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Prime time soap operas and women's empowerment
The Hoot excerpts a section of Shoma Munshi's Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television. Selected and introduced by SUBARNO CHATTARJI
Posted/Updated Saturday, May 22 08:27:21, 2010
Interpreting Media

May 2010

As part of The Hoot's continuing commitment toward creating greater media awareness and fostering debates related to media issues we are excerpting a passage from Shoma Munshi's Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television. New extracts will be posted on the site every month and readers are invited to send in comments, book recommendations, and reviews.

Shoma Munshi's book is an ethnographic study of an extremely popular and occasionally contentious form of entertainment on Indian television, soap operas. Her book provides a snapshot of the particular time and socio-cultural circumstances in which a set of soap operas were produced, enacted, and consumed. The book deals with a specific time period from 2000 to 2008, when soaps started airing for the first time on prime time television. Munshi focuses on five specific soaps: Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kasauti Zindagi Kay, Saat Phere  ...  Saloni Ka Safar, and Sapna Babul Ka  ...  Bidaai. Although four of the five soaps discussed have gone off the air Munshi's analysis is of continuing generic value. Her analysis deals not only with the materiality of the genre in terms of production and television ratings but more crucially with thematic and ideological issues related to gender, class, family, and identity. While many commentators have seen the soaps as regressive modes of entertainment, Munshi argues that they are in fact empowering and that women across the board perceive them as such.

Shoma Munshi. Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television. New Delhi, London: Routledge, 2010.

Extracted from Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television by Shoma Munshi; Shoma Munshi, reprinted with permission from Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New Delhi,  2010.

Stooping to Conquer: Strong Women

c) Prime Time Soap Operas as Persuaders in Empowering Women 

Hum Log and Humraahi fall much more explicitly in the domain of entertainment-education and social development-oriented programming. 

What is exciting and heartening is to see how, despite the criticisms leveled against them, prime time Hindi soap operas, telecast from the year 2000 onwards, particularly the K soaps, play a central role in empowering women. Throughout the book, I have tried to show how prime time soap narratives are so structured as to carry out this role; and how their heroines are represented as strong women, who, when faced with moral dilemmas, or in tackling other problems, deal with them in ways that must undoubtedly resonate with many women who feel that these soaps change the way they see and interact with their world. Recent academic scholarship (Johnson 2001; Scrase 2002; and Jensen and Oster 2007) substantiates my point that television soaps can have the most unexpected effects on the status of women, even in rural India  --  for the better! I will outline this research, particularly the most recent Jensen-Oster study, in some detail.31 

The most important point to note about the Jensen-Oster study is that, unlike the soaps of earlier times on Doordarshan which employed social messages directed at audiences, the positive effects they found in their detailed research come from prime time soaps on satellite television. These are different genres of programming.32 

Robert Jensen and Emily Oster carried out three years, from 2001-2003, empirical research focusing on the "effect of the introduction of cable television in rural areas of India on a particular set of values and behaviors, namely attitudes towards and discrimination against women' (Jensen and Oster 2007: 2). They surveyed "2700 households, each containing a person aged 50 or older," and focused on the four states of "Bihar, Goa, Haryana and Tamil Nadu, and the capital, Delhi" (ibid.: 7). This research notes that "most popular satellite television shows in India portray life in urban settings; further, a wide range of international programs are now available" (ibid.: 2), and that "the most popular shows tend to be game shows and soap operas. As an example, among the most popular shows in both 2000 and 2007 (based on Indian Nielsen ratings) is Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi  ...  a show based around the life of a wealthy industrial family in the large city of Mumbai. As can be seen from the title, the main themes and plots of the show often revolve around issues of family and gender. Among satellite channels, Star TV and Zee TV tend to dominate, although Sony, Star Plus and Sun TV are also represented among the top 20 shows. Viewership of the government channel, although relatively high among those who do not have cable, is extremely low among those who do (and limited largely to sporting events)" (ibid.: 5, emphasis mine).   

The authors go on to note that "on issues of gender specifically, television seems to have had a significant impact, since this is an area where the lives of the rural viewers differ greatly from those depicted on most popular shows. By virtue of the fact that the most popular Indian serials take place in urban settings, women depicted on these shows are typically much more emancipated than rural women" (Jensen and Oster 2007: 6). 

That increase in exposure to television in general, and its effects on the rural population of India, has been documented. Kirk Johnson's ethnographic fieldwork (2001) in two remote villages in the mountains of western Maharashtra, Danawli and Raj Puri, quotes respondents in his study saying that since television had come to their village, they were having to help their wives with the household chores. Similarly, Timothy Scrase (2002) reports that several of his respondents in West Bengal thought that television might help the cause of women's advancement by making them question their social position. 

Thus television, generally speaking, has had positive effects. The significance of the Jensen-Oster study lies in tracking the positive effects that cable television in particular has had.33 A very important point that it makes is that "in terms of magnitude, the introduction of cable television dramatically decreases the differences in attitudes and behaviors between urban and rural areas  --  between 45 and 70 percent of the difference disappears within two years of cable introduction in this sample" (2007: 3, emphasis mine). 

Jensen and Oster's findings show that "after cable is introduced to a village, women are less likely to report that domestic violence towards women is acceptable. They also report increased autonomy (for example, the ability to go out without permission and to participate in household decision-making). Women are less likely to report son preference (the desire to give birth to a boy rather than a girl). Turning to behaviors, we find increases in school enrollment for girls (but not for boys), and decreases in fertility (which is often linked to female autonomy)" (Jensen and Oster 2007: 3).34 

The authors continue that "it is also noteworthy that the large changes observed are accomplished despite there being little or no direct targeted appeals, such as through public service announcements or explicitly socially-oriented programming (such as the 'Sabido Method' soap operas used worldwide). It may be that cable television, with programming that features lifestyles in both urban and other countries, is an effective form of persuasion because people emulate what they perceive to be desirable behaviors and attitudes, without the need for an explicit appeal to do so" (Jensen and Oster 2007: 27, emphasis mine). 

So, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi has done women, even in rural India, a great deal of good. How did this happen? This is not a new premise. When Doordarshan was launched, one of the guiding principles behind it was that the media can be used as a tool for development. It is a simple postulate. The visual image leaves a lasting imprint in our minds. Especially for those who cannot read or write, television is an effective tool for communication.

Wilbur Schramm's thesis (1964) is that the mass media can be used for explaining goals, raising aspirations, and creating a climate for national development. Schramm also indicates that development of the media encourages political democracy with its attempts to involve the public in decision-making processes. Instead of the government forcing changes in lifestyle, the population would become aware of a need that was not satisfied by their present behavior. They would then borrow, or replicate, behavior that would come closer to meeting those needs. Thus, as noted in the previous section, Hum Log was the first Indian soap to try out this concept, with a good measure of success (see, for instance Das 1995; and Mankekar 1999). 

The Jensen-Oster study underlines what Ekta Kapoor said of the representation of women in soaps. Differentiating between Bollywood film and television soaps, she said of their audiences: "in films, women idolize the men, but on television, it is just the opposite. They fantasize about the men and idolize the women" (Koffee With Karan, episode of 27 May 2007, Star One). There may, of course, be other factors contributing to the changes in the lives of the women under study in the Jensen-Oster report. But one thing is certain. Soap operas have been changing the way women see their role in society and in families. It bears remembering that changing expectations is the first step to changing reality. 

Writing about the Jensen-Oster study, Wharton Business School professor Joel Waldfogel (2007) noted that "the women of rural India  ...  should perhaps call the TV the Empowerment Box instead of the Idiot Box." Referring to the same study, columnist Niranjan Rajadhyaksha (2007) wrote that during a visit to Pakistan in 2006, he faced an "array of questions  ...  on the soap operas churned out by Ekta Kapoor." Further in the article, he correctly notes that "recent research by economists suggests that  ...  empowered women will help push economic growth to new heights" and points to the fact of television soaps acting as catalysts for change. In a personal observation, thanks to "a brother-in-law who runs a successful Marathi entertainment channel," Rajadhyaksha states that he knows first-hand that "cable television changes the way people behave. The one example is the colors and furniture used in middle-class Maharashtrian homes today. They are the rich modern colors and contemporary furniture depicted in his serials, a far cry from the dull decor of the traditional, middle-class home. Mindsets have changed." I am quoting the conclusion of Rajadhyaksha's text because it bears repeating. Rajadhyaksha admits that "like most urban men, I love to scoff at the family sagas that dominate television in the evening. A former colleague of mine used to argue that we were wrong in the assumption that these serials were regressive in their portrayal of women. She always insisted that beneath the traditionalist garb, Ekta Kapoor serials portrayed remarkably independent women. What Jensen and Oster have found in their research shows that she was right after all. Smriti Irani [Tulsi] and Sakshi Tanwar [Paravti] as drivers of long term economic growth. Now, that's a thought!'"

Are heroines like Tulsi and Parvati, bedecked in designer finery with expensive saris and jewelry, changing rural India? The short answer is yes. Writing in a different context on south Indian folktales, A. K. Ramanujan defines "women's tales" as tales recounted by and focused on women. This does not, in any way, exclude men's exposure to them. Ramanujan's analysis (1991: 33󈵿) is about the theme of separation and suffering, in which the heroine is made a person through the recounting of her tale. He argues, "the whole tale is of her acquiring her story, making a person of her, making a silent person a speaking woman' (ibid.: 42). Such an analysis finds echoes in the episode of 29 October 2008 of Kyunki, in which it was said, 'aurat khamosh hai, kamzor nahin" (women are silent, but not weak). 

For the majority of the country, television is the window to the world. Recent academic research (for instance Johnson 2001; Scrase 2002; and Jensen-Oster 2007) clearly demonstrates that rural women admire the independence of strong soap heroines, especially Tulsi and Parvati. The most positive fall-outs are, to my mind, a mother welcoming a girl child because she learnt on prime time soap operas on satellite television that she too can grow up to be a strong woman; and that education is key, so she sends her daughter to school with her brothers. 


31. As can be understood, the Jensen-Oster study came to the notice not just of academics but also of television producers. I was, in fact, very kindly sent a copy of it by Yash Khanna, Head of Corporate Communications, Star TV.

32. For a fuller discussion on this, see Chapters 1 and 5 in this book.

33. The authors document that as with any ethnographic study, they were "measuring only what is reported, rather than directly observing the outcomes" (2007: 19-20).

34. My own earlier work on the effects of television advertisements and beauty pageants acting as tools of empowerment for women underlines the positive effects that television plays in the lives of women (see Munshi 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2008).


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