The female protagonist has always taken centrestage in Hindi GECs and over the years the leading ladies of the small screen have changed several avatars. While critics may slam the characterisation of women in Hindi soaps as often being ‘regressive’, channels insist that they are actually depicting the new, progressive woman.
It may be argued that the progressive stance taken by television channels is not ‘progressive’ in the conventional or literal sense of the word. If looked at closely, what exactly is being termed progressive is highly subjective and contextual. Therefore, we are witnessing a ‘progressive woman’ deeply rooted in traditional setting, adhering to conventional Indian norms and beliefs, but exercising a ‘modern’ attitude towards life.
Decoding Star Plus’ interpretation of the term, Vivek Bahl, Executive Creative Director, Star Network, said, “We do a lot of drama that caters to the right people. Just because our heroines look in a certain manner and the drama is written in a certain way, it does make the show regressive. We are doing that to get the message across. If we were to do a very metro-centric, polished show, people may not watch us entirely and the message will not go through; then where is the point? It is better to get the message through and use the right language to get it through.”
Sukesh Motwani, Head - Fiction, Zee TV, observed, “In terms of depiction, the female protagonist on Hindi GECs over the last decade has become ‘more layered and nuanced’. Earlier, she was mostly a middle class bahu of a generically rich looking joint family in a more pan-Indian setting. The current heroine is depicted in varied authentic ways from varied worlds, geographically or demographically. She is far more expressive about her desires, thoughts, manner of expression, language, hopes and aspirations. Today, most story set-ups have become more authentic, rooted and believable, in terms of setting be it urban or small town or rural India and thus, the heroine is also far more realistic.”
Commenting on the changing trend, Sony’s Programming Head for Fiction, Ajay Bhalwankar, noted, “In the last16 years, things have changed radically from the days of ‘Tara’, ‘Amanat’ to all the K-series to now, ‘Krishnaben…’, ‘Pratigya’, ‘Balika Vadhu’s Anandi or Laali. Television as a medium is a reflection of society, it depends on each channel which part of society it wants to reflect. Even if it is a character such as Krishnaben, who is not highly educated, she is a survivor in her own right, someone who has made it big and helps others. It is not something that we have invented; these women exist in large numbers in the society and not a rare example. We have been consistent in depicting such characters through our shows.”
Colors has held that theirs is a channel that stands for social issues and their shows undertake subjects that address these issues. Commenting on this, Star Network’s Bahl argued, “The media dubs certain shows as regressive, but viewers don’t think so. I don’t think the media also says it enough. There was a time last year, when people seemed to say that they (Colors) were doing really new and progressive shows. They project themselves as a channel that picks up social issues, whether with ‘Balika...’ or with ‘Laado’, but they have not really seen them through, which they should have.”
He went on to add, “Due to the way television content has been dubbed regressive, in comparison, we have been doing progressive heroines, even when compared to other media such as women in advertising or movies where women are used as props. On our shows, women are the central characters. They may go through a lot of hardships, but they always fight back and they always win for the right reasons. Take the example of Akshara or in ‘Saathiya’, no matter the entertainment quotient it offers, eventually it tells you that women take charge and they push for the progressive reasons. They are always fighting for the girl child, for education, they are fighting for independence or the soon to be launched ‘Dor’, where she is fighting so that she can work outside of home and decide how she would like to spend her money. And yet, people collectively dub television channels as regressive.”
Saurabh Tewari, Fiction Head, Programming, Imagine TV, too, felt that there was a change in the premise and issue faced by the protagonist today, but she was still operating within the same parameters. “The leading woman today is a go-getter, someone who does not tolerate social injustice, but still believes that sindoor is her biggest asset. The setting is more real though, but there is a shift in the story telling, choice of subjects tackled and the way a protagonist responds to a situation,” he pointed out.
Enumerating the various protagonists on the channel, Motwani described Zee TV’s leading lady, “Be it Archana, Rani Laxmibai, Abha of ‘Yahan Main Ghar Ghar Kheli’, Laali, Mona of ‘Ram Milaayi Jodi’, Nandini of ‘Dil Se Diya Vachan’, Gauri of ‘Sangini’ or be it Laxmi of ‘Sanskaar Laxmi’ – ‘self respecting’ and ‘strong’ are two words to describe the Zee heroine”.
Officials from Colors did not respond to exchange4media’s queries on this report.
Commenting on the relatively shorter shelf life of fiction protagonists today, Harsha Joshi, COO – Media Buying and Content, Madison, observed, “Soaps continue to have protagonists even in today’s age, but the current trend is to have crisper and shorter versions that span over 2-3 years to enhance the audience’s interest level. Tulsi and Parvati were of the era of never ending saas-bahu sagas, extending up to 5-7 years and were the first ones on the small screen when the Hindi GEC environment was less competitive and hence got advantage of being the most popular protagonists.”
Ratings being similar, would media planners opt to be with a forward looking show or a shows based on social issues, which may appear regressive in nature? Joshi replied, “While deciding on whether or not to associate with a show, advertisers consider four broad parameters – audience that the show caters to (target audience), brand fit, cost efficiency and saliency of the show.”
Amin Lakhani of GroupM did not believe much had evolved in the characterisation of women in television content today. “With their anthem, Star Plus aims at strengthening their association with their viewers. Taking a stand or philosophy such as ‘social causes’ benefits brands, but is no more than a tool to get audiences hooked to a certain flavour of programming. Largely, the scenario today is not any different; in fact, we may be going back in time. For instance, if we are talking about progressive characters, it was on DD that India saw the first of strong characters on the show, ‘Rajni’. There is a spectrum within which people want to see idealistic entertainment with a certain degree of rhetorical melodrama. Star has experimented with reality, but now that returned to its strength. Zee suffered when Star Plus revived. Comedy as a formula has not worked except for success shows such as ‘Laughter Challenge’ and for SAB TV. The question really is – what does the Indian viewer want?”
Fiction may be the mainstay of a GEC, but as per Manoj Malkani, VP, MPG, big ticket realities were the preferred choice for advertisers. “It depends on the show, but certain brands stress on the quality of GRPs. It the product is being catered to the rural market, then that proves to be a point of differentiation. Most times, advertisers prefer reality shows and the current environment is largely filled with dance format shows on the primetime band across channels. This will change at a later stage, but this is the current scenario.”
As in known, Star Plus has launched three new weekend primetime shows, of which one is a reality format show, ‘Wife Bina Life’, which supports the channel’s philosophy further. Over a period of months, the channel’s TVC and anthem will mark special occasions for the channel. Whether the rebranding reinforcement exercise helped the channel is a verdict that lies in the hands of the viewers.
Leading Ladies in Hindi GECs: Walking ahead or staying rooted?