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Scare them. Shock them. Keep them guessing. Television producers are on the top of the game. If you flip television channels, you will come across believe-it-or-nuts soaps where the titular character turns into a housefly. If this does not make you goggle eyed, the hero turning into a mongoose man will. Welcome to supernatural genre which is forcibly absurd, largely superstitious, shoddily animated and overtly religious in nature.
You might think that a country known for snake charmers would be more kindly disposed to shows where the protagonist is a vengeful snake woman. But city slickers are lampooning the onslaught of naagins and dayans in their living rooms. Urban folks may say that these serials are regressive and that they cannot identify with such ridiculous fantasy. But we know that success is the only truth. What sells must be popular.
Little surprise then that television producers including soap sultana Ekta Kapoor are cooking melodrama with dark shades of fantasy. After all, how many house hold dramas can the audiences endure? The dutiful bahu sorted all her domestic problems. She now knows that the laptops are not to be washed with soap and water. The malevolent matriarch has tormented the household members by poisoning enough milk glasses. The innocent child-bride has conveyed the right messages for more than eight years. As has the gutsy widow who opts for re-marriage. So, what’s next?
Themes of love and revenge now play via mythical characters with religious overtones. More than a twists of the plot, the twist of a character makes for riveting viewing. If it was the evil sister-in-law who was creating impediments, it is now her evil double. If it was plastic surgery that created twists, vardaan (boon) and shrap(curse) are more effective.
And yet, most tried and tested formulas endure. The titular characters continue to be black and white, with little scope for grey. The sanskaari bahu always wins over the evil other woman. The grass grows faster than the story and one engagement ceremony is stretched over several weeks. Thanks to re-incarnation, popular characters enter and exit depending on their dates and popularity. Dressed in faux-ethnic ensembles, women continue to live in garish homes, wear hideous wigs and oversized bindis. Above all, the drama continues to play itself out with every eyebrow twitch, lip tremble, pupil dilation and nostril flare in full camera glare. Up-close and in-your-face.
If you are cerebral viewer of Friends, House of Cards or Breaking Bad, you will perhaps shake your head in disbelief to know that Indian soap stars are household names in many countries. Balika Vadhu is running in more than 15 countries in almost equal number of languages. Frankly, you have no right to sneer if you are spending more time on your laptop and less time on television. Why should producers care for net savvy audiences who prefer Netflix over Colors, Star or Zee?
Other than saas-bahu overkill, the serial producers blame the genre shift on the popularity of fantasies like the Game of Thrones, The Conjuring, The Twilight Saga and Pottermania. Many ancient stories, as in Bahubali, are being told with modern camera effects. You have your fantasies, we have our folklore. You love your vampires, we love our snakes. All good? No. Not really. The unfortunate part is that scary can be engrossing, fantasy can pack a punch and sci-fi can be compelling but most desi soaps prove nothing of the above. When the promo of a desi soap imitated the Game of Thrones it ended up being laughing stock on social media.
And those who yearn for good old Ye Jo Hai Jindagi, Hasratein, Dekh Bhai Dekh or Sarabhai versus Sarabhai, keep dreaming. In the age of technology and Pokemons, there is no place for simplicity. Because there is no Ekta Kapoor without the viewer. Also because it is not Ekta who enjoys watching a possessed bride headbanging on her wedding night. It is her audience.
Anil Kapoor can try his best with 24, but it is not easy to beat the TRPs of the vampires, dayans and shaitans. Go get your Netflix.