‘Idiotization’ of the box

Television has been an integral part of our lives. For most of us, this little box has been a part of our growing up days and many family gatherings. However, since then things have drastically changed from the Doordarshan’s swirling logo to today’s smart television sets. What was once popularly known as our window to the world has now metamorphosised into an idiot box of a different frequency.

Buniyaad

Sometimes, when I have nothing to do in the evenings, I watch my mother staring at the television in rapt fascination. After taking care of all the household affairs, she settles on the family couch at exactly 7:45 pm. The remote is completely under her control. From Balika Vadhu to Bigg Boss, my mother’s life is all about twists and turns in these television shows.

The next morning, she devotes at least an hour to discuss the latest plot developments with her sister and friends. They discuss whether the female lead should have or should not have taken a certain step or said something particular or not. There have been times she has passionately argued about her point of view regarding a female lead.  

Om and Parvati in Kahani Ghar ghar Ki

Reel life lessons

Infact, even though I don’t watch them, these television shows often impact my life too. Whenever we have a discussion, my mother often compares me to her heroines and sometimes even tells me to emulate them. ‘Why don’t you maintain yourself like Anandi (Balika Vadhu)! Or Look at Binodini (Barrister Bahu), learn from her!’ (even the titles have the word bahu in them!) I try to tell her that most of these characters are fictional and they have make up artists who keep brushing up their perfect make up after every shot! I often point out to the disclaimer that appears in the beginning of every show which says that the show is a work of fiction and has no resemblance to living or dead, she retorts, ‘every fiction is inspired from real life!’

Twist yourself mad

One day, I actually sat down to watch these shows just like my mother does. I wanted to understand their allure and what makes them so irresistible. The half an hour, I spent watching Balika Vadhu was enough to give any one with a weaker heart a mild case of palpitation. More than the twists and turns, it was the camera zooming on every character’s face and catching even the movement of their pupils that increased my heart rate! Then, the ‘always on’ make up and the perfect hair also added up to the stress! Imagine the kind of beauty parlour bills that I would endure if I decided to look like these caked up and made up women 24*7*365!

Carbon Copies

The idea of child marriage did not agree with me so I decided to do a different research and watched  ‘Yeh Rishte hain Pyar Ke’ (YRHPK) on HotStar and ‘Kuch Rang Pyar Ke Aise Bhi’ (KRPKAB) on SonyLiv. I thought these serials would have perhaps a more sensible storyline as compared to men getting married to minors! But to my utter disappointment, both these shows had similar story lines where a couple falls in love against the wishes of their respective families and has to deal with numerous challenges to be with each other. Interestingly, in both shows, Shaheer Sheikh, a well-known television actor plays the lead protagonist.

The similarity between the two shows didn’t just end there. In both these shows, there were scenes where the chandelier is about to fall on a family member who is saved by either the male or the female lead. In YRHPK, the mother-in-law is dead against her son’s girlfriend and tries her level best to separate them while in KRPKAB, the mother-in-law is influenced by scheming relatives and causes a lot of problems amidst the couple. I was barely able to get over the similarities between the two shows (both have scenes where the male lead rescues his lady love from the goons and tries to win her affections after a brief split (read in the next season)) when I got to know that the Ekta Kapoor has relaunched the famous show ‘Pavitra Rishta’ in which late Sushant Singh Rajput had essayed the role of the male protagonist. Much to my dismay, the only innovation in this show was that this time, the male lead was Shaheer Sheikh (yet again) while most of the caste including the female lead remained the same. The age old story revolves around a couple from middle class who fall in love and face challenges in the course of their journey.

When I looked at most of the serials by channels like Star or Colors or Zee, I couldn’t understand why is the world of television teeming with clones of love stories, endless saas bahu sagas and their related complications in the twenty first century! To understand this strange phenomenon, I talked to Raghuvendra Srinivasan, a cinematographer who has been an integral part of well known television shows including the fabled K gang number crunchers like ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ and ‘Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki.’

‘ Our love affair with television shows began some three decades back,’ says Raghuvendra. ‘We started by worshipping our television boxes with Ramayan and Mahabharat. We cried with the idiot box with shows like Buniyaad and Hum Log. Sitcoms like Ye Jo Hai Zindagi made us laugh too. But in those days, the world of television shows was quite different. A show like Hum Log was based on a basic premise- a typical Indian family with grandparents, parents, their children and the issues and challenges faced by them. The cast included seasoned actors like Ashok Kumar, Seema Pahwa, Sushma Seth and many others. Then came Buniyaad, another iconic show which had top notch actors and was directed by Ramesh Sippy. The shows in this era were not just about entertainment but also had a message.  ‘Subah’ was a serial whose central premise was drug addiction. It too comprised of a great cast which included actors like Salim Ghouse and Ekta Behl. Besides these, we had the likes of  Nukkad which was something very new in the comedy genre. It had great actors like Rama Vij, Pawan Malhotra and many more. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and B.R.Chopra’s Mahabharat were also a part of this era.’

So, what was different about these shows? Raghuvendra says, ‘ In those days, most of the shows were produced by film makers who had a big vision and bigger canvas. Most actors in these shows had a certain level, had done a lot of work in theatre and had a standard of work which reflected in their acting and characters. Even today, we remember characters like Khopdi or Guru or Badki. Then came Hum Panch which was produced by Ekta Kapoor. That was also a decent comedy about this widower who had five interesting daughters.’

Agrees Ved Thapar, a seasoned actor, writer and director, who has acted in shows like Raja Aur Rancho. ‘Earlier, our families and relationships were varied and vast. The family consisted of maternal and paternal grand parents, cousins, uncles and aunts. So, we liked watching such soaps which depicted our daily lives and struggles.’

Ved Thapar In Raja Aur Rancho

The advent of ‘idiotization’

But the golden age could not last forever, could it? As television became a money churning machine, people with money started producing new content. Raghuvendra says, ‘ I think the problems with Indian television started with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (KSBKBT). It came at a time when the dynamics of television had started changing. KSBKBT was produced by Ekta Kapoor who had nothing to do with cinema as a kid, even though she was the daughter of Jeetendra, a well-known star. It was just that she had the money and was at the right place at the right time, so she launched Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. As luck would have it, when KSBKBT was launched, the first season Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) was also launched. KBC was a huge hit. In the world of television, when a show starts gaining popularity, the channel gains a certain viewership and following.’

 ‘Every show that is launched targets a certain audience. Most of these ‘K’ shows are targeted at middle to older age home makers who reside in tier one, tier two cities and villages. These are hardcore television watchers who never miss any episode. Moreover, they are not just attached to shows, they are also attached to particular channels. You will find women who will only watch Sony or who will only watch Zee and not watch Star or vice versa.’

Channel Wars

What made women such avid channel loyalists? Raghuvendra says, ‘In the initial days, 8 pm was the slot reserved for Kasauti Zindagi Ki (KZK) , 9 pm was KBC and 10 pm was Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki (KGGK) and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (KSBKBT) . So because of KBC’s popularity, people started switching to that channel some time before KBC and got hooked on to Kasauti Zindagi Ki. After KBC, they kept watching the same channel and got addicted to all the other shows of the channel. After all, you can only watch one thing at a time. So, with the right mix of programming, the channel managed to engage the audience completely.’

It is quite clear that the popularity of KSBKBT or KGGK ensured a loyal audience. But how did that result in a flood of saas bahu sagas on every channel?

 According to Raghuvendra,  ‘It is not just about engaging an age group in the audience, it is also by engaging people of a certain community or area so that the TRP (Target Rating Point) of the channel increases. Shows like KSBKBT were all about a Gujarati family  and hence they were a great hit with most of the community. Obviously, when an entire community gets hooked on, the TRPs will shoot through the roof. So, with KBC, channel started ruling the roost because all the programs around KBC also got good TRPs. Obviously, no channel would want to give up such a viewership! When the other channels realized that these kind of saas bahu serials are grabbing the TRPs, they too came up with their own version of saas bahu dramas which were rehashes of the same concept. When Ekta Kapoor rocked the TRPs with a no brainer like Naagin which was all about shape shifting snakes with logic, other channels churned up similar content to engage their audience.’

To be continued..

The first part of this article ‘Idiotization of the box’ appeared in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 23 October 2021

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