| Gender | Media |

Malayalam TV serial makers soften feminism for the market

M P Basheer


"Stree is dead; long live Stree!" is the new mantra of Malayalam TV channels. The phenomenal success of the tele-serial Stree on Asianet, Keralas first private television channel, prompted this intriguing philosophy. The serial proved so successful, and the bond it forged with its female viewers so strong, that two other different serials with different stories, but with the same name followed it! "Stree is a branded bottle. Anything you bottle in it will be welcome by the female audience of Kerala," says Madhu Mohan director of Stree tri-serials which completed a thousand episodes through its third incarnation in October 2002.

Viewers of these syrupy serials ranged from daily-wage labourers to highly educated professionals, from seven-year-old girls to 80-plus grandmothers. It would be no exaggeration to say that everyday life in Kerala came to a standstill at 7.30 pm primetime. The social significance of this tele-event in a highly literate state deserves to be closely examined. And it was widely believed that Indu alone, who was transformed into a social icon overnight, carried the serial, crawling through its 390 episodes at a snail?s pace, along. Stree could well be considered the magic word that triggered a new era in the Malayalam television industry, as channels vied with one another to grab the attention of the women of Kerala

Although the Stree serials by their very format drew in a wide range of female characters, they managed to keep the focus on one or two central characters. In the first story that started telecasting four years ago, the heroine Indu maintained her physical and spiritual purity against all odds. Indu enacted the roles of a daughter, lover, sister, wife, and mother all fighting off sundry challenges to her physical and spiritual chastity. At the initial stages of the story, Indu was stubborn and bold and appeared to be a feminist. At later stages, audience response gathered by the channel made the director soften the heroine. Unbelievably good, patient and self-sacrificing Indu thereafter never questioned the patriarchal fabric of the society.

Kerala society always loved the feminine aspects (read submissive behaviour) of woman. The channel people, advertisers and even the women artists of the serial made us to write and rewrite the storylines, admits Madhu Mohan. Characters made and unmade, emotional wars fought and settled, story schemes created and vanished, the two previous Strees ended up a big commercial success, though even the director cannot recollect the whole story. The current edition also is forging ahead with a heroine Shalu, full of submissive qualities, taking on? the anti-heroine Malu who is more realistic in her stubbornness.

While the first edition of Stree was meandering through 390 episodes with a weepy heroine, television down South had begun cutting into print. Among the regional languages that saw the launch of the maximum number of new television channels during last five years were Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada, and the readership of the pulp magazines in these languages registered a slump. The print media was forced to take note of the astonishing popularity of these serials.

Stree was not the first woman-centred serial to be aired on Malayalam television. Doordarshans regional Malayalam channel was already tailoring its policies along lines laid down by Delhi Doordarshan, and was encouraging programmes that boosted the cause of womens empowerment. But the representation of women on television has been discussed only in the context of the North Indian television experience. Television, like any other cultural form, has to address and negotiate the local experiences of women and their socio-cultural specificities in order to build up a solid viewer base. By its very presence in the home television finds a natural ally in women, most of whom spend a major chunk of their time attending to domestic chores.

Some serial makers have adopted a tactic that led to the phenomenal growth of magazines like Mangalam or Manorama serialising fiction tailored for the audience in 1980s and early 90s. One reason for the phenomenal growth of the pulp family magazines was the mass appeal of serialised fiction. In theme, character, language and presentation, the writers of pulp fiction in Malayalam wove plots and characters that revolved around housewives or the poor ? peasants, street vendors, hotel-waiters, students, tea- stall owners. In a state with 100 per cent literacy, the tactic led to a circulation boom. Now the idea has been adapted to television. Some of the best writers of pulp fiction, whose serialised novels kept millions enthralled, have now switched over to the writing of serial scripts. One such writer is Sudhakar Mangalodayam. With the boom in tele-serials in the 1990s, Sudhakar?s writings began to be adapted to the small screen. 26 of his pulp novels have already been filmed, and 8 more in the pipeline.

But the makers of these serials cannot gloss over the social changes that have taken place in the lives of women. Forced to take note of this reality, the makers nevertheless pander to the conservative prejudices of their women audiences by treating that reality in a skewed manner. So, the quasi-feminist heroine Charulatha, in a serial of the same name, has to beg and coax her husband to let her take up a job. A predominantly middle class viewership ensures a middle class thrust in theme and interests. So we have to place the high visibility of women on the one hand against the glaring `invisibility of those not-so-market-friendly female worlds.

It is curious that in a state rocked by sex scandals and sexual harassment of even top women IAS officers, the television serials that claim to be the true voice of women maintain a discreet silence on these aspects. The male bias is so dextrously woven into the representation that it takes more than a discerning eye to pick out the nuances. Thus, the makers of Stree wouldnt dare conceive of Indu's re-marriage although the viewers tolerated her husband's second marriage.

The intellectual activities of women are formulated within a very conservative concept of family values. Open acknowledgement of womens rights to resist and intervene invites a distorted, cliched presentation on television, reducing the narrative to a stifling melodrama. While the old Stree featured countless coy helpless women fluttering their eyelashes, the new Stree flaunts new stereotypes of women emitting fire and brimstone. Even as the number of women entering the unorganised sector increases every day, the stories on television have a pronounced upper-caste/middle class slant. It is a widely lamented fact that women consumers of the pulp fiction that used to be offered up by the print media, have transferred their attentions to the serials that feature so strongly in Malayali homes from 6.30 to 10.30 at night.

A distinct Hindu upper-caste/class orientation is also evident in the selection of themes. Apparently, the tears and sweat of Namboodiri / Nair women sell better than those of the downtrodden majority! Every channel is eager to project a gender-friendly image. In this eagerness, even those social groups that were ostracised till very recently have received legitimate attention. Asianet and Surya gave considerable space and time to a congregation of sex-workers, thereby opening up areas that, till yesterday, were unspoken of. Media activism and the interests of the market work in tandem, but they often also collide.

Even as the market-sponsored television programmes assiduously cultivate women from certain social classes, singing paeans to Womens Day on March 8, those groups without adequate purchasing power remain invisible. And, often their visibility is distorted. The image of the empowered housewife is offset by the conflict of class interests that divide the worlds of women. The market?s divide-and-rule policy is far more subtle and insidious. Even as women?s worlds, feelings and desires have been discovered to be the most profitable raw material for television programmes, their modes of representation are orthodox in the way they touch upon prickly issues of female sexuality and violence.Women participate in Malayalam television programming on three levels -- as viewers, as actresses/anchors and as makers of the programmes. Though their numbers are still few and far between at the production level, as actresses and viewers women constitute an enviable majority. This viewership is strengthened by certain firmly entrenched conservative social attitudes towards women in this highly-literate state. In a state proud of its radical, even revolutionary political tradition, women do not feel safe outside their homes after dark. Cultural activism is still a male preserve and women writers and activists are trapped in a dubious modernity.?

The entry of private channels has heightened the `visibility of Malayali women. Even without a strong industrial base and a metro work culture, metro/cosmopolitan visual tastes have overpowered the old-world sensibilities of a traditional society. The electronic media has made the presence of teenage girls central in the drawing rooms of middle class homes. There is a surge in the number of young college girls aspiring to present film songs on television. Programmes of social concern, openly criticising the status quo, were vocal about women?s concerns. Strong perspectives on progressive and responsible programming dominated the Asianet credo in the early period.

But, womens' worlds are made and unmade every day on different channels as mutually contradictory messages on womanhood are aired. At the same time there are very few audience-based research studies on specific women?s responses to television programming. Diversely situated as they are, women are offered standardised low-quality fare. Television channels take the female viewer for granted; many presumptions regarding the aesthetic tastes of women viewers are belittling. And, as the old adage goes, habits die-hard.

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