On July 8, 2008, Tulsi — who had become Baa by then, with streaks of white hair to prove it — was waging an acrimonious war against her evil daughter-in-law, Tripti. As Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Star Plus) enjoyed another good year on television — its eighth — little did we realise that a young girl dressed up like a Rajasthani doll would soon displace her in the hearts of millions of viewers and become the reigning queen of Indian television. Her name? Anandi, and she was a child bride.
Thus, began the life, marriage and times of Balika Vadhu (Colors), which won the distinction last week — notable or dubious, depending on your viewpoint — of being the longest-running daily soap opera in Hindi on Indian television — at least according to the Limca Book of Records. That would be more than 2,000 episodes and counting.
If you watch the serial now, you may wonder at its phenomenal success. Anandi is no more, and the track has switched to the now commonplace triangle of love involving three young adults in an urban landscape (Jaipur) — Dr Nandini (Anandi’s daughter and also a child bride), Dr Amit and Krish, the two men she must choose between. There’s Nandini’s lost brother lurking on the fringes (Shankar), and also her adopted family.
In 2008, however, it was a saga of the child bride growing up as the “wife” of child bridegroom, Jagdish, in the cloistered and often suffocating atmosphere of rural, feudal Rajasthan, under the watchful eye of indulgent parents-in-law and the redoubtable Dadisa (Surekha Sikri).
The soap catapulted the new entertainment channel to immediate stardom, topping the viewership charts very soon. It broke out of the saas-bahu straitjacket that had imprisoned TV and viewers since July 2000 when Kyunki…, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and later Kasautii Zindagi Kay were launched (Kyunki… would end in November 2008).
Balika Vadhu’s protagonist was also a daughter-in-law, albeit in pig tails, but there the similarities ended. It was more of a throwback to simpler times, the Doordarshan “socials” of the ’80s — serials which dealt with social evils with the idea of reformation. And rather like Hum Log, each episode ends with a brief homily. (By the way, MGNREGA, the rural employment scheme, was launched in 2006 as part of the UPA government focus on the rural aam aadmi’s woes.) In Balika Vadhu, the central issue was child marriage, played out inside a haveli where decorative young Anandi laughed, cried and periodically fought against her fate, frequently clashing with Dadisa, who was the formidable matriarch of the household. There were other subplots on widow remarriage, adult education and marital violence, but the focus remained on the young bride.
The latest 2011 Census reveals almost 80 lakh girls are still married below the age of 10 — such is the intractable nature of the battle confronting little Anandi.
At times, she seemed to enjoy her horrifying predicament: everything was so bright and beautiful — including Anandi and Jagdish — bathed in the radiant colours of Rajasthani costumes, splashed across a scenic sandscape. Anandi with her winsome smile and pranks, was loved and cherished (well, mostly), hardly a victim of ill treatment — what more could a young girl in rural India ask for? It was a little like children playing “house-house”. That the serial tackled Anandi’s maturing into a young woman who left Jagdish, remarried and along the way became a social activist, redeemed what would otherwise have become a celebration rather than an indictment of child marriage.
Whether or not Balika Vadhu will remain the longest running daily doesn’t matter: with excellent performances by lead actor Avika Gor as the young Anandi, Pratyusha Banerjee (who died recently) as the woman Anandi, Surekha Sikri and the rest of the cast, Balika Vadhu’s place in TV history is ensured irrespective of numbers.