Does television needs to step out of its stereotypical portrayal of women?

The portrayal of women on Indian television is sadly regressive

Why does women’s empowerment find little space on the small screen? While there is a deluge of TV shows revolving around female protagonists preoccupied with household, husband, family and kitchen politics, a career-oriented and independent Indian woman is hard to find on television soaps that provide daily entertainment staples and are social influencers for millions of women around the country.

The portrayal of female protagonists on Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs) on Indian television, which reaches out to over 130 million households, is sadly regressive, say industry veterans and experts.

Veteran actor and former Censor Board chief Sharmila Tagore, who believes in promoting strong female-oriented parts on the big screen, feels the TV medium needs to step out of its stereotypical portrayal of women. “Content of TV is stereotypical. The shows still revolve around a preference for a son and kitchen dynamics. No women go to work. There is a complete absence of working women on the TV and that is not the case in real life,” Sharmila recently stated.

Rightly so. Be it Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Sasural Simar Ka, Uttaran, Doli Armaanno Ki, Pavitra Rishta or Gustakh Dil, the stories focus more on how girls forgo their career goals and objectives in an attempt to make everyone happy.

It wasn’t always so.  In 1993, Indian television got one of its first soap opera in Tara that focussed on modern, educated and working women. The long-running soap ended in 1997. Then in 2000, Tulsi and Parvati entered the scene and changed the depiction of women as homely, who stood up and spoke out for the right, but mostly within the parapets of their house.

Of course, there have been recent shows like Desh Ki Beti Nandini, Tumhari Paakhi and Ekk Nayi Pehchaan, which have tried to bring in an element of women’s empowerment. But the results aren’t impressive.

In most cases, whenever a few shows tried something different, the result was not positive. The latest case in point is ...Nandini, a socio-political drama about a girl who becomes a political leader, which is soon to go off air. It reportedly failed to entice the audiences enough. Who is to be blamed – audiences who are accustomed to emotional family dramas or the show’s makers who find it risky to experiment?

Director Waseem Sabir, associated with shows like Ek Veer Ki Ardaas – Veera, Maryada: Lekin Kab Tak? and Phir Subah Hogi, believes the TV industry is unable to go beyond a particular zone as housewives dominate the pan-Indian audience that watches the shows.

“The audience is more interested in watching housewife sagas. We love seeing planning and plotting, and the truth remains that we don’t enjoy other’s happiness,” Sabir said. Actor Neha Marda, whose show Doli Armaanon Ki portrays the journey of small-town bride Urmi and her struggle to get love from her workaholic husband, believes TV shows merely “reflect the reality in Indian households”.

“People like to come home and connect to stories or tracks that they too have experienced in their lives…Our target audience is women and they connect to the characters we portray on screen,” Marda said in a recent interview.

Agrees Madhura Naik, who plays a key role in Tumhari Paakhi, a story of a down-to-earth girl whose positive nature turns away negative situations.

TV is medieval with its approach towards women and that’s mainly because the target audiences of such shows are housewives. I believe that to catch more such eyeballs, it’s necessary that such target audiences can relate to such dramas to get hooked,” she said.

Their observations may be right. However, the same audiences had connected with shows like Dard, Shanti and Saans.

The big question here is: will the hope of again watching career-driven women, who can set an example for the society via TV, die a silent death?