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Here's something different

Menka Shivdasani

Television soaps might be notching up higher viewership points, but serials with a social sub-text are gaining in popularity.


A still from the serial, Kammal, on Zee TV.

June 30 was a big day for Ravi Kemmu. The man who helped Shyam Benegal make the mammoth historical series Bharat Ek Khoj launched his own mega production Aamrapali. The one-hour weekly epic series from DVR Films, presented by L.R. Enterprises, is scheduled to run over the next 104 weeks on the Doordarshan National Network, on Sundays at 11 a.m.

It's an ambitious project by any standards — a cast of 39 supported by a 500-strong crowd, 25 horses, several elephants and 25 security personnel to guard a set that has cost around Rs 4 crore. "Big houses have a lot of money," says Kemmu. "If they can spend so much on `crorepati' shows, they can definitely spend money on other kinds of programmes as well."

Aamrapali, set in 600 B.C., is the story of an ordinary woman who is crowned — against her wishes — the Janpat Kalyani of Vaishali, a prosperous democracy. Her position, which requires her to entertain men, gives her status and power of a kind, but in the process, she becomes the property of the State, losing her freedom and the man she truly loves. Aamrapali's mission in life then, is to try and end the practice of crowning a new Janpat Kalyani every seven years.

"This is the story of a woman who fought for the rights of women 2,500 years ago," says Kemmu, who believes it is as relevant today as it would have been in Aamrapali's own time. "Vaishali was a democratic state but the status and socio-economic condition of women was not much different from what it is today in our democratic system. If Aamrapali fought for women's rights and their upliftment, we have the same thing happening today." Kemmu also believes that the relevance extends to the role of religion in today's world; the serial refers to three religions, and he points out that the war between religions still continues.

Kemmu says that he wanted to do a different kind of show from the fare that is normally dished out to viewers these days. "There is so much gossip and back-biting being shown on the screen these days, so many negative images being projected. Plus, in most of these serials, the actresses are always shown in beautiful sarees, and no one is ever taken out of the house, because it is easier to shoot such shows." In a series like Aamrapali, as lead actress Shilpa Shinde points out, you have to do a re-shoot even if one person in the crowd is discovered wearing a watch or high heels! Authenticity is crucial in a historical serial and producing one certainly requires much more work than a saas-bahu show with its pat emotional dramas. "So much of what appears today is nonsense," exclaims Kemmu. "Even if you are doing drawing room dramas, they have to make some sense!" Kemmu is hoping Aamrapali will stand out in the crowd. If nothing else, the show promises to be a treat for those who like classical music and dance.

The saas-bahu soaps

Of course, there will always be viewers who prefer the saas-bahu soaps. Ask Sobha Kapoor, the CEO and Managing Director of Balaji Telefilms Ltd., trend-setters in that genre. "The idea is to entertain audiences, not critics," she said matter-of-factly when we met the other day. "Haathi chalta hai, to kutte bhaunk te hi hai," ("When an elephant walks by, there will always be dogs barking"). Sobha Kapoor is convinced — and with very good reason — that because Indian families tend to be close knit, there is certainly a viewership for the kind of serials her company produces. "The TRPs tell us the audience is watching," she says, adding that Balaji is doing five daily soaps, plus two weeklies. They will also soon be making a weekender for Sony, she says; it's called Kya Hadsa Kya Haqueeqat, and should begin telecast in a little over a month.

Balaji, however, is not restricting itself to saas-bahu soaps. On July 2, it launched a new serial called Kammal on Zee TV. The show, which is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, has an interesting storyline; it's about a young girl who is brought up by three bar women, and her fight to be accepted by society. "The serial will strike at the typical Indian notion that good people only come from the mainstream of society," says Sobha Kapoor. "It seeks to expose how background is given more importance than individuality. The serial will reveal our hypocritical social norms where a person is deprived of his or her rights because of the financial and social background."

What a pity that there are so many serials that glorify these hypocritical social norms — and so many viewers out there who actually want to lap it all up!

The author can be contacted at menka@shivdasani.org

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