Before the Cable & Satellite era, films were like a messiah for the Indian public. They provided the ultimate escape from the grotty and ugly reality that was life. Success of these films depended on how well they did all across the country, in cities, small towns and even smaller towns, that is anywhere there was a cinema. It was no mean task to score a blockbuster that appealed to an audience so heterogeneous and diverse in terms of language, culture and dress. Films were based on the Lowest Common Denominator principle.
Post liberalization, the task of entertaining the public was shared between films and soaps on telly. Soon, the latter became fodder for millions and marketers had new channels to advertise their brands. Viewership of these programmes was unprecedented with ratings so high that they were driving the advertising rates into the stratosphere. In many ways they took over from films. People, women in particular, were quite happy to stay at home and get hooked on to the shenanigans of Tulsi or Parvati and almost the entire nation sometimes grieved or celebrated with the characters in these soaps. They were notching up audiences as films had not been able to. So the films struck back with something they should have done earlier – they moved on. They were helped with the arrival of multiplexes with smaller theaters that are up-market, expensive and offer a whole new cinema experience. In addition, the huge Indian diaspora offers an affluent, hungry and captive audience for Indian films. The fortunes of film-makers were no longer dependent on hitting bull’s eye across the length and breadth of the country.
So they started experimenting with different themes and running them in metros and smaller towns and in foreign markets. Television stayed where it was. There is a feeling now that interest in these family soaps has begun to decline. The buzz is not about what Tulsi is doing or Kusum is going through but that Guru, the film, is based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani or that Rang De Basanti was very successful with the youth. There is a growing belief that the soaps are regressive and the country’s youth poised, as it is now, to enter the global world, does not perhaps identify with these women trapped in rituals laden with tradition that led to their confined lives and saw them as victims or martyrs. However, soaps are aping films of yester years and actually lifting song and dance sequences, old storylines and dragging them through tortuous paths. They have successfully spawned a whole new fashion industry where women in big and small towns are cloning stars on the small screen.
It is interesting that most films today explore different themes and those that are likely to appeal to youth. If films are any indication of the mood of a country then Indian cinema tells a story about the confidence of the people in India. Films are exploring new territories in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (extra marital affairs striking a chord with urban youth), Eklavya (a Freudian twist on the monarchy) or Nishabda (relationship between a 60 year old man and a 16 year old girl), the celebratory mood in No Entry, Khosla Ka Ghosla and a spate of such stories, proud to be Indian in Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munnabhai with his mantra of Gandhigiri and of course romance but treated more realistically as in Parineeta or Bunty aur Babli. As sometimes said – Now art films have become mainstream cinema.
Does this mean that there is a big opportunity for youth based programmes on television. While Reality TV shows are doing a good job of that, there is still an opportunity for youth related stuff on TV.
However, something has to be said in defense of these soaps. Consider the still large fan following of these saas bahu serials, or Bihari serials, as they are referred to by the younger generation, probably among a large segment of 25-44 year old women viewers. As a segment this is probably caught in time between pre liberalization and the fast moving pace of life today. So there is a bewildered, confused, lost urban citizen who sometimes secretly and sometimes not so secretly hankers for the comfortable familiarity of the days gone by – when families lived together, never mind the scheming sisters in-law, jealous wives, scheming mistresses and machiavellian men. All this notwithstanding, it was a world that they were familiar with and understood. So this segment will continue to ensure that these programmes enjoy large audiences but it is time producers took note of the several changes taking place; the rise of working women, rising literacy, moving away from joint families, nuclear families setting their own agendas, extended family becoming more distant, and optimism for a new breed of younger women one of who is our viewer’s daughter. And there is a strong belief that her life is going to be far different from the traditional saas bahu stories. The films have moved on, telly better take note.