There’s a photograph floating around on Facebook that goes: “Save girl child or your son will be forced to be gay.” It elicits many ironic likes. But recently I watched a rerun of a popular Hindi show where a mother-in-law was lamenting the miscarriage of her daughter-in-law and mourning the loss of her to-be grandson. It’s anybody’s guess whether she had a divine revelation it was a boy or the illegal sex determination test is par for the course on our soaps. It’s not news that prime time TV in India is depressingly regressive, ruled by savage mothers-in-law and docilely obedient (if a little frustrated) children. Everything is about deference to elders: middle-aged adults seem infantilised and rarely in control of their lives. They do nothing but indulge in kitchen politics in humongous extended families when all the data suggests the joint family system is disintegrating. The styling is wildly melodramatic as is the music, played in the background to stinging slaps and bitter tears. After so many years of the same stuff all the permutation-combinations of yearning and betrayal, structure and tension have been exhausted. Even the most die hard fan is done with comas, miraculous and utterly unbelievable resurrections, bizarre deaths and evil cousins.
I’ve often wondered why producers don’t experiment with a cool, urbane story: the time seems ideal for something like an Indian Friends that reflects the lives of so many of us living in cities. There are lakhs of single, working women in India but if you were to go only by what we see on TV they simply don’t exist. Serials are still busy peddling the baffling lie that Indian women are absolutely delighted to spend their lives draped in wedding finery, cooking for the men in the family. In fact, our far more conservative right wing neighbour Pakistan fares much better in this respect, as viewers who are tuning into Zindagi, the new channel launched by Zee are slowly discovering. Since I heard about it, I have been hooked to Zindagi Gulzar Hai, a show on urban life in Pakistan.
Contemporary life in Pakistan has always been a source of endless fascination here mostly because we feel a sense of relief that we’re not there, when we so easily could have been. You can only truly appreciate India when you look at our counterparts’ lives in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
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Then all of a sudden, India doesn’t seem so bad. A friend based in Lahore once told me she really appreciates the distances in Delhi and the chaos on the roads. In a telling (and chilling) description of how tiny society actually is in Lahore, she says by the time she’s shut and locked her car door and adjusted her clothes she’s already reached her destination. Yet, they are leap years ahead of us when it comes to TV. Consider the immensely watchable Zindagi … A single mother, abandoned because she didn’t produce a male heir, struggles to put her three daughters through college. The principal characters may be defined through stereotypical ideas of class (this is TV after all). They’re poor but hardworking and chaste, while the rich girls on the show appear in jeans and drive their own cars. The male star of the show Fawad Khan does a fine job as the cynical Zaroon, questioning contemporary values in Pakistan.
The show seems very real and without any violence conveys a sense of hopelessness and of a country churning in and out of crises. Humsafar, another popular show is about what else but the trials and tribulations of a marriage. When you compare these shows to the ones on Indian TV, they seem far ahead, bravely and openly questioning the assumption of male superiority. The mother-in-law is also less of a witch in Pakistan. Used as we are to depressing news from across the border, of the Taliban and attacks on girls like Malala Yousafzai, these shows are a revelation that our neighbours are exactly like us and in some ways, far more progressive.