The Secret Diary of a Saas-Bahu Writer

Pop Culture

The Secret Diary of a Saas-Bahu Writer

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Radha is just not sounding bechari… Too many supports she has ya… Nobody is torturing her? No pain?”

I stared blankly at Roma, at her fleshy white face, as she popped yet another chocolate modak in her mouth and got up taking out her packet of Classic Milds, signalling the end of the meeting. As the programming head of one of India’s leading Hindi entertainment channels, she briefed me, two months ago, to “write something fresh”.

“We want to do something new ya… not the usual saas-bahu rut,” she’d told me. “You know, progressive girl… aspirational for SEC, B, and C…?

A flicker of hope flitted through me. “Progressive? Like Diya Baati progressive where an IPS officer girl married a halwai husband or YRKKH progressive where the blind girl does all house work including putting Bournvita in her kid’s milk and peeling potatoes with a dangerous thumb-slicing peeler?”

Roma looked at me through the smoke of her Classic Milds. “No babe. Like real stuff… Hollywood shows progressive…”

So I allowed it to flicker. That little flame of excitement at the prospect of something more intelligent than Simran turning into an ichhadari boil on her sasuma’s bum. I ran home and wrote a simple tale about a young girl who leaves Meerut to find a career, true love, acceptance from the family, and recognition from the world – an inspiring story in which she gets married in the end to a man who is not a wife beater or a misogynist!

But, two months later, Miss Classic Milds looked at me as if I’d written Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She held my shoulder and confidentially imparted some gyaan, “Nobody wants to see the story of a normal girl, dearie.” I tried not to cringe at the “dearie” and to remind her of the brief we had discussed, but she was gone in her puff of smoke to dream of whether Pond’s cream would buy a product placement in the ichhadhari boil scene.

I did a set of pranayamas and dragged the story doc to the folder called “No One Cares” and began to write a new story. Radha comes from Meerut to Delhi to work, but marries into a rich family and her husband is a womaniser. Her story is of her battle against the evil MIL to change her callous husband and make him into a loving one. I think of seriously piercing myself in the eye with the pen I write with. Then I think of the flat in Andheri west that many such scripts have financed and I put the pen down slowly.

There is a secret template engraved in invisible ink hanging in the conference rooms of all the channels where creative meetings happen. “In the war between Bechari Ladki and Badchalan Ladki, jeet will always be of Bechari Ladki, who will always eventually fix her evil in-laws and become Kifaayati Bahu.” That is the prototype of all shows. Give or take some changes in formula – good daughter + bad stepmother or hateful husband + goody MIL. Ultimately jeet is of Kifaayati Bahu.

“Who is torturing her?” This is the question that writers of Indian television get constantly asked right after, “In one line, what is her pain?” The truth is, no one cares about girls who want to work and find equal partners in the top three GECs. Nobody gives a fuck about their aspirations, even though they keep throwing the word “aspirational” at us. We are taught, very early in our careers that if we up the nasty quotient of the saas, add molesting bosses, nosy neighbours, and judgmental family members, and hold them all together within an illogical flimsy plot which is a copy of ’90s hits like Benaam Badsha or Sau Din Saas Ke, there will be a shower of that beautiful thing called TRPs.

As a TV writer, I’ve learnt how to keep reality and feminism at home. If you have to earn from this medium, get down and dirty, ready to sell your soul.

Things like mildly feminist viewpoints and speech levels above a certain decibel that could denote “bold krantikaari” are exorcised very early in writing careers – the TRPs scurry away faster than rats abandoning sinking ships. As they do when anything approaches even a smidgen of realism. “We are not making a Shyam Benegal, yaa” is what we get shamed with. I am working in an industry where Shyam Benegal is a curse word and creativity goes to drown itself without dignity.

There is a force behind these much-desired TRPs. It is a force, like Oz, never seen and never heard. This is the mysterious entity called the “Indian viewer”. I have spent sleepless nights wondering about this “Indian viewer” and have finally come to the conclusion that the viewer is my house help, Sarita.

Sarita is a demanding viewer and sometimes gets really pissed with me. I had been called in to help on her favourite show recently. Panicking over the .8-.9 rating, the channel was overhauling the show giving it a fresh restart. The entire writing team had been thrown out and they looked at me for some instant magic at the creative meeting. I began to take out my one lines from the hat – chudail ki entry, murder of the MIL, hero ki death, and arrival of the new hero. Everyone perked up with that because anyway the current hero was a pain in the arse – he never wanted to do rain sequences because of his hair. Tanker water apparently does bad stuff to transplanted hair. The channel EP’s eyes gleamed as she said, “This time na, give me a really sexy hero, someone who is totally rough and rude.”

Sarita did not like it one bit.

Sarita: Didi, but her husband just died, how could she be in another man’s arms? Isn’t she sad?

Me: Four months have passed since the husband died. This man really loves her.

My daughter (butting in): If he loves her why did he pull her hair? Is he allowed to do that? You only said men aren’t allowed to hit women.

Me: Who said you could watch this? No one is allowed to hit no one…

Daughter: But you are writing it, so we want to watch…

Me: *exasperatedly rips off the cable wire*

I have to repair the cable wire ever so often in my house. One particular EP, a single woman with a penchant for seriously purple lipstick, had really begun to enjoy the erotic tone of some scenes. She would always send feedback late at night and was encouraging me to write MORE and MORE erotica for every episode. So in the middle of Ganapati aartis in the pooja room, I wrote of lustful fights in the kitchen with much passionate atta kneading. Sarita would object vehemently to this sexual overtness. Between Sarita’s emotional needs and the EP’s masturbatory ones, I was so exhausted that I pulled out the cable wire yet again.

But now, I think I’ve reached a Zen state. I listen to feedback like, “Please, let him slap her hard when she doesn’t listen”, without throwing a hissy fit. No arguments. I’ve accepted that a man can kick, torture, and float compromising pictures of his wife on the internet; mothers-in-law can burn her clothes and add dead chipkalis to bahu ki banaayee hui kheer. I’ve learnt that sex on Indian TV will entirely comprise “look exchanges” between the boy and the girl with said girl bumping physically into the guy at least once in every episode to get her freak on. As long as its pulpy soft porn disguised as mushy emo nonsense, all is well in the soap world. As a TV writer, I’ve learnt how to keep reality and feminism at home. If you have to earn from this medium, get down and dirty, ready to sell your soul.

In this Zen state of mind, I wrote a scene for Roma’s “progressive” Radha, who runs her own small factory, and her loser husband Rohit, who continues to womanise without blinking an eye.

Pushing her against the wall, Rohit holds her hands high above her head… locking his eyes with hers, he grits his teeth and threatens her, “Maine sau baar tumhe samjhaaya hai, tumhe abhi tak samajh nahi aaya?”

Squirming underneath his hard grip she softly says, “Rohit ji, please I’m sorry magar main apne nischay par atal hoon, main aapko divorce nahi doongi!”

Rohit glares at her and then holds her hair; he whispers inches from her lips….

“Last time… this is the last time I’m samjhaoing… Aaj raat tak papers sign kardo.”

Pushing her scornfully away toward the wall, he strides out of the room…

Radha sobs and falls to the ground weeping as her VO floats in, “Rohit ji, aapko main kaise samjhaoon… ki main aapki rakhail nahi byaahta hoon… Aaj karva chauth hai… Iss janam toh kya saat janmon mein main paper sign nahi karoongi.” Determined she looks into the camera and says, “Apne sindoor ki kasam main, aapko badal ke rahoongi…”

Crescendo build up and cut.

I email yet another screenplay to the channel, quietly counting the bucks I’m billing, and ignoring that little voice in my head that screams about the content. As the episode plays out the next night, I watch Sarita. The viewer looks pleased.