Three years ago, if someone told us that Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon, an edutainment show about empowering women would reach 400 million people, be dubbed in 11 languages, telecast in 16 regional kendras of Doordarshan, aired on 239 radio stations, and give entertainment serials a run for its money – chances are we would have told that person to run along. But this show has achieved the unthinkable, where even private players tired of the saas-bahu trope are interested in a piece of this groundbreaking pie.
The seed of Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (MKBKSH) was planted in 2010 when Population Foundation of India (PFI) made the short film Haule Haule for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, the film took a stab at challenging and changing societal norms — it talked about educating girls, women’s rights and family planning as well as the responsibility of men in all these matters. Soon we were thinking of a longer narrative, a serial, which came to fruition in March, 2014. Today, two seasons and several evaluations later, when I see the impact of the show, the conversations that have been spurred, the myths and taboos that have been destroyed – my cup runneth over, I do believe we have broken new ground.
Entertainment education has often been used to great effect; some fantastic examples are shows like Soul City in South Africa, which was created to talk to adolescents about HIV/AIDS and responsible sexual behaviour. Th show went on for 12 seasons over a span of 10 years (1994-2014) and encouraged community responses to social evils. For example, when neighbours heard a wife being abused by her husband in the show, they would raise the alarm by beating pots.
Soon, people started to emulate this reaction to domestic violence in real life as well. It was a perfect example of what could be achieved with a powerful narrative which demonstrated the power to influence resistance and instil courage in the onlooker to take action.
In our own effort we were guided by Dr Arvind Singhal, a social change scholar from the University of Texas El Paso, on how to galvanise the positive deviance approach. We spent months discussing the content of stories collected from the field that inspired our storyline, as well as the image, likeness and character of our protagonist.
It was Feroz Khan who finally delivered to us our warrior of women’s empowerment in the character of Dr Sneha Mathur, the protagonist of MKBKSH. She embodied aspiration, wisdom, rationale and humour – and evolved into a character that became synonymous with progressive thought. We realised very quickly, from the first season itself, that the audience was able to related to Dr Mathur.
An independent evaluation of 52 episodes over eight months found that while 52 per cent of our audience were women, a competitive 48 per cent were men. There was also a significant decline in the number of women who thought domestic violence was acceptable, which fell from 66 per cent to 44 per cent.
Dr Sneha Mathur inspired the creation of Sneha Clubs in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. They discussed issues like delaying age at marriage, spacing between children, cherishing the girl child, family planning, and even adolescent health and sexuality. A most surprising and heartwarming story relates to the men of Chattarpur district, Madhya Pradesh, who were habitual wife-beaters but seemed to have now been transformed into sensitive, empathetic partners; several who only wanted a boy child voluntarily opted for sterilisation even after the birth of two girls.
Sunil Pandey, a farmer and musician from Chattarpur, put it like this: “I didn’t think women were meant to have ambitions. In MKBKSH I saw that women were doctors, lawyers, and football players. It also made me realise that I could go out whenever I wanted, while my wife remained at home to cook meals and take care of our children.”
Sunil told us that the show made him want to learn of his wife’s aspirations. She wanted to help him make a living. He helped her enrol in a self-help group, began to chip in with the chores. Sunil has also found pride in housework and claims that he now cooks better than his wife.
Today, along with a band of other men, Sunil sings songs on family planning, sterilisation, gender justice and women’s empowerment to educate others in the village and beyond.
In the deeply patriarchal region of Bundelkhand, 21-year-old Ladkuwar Khushwaha is the first girl from her village, Naya Gaon, to become a college graduate. “I was inspired by Dr Sneha from MKBKSH. If she could be from a small village and become a doctor, I could also do anything I wanted. I also learnt about the ill effects of child marriage. I couldn’t endanger my life,” she said. Within two years of the show, a village that saw no girl study beyond class 10 has ten girls going to college – each one believes that she can do anything she wills.
Certainly, the success of MKBKSH must be attributed to the men and women of India who are ready for change, as well as the influence of new media technologies that have revised the aspirations of the marginalised. We know now that we too can achieve anything, and that our slogan, our anthem, our greatest victory – the title of our show, Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon – has become a significant part of the lives of those who have watched it.