Indian soaps and serials these days are incomplete without the presence of two female lead characters — the ‘ideal’ woman and the ‘bad’ woman. Each serial has almost the same plot being devoured by the audience, and talked about in nearly every household.
These soaps revolve around various issues — family, love, marriage. Maybe they even begin with the intention to delve deep into these topics and explore various issues around them, such as women in our society.
However, the problem lies in the very root of the makers’ attempt at dealing with women-centric issues — in how women are portrayed in these soaps.
Take an evening stroll in almost any locality, you will inevitably pass by windows of houses where a group of family members huddle together, watching these soaps.
The problem? We hardly ever question what we watch.
The ‘ideal’ woman versus the ‘bad’ woman
Who is the ideal woman? The ideal woman is soft-spoken, submissive and obedient. Indian ‘values’ are often depicted through a family’s bahu (daughter-in-law). She diligently and systematically takes care of her parents, her in-laws and her husband. She puts everyone else and their comfort before her own well-being and personal desires.
Not to forget, she has no option but to drape herself in a traditional saree (with the pallu over her head), wear bangles and a bindi.
Gopi from Saath Nibhana Saathiya is a perfect example of a stereotypical bahu. Other soaps with such typical obedient, submissive women characters include Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Madhubala.
An ideal woman is a homemaker. The shy, sweet, pious woman’s world revolves around her family and home. She cannot dare to have an opinion as that would put her in the ‘bad’ woman category. Her husband’s opinions are her opinions.
A ‘bad’ woman, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of the ideal woman. She is outspoken and refuses to bow down to orders. She is extroverted and opinionated. She stands equal to a man and is ambitious. In contrast to the introverted bahus, she often wears western dresses.
What is the deep-rooted problem?
To begin with, the problem lies in the mindset of the makers of these soaps. They clearly do not introspect or believe that it is essential to review their own work and think over how it could affect society as a whole.
An unacceptable part of these daily soaps is how a so-called good, ideal woman is treated by her husband and in-laws. She is an ideal woman only when she is docile and silently accepts being mistreated, and then goes back to caring for those who mistreat her.
The values that the woman is expected to abide by are steeped in patriarchal settings. No matter how badly her husband treats her, she must stay true to him and love him dearly. She must get rid of her self-esteem to win back her husband’s love. The same, however, is not expected of a man.
A daily Bengali serial called Ichche Nodee premiered on June 15, 2015 and aired on Star Jalsha. It was produced by Saibal Banerjee of Magic Moments Motion Pictures.
The lead character, Anurag, marries Meghla, a woman he falls in love with while on a trip to the mountains. After some initial days of love, Anurag is not only rude to her but even goes to the extent of sending her back home for failing to be a good wife.
In Anurag’s absence, his mother (Meghla’s mother-in-law) mistreats and abuses her, hurts her emotionally, hurls cringeworthy words at her and blames her for Anurag’s downfall.
In the end, Meghla chooses to come back to her husband, because she is bound to embrace his male ego and accept him as her soulmate.
Despite Anurag’s terrible attitude towards his wife, he is a ‘hero’. Despite his mother’s appalling behaviour, she has to be idealised, because well, she was once an ideal bahu donning a saree, some bangles and a bindi.
This may sound like a small thing, given it is only a fictional depiction of family issues, but it is dangerous. Such soaps reek of misogyny, glorify toxic masculinity and send out the message that good women are dutiful and meek. What’s worse, they send out the message that women are fond of ‘bad boys’, disrespectful husbands and abusive in-laws.
Another aspect that these soaps highlight is how a woman constantly strives to pull down other women. No one is both good and bad — they are either perfect or a vamp.
An evil woman often fights to steal the ideal woman’s husband. She does everything to demean the other woman — from mixing chili powder in her food to spreading lies about her.
Why this must not be ignored
Making soaps and serials and movies is a work of art. It should involve accountability and responsibility on the part of the makers.
Women are not always enemies of other women, as these soaps tend to narrate. Women can be best friends of each other, they can motivate each other to fight against injustice and prosper in life.
Thousands of people are affected deeply by what they watch. They tend to believe that submissiveness is synonymous with virtue and morality, and aggressiveness with evil. They believe that women deserve to be treated badly and that they must not protest, because that is what women are destined for.
In a country which is extremely unsafe for women, we need to characterise our fictional women with strength and self-respect. It is the makers’ duty to tell the viewers that women are equal to men and will not tolerate injustice. Very few serials have successfully done that.
What we are offered on our screens mirrors today’s society. We cannot afford to glorify patriarchy and pass it off as a trivial matter.
The makers of these soaps are answerable, and we must question them and demand change, now more than ever.