NEW DELHI: Sasural Simar Ka, is a soap, with one of the highest TRP ratings, which means that when it airs at 7.30 on Colors, several televisions sets all over the country are tuned to it. In one such promo, the future of Simar’s (the main protagonist’s) job hangs in the balance of ladoo a tasting, and if she were to fail this tasting she would have to quit her job. In another episode promo, her husband in a game, with another man leverage’s one night with her, if he were to lose – he lost and she had to spend the night with a stranger.

Indian television entertainment will seemingly never change, or revolt, but it certainly offends. Its limits will be set by middle class morality, which it will internalise and proselytise. The business is defined by the need to give the people what they want, so filmmakers and producers are discouraged to depart from the ‘formula’. A look at our television programming makes it amply clear that the formula functions to uphold middle class morality above all.

The consumption of culture reveals a lot about the individual – culture comes in ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms, one regarded as superior to the other. In India, this cultural divide reveals the difference between ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ presenting two incompatible images of the country.

This rupture in society has a definite class bias. Many of those who cannot identify with Indian soaps look to the West for their entertainment. The rest, expectedly, watch Indian programmes on popular channels such as Star, Zee, Colours and Bindaas. While, rarely do the most popular television shows address the issues of minorities of both religion and caste, they are more attuned to the fantasies of the dominant caste, or mercantile castes such as the Maheshwari’s.

In recent years, in the Indian movie business, through the rise of multiplexes and video sharing websites such YouTube and Vimeo, have broken itself from shackles of the mainstream, providing real and tangible alternatives to films like Welcome, and Houseful. However, the smaller screen rarely gives us serious alternatives to the formulaic writing. Instead, it is increasingly constructed in a way that is antithetical to the urban, or modern life.

Some channels do make concerted efforts to break the mould but are either coerced through complaints, letters and protests to draw back, or they themselves, in an attempt to be adjust their content to not offend, fall prey to conservative sentiment. Feeding into or creating stereotypes of women that can be palatable or not, such as ‘rocker women’ who play the guitar, and for their creativity smoke – which again will scandalise many.

Take, for instance, the channel Bindaas, which claims to be oriented toward the progressive and restless youth. It has a television show called Halla Bol, which deals with problems facing women in society. Depicting conflicts arising from everything, from the influence of godmen to sexual harassment, the show attempts to illustrate how women can assert themselves. It does this not by over dramatising the plot lines but by creating a checklist for women that would attract attention. In one episode, a woman who is a flight attendant is harassed by a man. To take revenge on him, she joins a political party and pushes the envelope far beyond what both the law and society would find normal. In turn, what is being said is that women have to push themselves to extremes to find retribution.

On the other hand, Zee, Star and other channels that cater to the Hindi belt make no bones about their commitment to formulaic writing. Largely conservative, their programmes feed a sense of outrage amongst the ever-growing and ban-loving middle class.

A report released by the Indian Broadcast Foundation, under the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, which censures complaints against programming on national television, says complaints will be censured according to ‘the evolving social milieu and acceptable community standards’. A cursory look at the complaints reveals a highly conservative society; on many counts, the negotiation between the foundation and the channels can go either way but the idea of this initiative is that the television industry can ‘self-regulate’.

The small screen has always pandered to what social scientists call ‘the agenda’ – issues of concern to the viewing audience. In the past decade or so, the issue that has driven the television industry is the perceived conflict between family values and India’s increasing openness to the West. Demographics, as well as the continuing conflict between secularism and Hindu nationalism, dictate that family values, on TV at least mean the values of Hindu families.

The most popular TV serial of the post-liberalisation period has been Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, which started in 2000 and coincided with the first stint of the BJP in power. The show was hugely popular, and portrayed the life of a Gujarati family in Mumbai. It was about the conflict within a family, and the hardships a newly-wed woman has to face in her husband’s house. In this soap opera you saw the reinforcement of patriarchal sentiments in the family structure, women who were expected to be bejewelled, cook and appear perfect at any time of the day. They were supposed to take all the abuse and mental torment that came their way in a marriage and, even if they were to retaliate, they were to do so within the ‘holy’ social bond of marriage.

This portrayal of a strong and resilient family resounds through the scripts of Indian television shows. Characters conform to stereotypical roles of what society sees as normal. Any deviance is mocked to the point of disgust. Effeminate men and homosexual relationships are played insensitively for laughs, while the devotees of godmen, stay-at-home wives and overbearing mothers-in-law are presented as natural, inevitable and correct. Even women who work are depicted as aberrations or fetishised so that they seem unreal.

In this respect, television has always been a tool for the saffron brigade, whether by happenstance or by design. The airing of the Mahabharata in the years preceding the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, for instance, helped garner support for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Similarly, the regressive themes of the majority of Hindi soaps and the tasteless caste-based humour of the popular comedy channels conspire to reinforce skewed gender roles and other Hindu traditions in sore need of revision.

Censorship, too, contributes to the small mindedness of the small screen. Seemingly every other word is censored from programmes, ranging from ‘sex’, ‘condom’ and ‘beef’ to the names of liquor brands. This censorship seeks to impose a ‘safe’ and conservative morality upon art, so that it tells you how to think instead of provoking you to think for yourself.

When TV serials do attempt to explore ‘social problems’, they inevitably succumb to absurd plot twists for the sake of ill-defined TRPs, which then remove the focus from the core of the social problem and it lapses sadly into disturbing parochialism.

For example, Balika Vadhu, a TV show which ostensibly deals with the problems of child marriage, hardly focuses on the trauma associated with being wed as a child. All the characters seem to live functional lives until the real villain appears – divorce. Thus, a conservative message, the ‘sacredness’ of marriage, supplants the progressive one promised by the show’s producers.

These shows almost always depict middle class Hindu families. They mutilate and misinterpret history to glorify a mythical golden age before the Muslim invasion of the Indian subcontinent. If serials such as Jodha Akbar find their way to the smaller screen, they encounter violent resistance from religious outfits that demand they be banned on some pretext or the other. Many times producers, too, pull their names from these serials.