control away.

Hip Hip Hurray (1998) took us into the lives of young people’s dilemmas at school.

Image Credit / Zee TV

These soaps became windows into a life that I imagined inhabiting if I were ever to return to India. Unlike the escapist, illogical Bollywood capers that we watched, these shows made India appear much more accessible through their realistic sets, dialogue, and costumes. Mujhe Chaand Chahiye traced a young girl’s intense yearning to leave her small-town existence and become an actress while Tara showed four spunky, memorable independent women characters.

The idea of a television series featuring a child in a romantic relationship with an adult (disturbing as it is) can only exist if you are trying to challenge the reality of child marriage, the way Balika Vadhu attempted to.

Even if extramarital affairs were depicted on Sailaab or Neena Gupta’s Saans, the subtext of which usually flew over my head, they were subtly interwoven into the script – and the show would still resonate with me. Hip Hip Hurray (1998) took us into the lives of young people’s dilemmas at school. There were soaps which were rooted in conservative attitudes then as well: Heena, for example, where the titular protagonist initially defends and supports her cheating husband. But even that had a few redeeming qualities in its initial years.

As I grew older, I knew that these soaps were not always an accurate representation of the homeland. But they did seek to challenge reality and present a better alternative even as they entertained us. For me, they assuaged a restlessness, which filled me as I struggled to negotiate my identity as a child of the diaspora. What I saw in those shows, its stories and characters, were multiple Indias and a rich definition of what it meant to be an Indian.

Everyone seemed to be resigned to this new menu of entertainment as if the old one had never existed. And when Pehredar Piya Ki released, I realised it was high time I gave up too.

Image Credit / Sony Pictures Networks

I came back to India a few years ago and tried to find that same India on TV. Instead, I found Botoxed-naagins, shows where women leads turn into houseflies, and a sanskaari poster boy with a Salman Khan body announcing that naaris should be daasis. I kept waiting for someone to raise their hand and ask out loud: “What in the name of God is going on here?” But around me, everyone seemed to be resigned to this new reality and menu of entertainment as if the old one had never existed. And when Pehredaar Piya Ki released, I realised it was high time I gave up too.

The idea of a television series featuring a child in a romantic relationship with an adult (disturbing as it is) can only exist if you are trying to challenge the reality of child marriage, the way Balika Vadhu attempted to. Any other reason is simply vulgar titillation verging on sleaze. So when the makers of Pehredaar defended the suhaag raat scene between an adult woman and a 10-year-old boy, which had troubling undertones of child abuse, as an “innocent” bond between the two protagonists, of “a rare bonding and friendship,” instead of slamming it as a statement on child marriage, I realised we had reached a seminal moment for Indian television.

We are now willingly watching TV that openly reiterates oppressive realities and blatantly refuses to challenge them. This is absolutely the nadir and I doubt we can possibly go any lower. Until the day, of course, we see a series based on an illicit relationship between a 10-year-old naagin forced to marry a man twice her age and then have to deal with a scheming saas who is also a housefly.

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