Over the years, women actors have ruled the screens of the Hindi television industry but the roles have — for better or worse — drastically changed. Among the top TRP grossing Hindi TV shows today, lies two drastically opposite serials — Anupamaa on Star Plus and Naagin 6 on Colors TV — which provide a bird’s eye view of India now. On the one hand, we have a nationalist ‘naagin‘ and on the other, a progressive woman making strides in her family. But interestingly, both these ideas of India are getting viewership and ruling the charts.
Anupamaa has emerged as a worthy successor to over a dozen serials headlined by a ‘sanskari, adarsh bahu’. The titular character, played by Rupali Ganguly, is (as expected) Ms Goody Two-Shoes but a much more nuanced version than her predecessors (Tulsi, Parvati, Akshara, Gopi, Radhika, Archana, Simar, and many more).
Naagin, now into its sixth instalment, remains a science-defying fantasy drama, but this time it has gone a step further and become lopsided and delusional. Tejasswi Prakash (winner of the last Bigg Boss season) plays the lead role in the Colors TV show but her character lacks any depth and is subservient to lazy dialogues and poor script.
Personal judgments aside, the two serials have garnered enough eyeballs to make it to the top five of Hindi television.
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An average Indian viewer is consuming both these shows that seem to be poles apart. It is evident that there is enough space for a show like Anupamaa, a seemingly progressive family drama, and Naagin 6, delusional entertainment, to thrive equally.
A show with the main lead playing a daughter-in-law (or transitioning into one) ruling the TRP charts is not new. That has been the running legacy of Hindi television. But what is it about Anupamaa that has made it immensely popular? The answer lies in the details.
The lead character, on a skeletal level, is an extension of a ‘typical’ woman — family-oriented and self-sacrificing — we are used to seeing in daily soaps. But the way several issues of a patriarchal society are weaved into the narrative makes it stand out. For instance, the stigma around divorce still persists. On top of that, if it’s a woman who asks for it, after more than 20 years of marriage, it opens another can of worms.
Not to say that the show is perfect but it is a significant improvement on what’s typically shown on TV. For the most part, the show is rooted in realism — one can imagine going through a lot that is presented on screen. After getting a divorce, Anupama builds her life from the ground by opening her own dance academy. All this while, she continues to fulfil her various roles — a mother, a daughter-in-law, and a friend. Although we are surrounded by such women, sadly, they are not often glorified on screen.
The show also addresses how patriarchy has not just ruptured women’s stature in society but has also given birth to ‘damaged’ men. The serial may glorify Anupama but her former husband Vanraj (Sudhanshu Pandey) is not exactly a villain. In a patriarchal setup, the man is expected to be the breadwinner of the family. He is raised to believe that it is his sole responsibility to provide for and protect his family members. So when such a man becomes unemployed and sees his wife go to work, the inferiority complex is only ‘natural’.
Naagin 6, however, is miles away from any liberal way of thinking. It exists in a world that is rooted in delusion and senseless fantasy.
Moving past the technical idiosyncrasies, the show begins with how a professor (a cheap rip-off of a character from Netflix’s Money Heist with the same nomenclature) summons ‘shesh naagin’ — considered to be the most powerful on Earth (Hulk, please sit down) — to save India from biological warfare by a ‘neighbouring country’ called “Chingistan”. See where I am going with this? The ‘naagin’ must save the country from the ‘anti-national’ elements.
Every time Prakash, who plays ‘shesh naagin’, even utters the word ‘mera desh’ (my country), a preachy instrumental rendition of Vande Mataram plays in the background.
For brief seconds, let’s pretend to buy into the plot of ‘ichhadhaari naagins’ (female snakes who can turn into humans at will) but the script and dialogues have enough holes in it for one to carve a blueprint of the New York City subway map. Much like the meme-favourite CID — a cult show in its own right — Naagin 6 has characters repeating (rather frustratingly) the same dialogues after scene after scene: “Naagin hu main naagin… naagino ki naagin.. shesh naagin.” Maybe they should start running just a subtitle at the bottom everytime ‘naagin‘ wants to deliver this declaration. At least that way, one would have a choice to ignore.
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The anatomy of family TV shows
The template of a family show has largely been the same over the years. A family-driven woman morphs into a diligent and cultured daughter-in-law for an often stern and sometimes mellow mother-in-law (or even father-in-law — these two characters keep exchanging traits) and a text-book, obedient son, or a brat, whose life changes after the leading lady enters his life.
These central roles are accompanied by supporting characters in form of a misguided or an overachieving sibling and other members of the extended family who would either make or break the equations. Most popular and long-running TV shows abide by the same guidebook.
Indian television has rarely strayed away from this formula of creating family TV shows. We may have entered the third decade of the 21st century but our stories are far from progressive. Most serials still conform to heteronormative ideals.
The veteran filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had once said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Seeing the TRP ratings, I am not sure if the audience is ‘suffering’ but can confidently declare my detachment from Hindi television, at least until something better comes about.
Views are personal.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)