Leading ladies of GECs

A decade ago, when Tulsi and Parvati beckoned the unsuspecting Indian viewers into their homes, there was no dust flying around the nature of Indian fiction shows. Not many deemed a certain soap to be ‘overly weepy’ or packed with ‘too much drama’. Hindi general entertainment was the only way it knew how to be – full of drama, emotions raging high, twists and turns in the storyline, anti-climaxes, climaxes and residual climaxes, and of course, the women of the household driving the show.

It would be unfair to say that nothing has changed. There is a significant transcendence in the way TV content is written, packaged and portrayed for the Indian audiences today. There is change in the tone of voice, personality and avatar of the way the Indian woman is now seen. In view of the fact that a majority of the loyal viewership comes from areas out of urban bounds, the fair conclusion is that this changing face of the woman on TV is, by and large, accepted and desired.

But, opinions are conditional and subject to market risk. Last June, Star Plus underwent a makeover, put on a red ruby star for a logo and stood tall and said, ‘Rishta Wahi, Soch Nayi’. The channel has faced stiff competition from Zee and after the sting in 2008, when Viacom18’s Colors stepped into the Hindi GEC space and shot to No 1, Star Plus has taken conscious steps to rejuvenate and differentiate its content in a manner that has now developed into an acquired flavour for viewers. The channel has maintained and regained its lead margin in TRPs from the closest second and claims it is this very philosophy that has helped them achieve the numero uno status once again.

The idea behind the idea
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.

Saurabh Tewari, Head, Programming (Fiction), Imagine TV, says, “There are set rules and formulae that work that I do not see changing over the next five years. Channels are heading towards progressive characters, where most of them are facing day-to-day crisis, but have a progressive attitude. No one makes regressive shows anymore. The change is in society itself, where women are standing up for their rights and questioning the rules.”

He points out at some of the female protagonists on Imagine TV – Bharti in ‘Baba Aiso Varr Dhoondo’, Subedha from ‘Arakshan’ – as to be the “the best daughters”. “Our protagonists celebrate daughterhood as an aspect of the female personality and her commitment to the family,” he adds.

Zee TV, according to Sukesh Motwani, Head – Fiction, Zee TV, always stands for the ‘underdog, whether be “reality shows or fiction. The heroine or hero is someone who is ordinary, pushed against the wall, but fights it out and emerges a winner.”

Meanwhile, Sony too has ‘Krushnaben Khakrawala’, which reflects the progressive nature of the female protagonist.

Define: Progressive
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. From ‘Tara’, ‘Amanat’ to all the K-series to now, ‘Krishnaben…’, ‘Pratigya’, ‘Balika Vadhu’s Anandi or Laali, the woman has undergone a drastic change. The setting though may be more real, however, most of these latter women are deeply rooted in traditional settings, adhering to conventional Indian norms and beliefs. Can we call them as progressive in the literal sense? Decoding Star Plus’ interpretation of the term, Vivek Bahl, Executive Creative Director, Star Network, says, “Just because our heroines look in a certain manner and the drama is written in a certain way, it does not 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 and the message may not get through.”

Ajay Bhalwankar, Programming Head (Fiction), Sony, adds, “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 are not a rare example.”

Bahl believes that women on TV are far more progressive than in any other media, such as 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. They are always fighting for the girl child, for education, for independence or decide how she would like to spend her money.”

Amin Lakhani of GroupM, however, does not believe that much has 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 Doordarshan that India saw the first  of strong characters on the show, ‘Rajani’.”

Media minds
The other change the leading ladies have undergone is their life span on TV. Tulsi and Parvati were of an era of never-ending saas-bahu sagas, extending up to 5-7 years. Today, the plot is much crisper, and the stories are shorter (2-3 years). The producers could afford to stretch the stories as the Hindi GEC environment was less cluttered and less competitive.

Today, however, the ratings are quite similar. So would media planners opt for forward looking show or shows based on social issues, which may appear regressive?

Harsha Joshi, COO – Media Buying and Content, Madison, says, “While planning a communication, advertisers consider four broad parameters – target audience, brand fit, cost efficiency and saliency of the show.”

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. If 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 prime time. This will change at a later stage, but this is the current scenario.”

So what’s the next revolution and where’s the on-TV female protagonist headed? Only viewers will decide that.

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