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The domestic daily life of Tamil Nadu follows a set routine – almost religiously, every household tunes into at least one serial in the available TV channels. Serials have been popular among women and over the years they have even spilled over to occupy six days a week and a Sunday special serial (apparently weekly once being the USP). As an advertising platform with easy access to the whole family, the fifteen to eighteen odd minutes of the actual video carry a lot of weight. Anyone familiar with the TV serial universe would know the slow-motion shots, action-replays, mind-voices (usually revealing wicked plots and sometimes tearful emotive monologues), elaborate festive occasions and very recently extravagant sets/special effects.

Reel vs Real

Serials have long been criticised for their stereotypes and despite all the criticisms, the new channels that come up do carry forward the tradition. But the feel and look of them seem to denote eerily similar content. The Hindi serials follow the conservative, most likely upper class, upper caste, family drama with a large cast of actors who try to imitate ‘real people’. But the HD screens have now set the standard as having characters heavily made-up, highly accessorised, and placed in posh settings. These serials have always enjoyed a pan-India appeal and have gotten gradually accepted by Tamil audiences in dubbed formats.

After the initial competition, regional artists started to spawn their own variations. New serials – based on romanticised village life (devoid of caste), swanky youngsters, big families, traditions that prove the values of love, trust and commitment – flooded the numerous TV channels with repeat telecasts during the daytime.

It’s a sad reality but within this context, Tamil TV serials have started to follow the national trend, leaving behind the progressive trend that heralded their beginning.

Twists: Then Versus Now

The early serials like Penn, Chitti, Vidathu Karuppu, Premi, Anni, Jannal, Kai Alavu Manasu were definite examples of trends breaking away from traditional, stereotypical representation of women. While women remained ‘the cause and concern’, these shows were path-breaking.

Tamil tv serials have started to follow the national trend, leaving behind the progressive trend that heralded their beginning.

The women characters penned were full-fledged independent individuals, like any of their male counterparts. Another thing that set them apart was how pining for love did not remain their only problem – they dealt with social issues, cultural patriarchy and were often career-minded.

Serials exploring an aged woman’s love life, a single woman’s search for her children she gave up in adoption, or the life of a woman who is an atheist and a former IAS officer, would be unimaginable in current TV slots. Women in the serials during the early 90s were not passive and the plots they unravelled were not tedious exercises in proving chastity. The characters were nuanced and the storylines and characters, quite diverse. To point out an example, the last Muslim woman character with an actual plotline, witnessed on TV would be in the serial Annamalai.

Today, with the increasing number of channels and platforms, it is indeed sad that even those serials that start off with similar high-minded values often unravel into simple good versus bad family plots with the progression of episodes.

Serials End But Characters Stay

Ask any veteran Tamil TV serial viewer and they will recommend Vidathu Karuppu. Telecasted in the 90s, the character Reena has always stood a class apart – she was a doctor, a rationalist, an atheist who ventures in the rural village to debunk the myth of the village deity, karuppu.

The serial bears a true reflection of ‘a village society’ with all the class and caste aspects. Nowadays, characters have become nameless, saree-clad, young woman protagonists with no defining characteristics. 

Also read: How Tamil Cinema Normalises And Promotes Rape Culture

Nowadays, scheming women, jealous women, angry women, stubborn women, righteous women are probably the only diversity one can see among the women characters. Especially, the last instalment of Tamil TV serials has a truly varied representation of women with characters ranging from ‘servant girl secretly married to rich boss’, ‘girl feigning rape to marry the guy of her dreams’, to ‘historical characters meet their real-life doppelganger’.

Serial Murder Of Feminism

The current role of women is largely seen as a passive one, succumbing to the patriarchal notions. Marriage and its social acceptance remain the end goal for these women characters. Domestication of women and their graceful rejection of individualism has been propagated through them. Ironically, the ‘odd woman’ who does fight the system is labelled negative.

Serials even have an impact on their passive audience. Unlike earlier times, there is no lack of choices but only a lack of nuanced or positive content to choose from

These serials dictate women to have a particular body-image, skin tone, and fashion sense that objectify them and often follow the fine balance of ‘sexy yet regular’. Interestingly this follows even in the religious serials that have gained popularity.

There is a term called ‘symbolic annihilation’ used by George Gerbner to describe the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media (often based on race, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and such), understood in the social sciences to be a means of maintaining social inequality.

Gaye Tuchman divided the concept of symbolic annihilation into three aspects: omission, trivialisation and condemnation. This multifaceted approach to coverage, not only vilifies communities of certain identities, but works to make members invisible through the explicit lack of representation in all forms of media ranging from films and books to news media and visual arts. Since the 1970s, scholars of feminism have used the concept of annihilation to express the effects of misrepresentation and/or absence of women and girls in mass media.

Positive characters can really enhance the viewers and can act as role-models. Even the interviews and other shows by serial artists are extensively watched and discussed on social media platforms.

Also read: Sony TV’s Patiala Babes And Its Refreshing Take On Patriarchy

Serials even have an impact on their passive audience. Unlike earlier times, there is no lack of choices but only a lack of nuanced or positive content to choose from. Many women say serials help lighten their day-to-day drudgery and treat them like an exercise in escapism. But one needs to remember that TV still occupies the central space in households, and young children grow up internalising these stereotypes. Elaborate plots of murder, kidnapping, sexual harassment, sexist comments are still the elements that plague the present-day serials. When the audience internalise these aspects, the goal of equality within the wider social context remains unfulfilled.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for posting this. Tgis has been on my mind for ages. The likes of chitti, ramany vd ramany are non existent in tv today. What makes things worse is that the actors/producers who are coming up woth this junk (example: kushboo) are also political and popular figures who fail to respect and practice the responsibility that comes with the role. Radhikaa too. Though she has been the producer to some good tv content in the past… she fails to share the platform to bring in new progressive talent (especially women). The diversification among the new generation with a progressive mindset and sense of social responsibility is eho i want to see behind tamil tv screens and on it as well.

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