by Hasan Altaf
Several years ago now, in one of those brown-meets-white movies whose titles are as impossible to keep straight as their plots are predictable, the brown girl attempted to explain Bollywood movies to her white boyfriend. He asked, “So they’re like soap operas?” and she replied, “Basically… just with bigger bubbles.” I’ve forgotten all the other details of that particular movie, but the line stuck with me as an apt description of the genre. No one watches Bollywood movies for “reality” – we watch for an escape: More than anything else, the movies, offering a little something for everyone, are fantasy.
I readily admit to a deep and abiding fondness for Bollywood; my experience with soap operas, on the other hand, began this past summer, when I spent two weeks in Lahore visiting my grandmother, who had been bedridden for a few months and spent her time watching Indian soaps. The TV in her room was always on, and it was soaps, soaps around the clock, Star Plus and Colors, sometimes the same episode repeated innumerable times in a day. Only when the power went out was there a brief hour of silence.
The soap operas were, to put it mildly, an education – and a shock; for some reason I had expected them to be more or less like the movies, and I was surprised at how different they were. In many ways, the first issue I had is still the one that bothers me the most: Why do the women all sleep in full makeup, wearing pounds of jewelry, wrapped in fabulous saris? This happened on every single show, without fail, and it seemed neither practical nor comfortable. I might have been willing to let this one thing go, but the more I watched, the more questions I had. Why do the women never seem to work? Why are men essentially absent? Why are all the characters, always, without fail, Hindus – and Hindus, at that, of the same caste, culture, and language? How many small towns exist in the world in such a state of homogeneity?
Most of the time, watching these shows, I felt like I was looking into a different world, and a world that I’m not sure I believe can still exist, at least not in the way it’s depicted. I’ve had similar feelings about Indian movies, though, so the conclusion was perhaps fairly obvious: Bollywood and the soap industry are selling what is basically the same product, fantasy – it’s just that the fantasies are different. Neither industry depicts the “real world” or “real life”; both present something that is closer to an idealization, an essentialization – and almost, it seems, an aspiration. While this is true of most similar industries – even the most down-to-earth sitcoms or gritty independent films have something of this quality – it seems much more extreme in India.
The Bollywood movies of the last ten or fifteen years are hugely different from earlier films, as if the industry had gone into warp speed. In the majority of its fare, the world envisioned is ultra-modern, full of blowouts and full-body waxes, a world where people date and women work, where characters can wear Western clothes and leave their hometowns, where the languages are mixed and cultures can come into contact and, sometimes, conflict. (Although South Indians do seem to usually end up as villains, and Punjabis as bhangra-mad party animals…) They create an exaggeration, a caricature of modernity, and set it to a catchy soundtrack.
The soaps, barring the occasional appearance of a cell phone, could be taking place decades ago; they have, actually, a great deal in common with older movies. The world they depict is incredibly traditional. Here the women (men are always minor characters at best) spend their days fabulously be-saried, dealing with the age-old conflicts of saas and bahoo (mother- and daughter-in-law). Like the characters, the focus hardly ever leaves the home – things like race, religion, class, culture and language, the fault lines of modern India, are made non-issues. Watching a show like Saath Nibhaana Saathiya, I felt like I was watching a period piece – it had a very strong air of nostalgia.
There is a huge overlap between the viewers of these two products, so while the inherent natures of cinema and TV can account for some of their difference, I don’t think one can call them simply different products for different buyers. Still, what both offer is a vision of India, and it was hard to reconcile such different visions, especially as they seem more different than their counterparts in places like the US or Latin America. American soaps have little in common, formally, with American movies, be they Hollywood or indie, but one never has the feeling that they are taking place in an entirely different world. (My knowledge of Latin American telenovelas is quite limited, but I would be interested to learn how they compare to Mexican, Argentinean, or Brazilian movies.) Watching shows like Pratigya or that one with Leher and her evil in-laws and cruel uncle, I did have that feeling. I couldn’t reconcile their India with the one I knew from my own experience or from movies.
The difference between India and a country like Brazil or Argentina, though, is important. More than many countries, India is thought of in dichotomies: It is a mystical land of yoga and ashrams and naked sadhus, or a high-tech wonderland of computer innovation; it is megacities and tiny villages, grinding poverty and incredible wealth, secular democracy and deep communal conflicts. India is everything, but India is also its opposite, both object and shadow. While the same could be said of most “developing” countries – all of them have modernizing and traditionalist impulses; even “developed” countries do – in India the strength of each is greater, and the pull between them seems more fierce.
Arundhati Roy once compared her country to two caravans, one tiny and moving towards the light, the other, immense, disappearing into darkness. She used the metaphor in the context of economics and development, but it could apply equally well to the cultural sphere. For India, the present moment is one of constant flux and change, an inexorable pull towards a future that will be as complicated as any modernity is. No one knows exactly what that future will look like, no one really knows what to expect or how things will end up. So it is natural that there is an opposite force, too, a glance backwards, a longing for a past when things made sense and everyone knew their place. You were the bahoo until you were the saas, after all.