Saas-Bahus and Beyond: Indian Television

This post has also been published on the Times of India website, NRI Contributors section. The article can be found here.
“My son is very conscientious. He likes every thing in its rightful place. He doesn’t like even one drop of the dessert spilling on his plate. It all needs to be in the bowl. So make sure you serve him properly. Got it bahu?” Says the mother-in-law to her daughter-in-law, looking at her son for affirmation while the father-in-law looks on approvingly and the ‘son’ sits zip-mouthed at the head of the table, nodding in response to his mother’s smothering question. Sounds familiar? It could have been taken straight out of any of those umpteen typical saas-bahu sagas famous in the decade of 2000s. Those were the days when such dramas ruled the Indian television, both the matinee and primetime slots, inspiring many a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, embroiling them in a power struggle.

After a sumptuous lunch, homemaker mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law sat glued to the television screen, each of them relating in part to the characters being portrayed on screen and Ekta Kapoor came to be known as the queen of small screen dramas. Thousands of miles away, the whole set-up replicated itself as the same dramas were screened on Zee TV Americas or the Star Plus USA versions. In May 2008, my Venezuelan co-worker stopped me in the hallway and spoke about a Hindi serial that was being aired in his Homestead Hotel suite. He was hooked from that day onward and every other day he would stop by to tell me what was happening in the show, including some of the dialogues that he would understand through the subtitles. He would be curious to know why women would wear jewelry and heavy brocaded saris to work in the kitchen, how marriages have so much red in them and why widows wear white and have all these restrictions. I would sit patiently answering his questions, mentally chuckling at our conversation.

The current set of Hindi serials on Indian television

Fast-forward to the current decade. Scoot over saas-bahu serials, said the raw emotion filled, passionate romantic dramas with a heavy undercurrent and sizzling lead chemistry. TV series directors and producers like Ekta Kapoor, Gul Khan and Nissar Parvej saw an opportunity to strike gold once again. Soap operas like Iss Pyaar ko kya naam doon, Ek Hazaron mein meri behna hain, Diya aur Baati Hum, Dil Mil Gaye and the recently much-famous controversial love story Bade Acche Lagte Hain, names in themselves that are a mouthful, continue to make waves across the international circuit. Recent announcements like Barun Sobti, the lead of Iss Pyaar Ko, bagging the Public Award for the Best Lead Actor (Male) or the much famous Ram Kapoor and Saakshi Tanwar, the lead actors of Bade Acche Lagte Hain winning the Best Jodi award at the Global Indian Film and Television Honours are proof of this new trend. Recently BBC Asia interviewed the lead actors of Iss Pyaar Ko in separate 45-minute interviews that were heard and commented on by thousands of viewers across the world. Teen-aged girls start to go ga-ga over the lead actors while desperate online Youtube viewers halfway across the globe, wait twiddling their thumbs for the latest video to get uploaded so they can start commenting, predict the future storyline and such. Smartly cashing in on this fad are also corporations like the calling card company, or entrepreneurs like Prem Jyotish the astrologer who sponsor primetime shows on the corresponding NRI Television channels.

However, also gaining immense popularity by the side are shows like Punar Vivah or Phir Subah Hogi,  that highlight social issues like widow-remarriage and downplay orthodox customs and traditions. The small screen has also successfully managed to lure major celebrities from the silver screen be it Raveena Tandon running her own show and inviting the who’s who of Bollywood or the recent thriller series Chhal written by the action film maker-duo Abbas Mustan. Of particular interest is the upcoming show Satyameva Jayate which promises to be of the people, for the people and by the people and vows to take the nation by storm. The recent promos released by the dashing debonair Aamir Khan and the official song which has garnered more than 600K views on Youtube within a couple of days of its release are witness to this. The fact that it will be dubbed in the four south languages as well as the decision that that the peoples channel Doordarshan and Star Plus, the private channel would both be airing it so it could reach the masses, even those who cannot afford cable, is commendable. 
Reality shows have also taken the nation by storm as channel after channel now encourages new talent be it dance, music, stand-up comedy or any other talent. Parents are more open to let their children step foot into this world as they now appreciate the fame that comes along. Indians worldwide furiously punch numbers on their Vonage phones wanting to vote for their favourite contestant. 

Yes, Indian television has certainly come a long way. Public display of affection has progressed from the innocent flirting and the random peck on the cheek to uncensored lip locks and more. Saga-makers justify this stating the improved maturity of the Indian audience while still-rooted-in-tradition viewers of primetime slots showcasing adult romance look away squeamishly or change channels not wanting to expose their children to these trends just yet.

And yet, in a sense, nothing has changed. We continue to live our lives by these shows, relating to the characters in one way or the other. Good or bad, they subconsciously continue to influence at least a tiny part of our expectations from our mother-in-law/daughter-in-law, husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend. Socially upright shows manage to leave their footprints on our routine highlighting issues worth fighting for like corruption, hygiene, civic rights and such. Day-to-day fashion clothing trends, hairstyles, use of language and even marriage-proposal techniques continue to draw inspiration from television. My 8 year old nephew, a huge fan of our homegrown detective series CID, went so far as to get his father to set up an appointment with ‘Daya’ through a chain of mutual friends and couldn’t stop talking about it.

Whatever be the case, Indian television continues to evolve by the minute and there’s positive acceptance of experimentation with the script, unreal twists and turns in the plot, completely off the track stories and such, as demonstrated by some of the recent serials that showcase a eunuch’s marriage, a dwarf’s story, the trials and tribulations of a village girl wanting to become an IPS officer while she’s married to a sweet maker. So, even as Ekta Kapoor’s characters have stopped dying and miraculously reappearing, Indian audiences continue to devour up whatever they are served. And this is not limited to Indians worldwide. Youtube videos are rife with comments from Spanish, Vietnamese and Somalian folks who do not understand Hindi yet watch the shows with equal passion and wait for subtitles zealously. And, four years later, though I no longer work with my Venezuelan friend, he still talks about these shows whenever we happen to spot each other. So, even as Indian shows gain world wide popularity, regardless of the content, regardless of whether I believe in that particular show or concept or not, I cannot help but feel a wee bit proud that this is just one more arena where we make our mark on a global level.

Primetime shows continue to be aired five days a week and actors continue to be overworked and exhausted. So what is it that makes these TV shows tick? What kind of expectations does the Indian audience have from primetime TV sagas? Can Indian Television afford to go the western route restructuring shows into seasons and thereby awarding the exhausted actors regular breaks or would that cause a rebellion? And more importantly, where do we see Indian Television ten years down the line?

I would love to hear your views!

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Very nice write up!!!It truly demonstrate the TV scenario!!


nice write up! Loved it! Actually I have wondered the same.. they can switch over to seasons like the western.. Infact I find their serials really good and interesting they come up with different concept and story everytime! I doubt if Indian television can make shows like The big bang theory, Friends and two and a half men! Forget thinking about Indian television 10 years from now.. you can do something useful in that time! 😉


Awesome post! I wrote one long back on the same theme 🙂


You're right. TV influences us more than we realize sometimes. Even those who claim never to watch saas bahu stuff (myself included) get influenced by those shows merely running in the background at home.

The long commutes in big Indian cities preclude going out on workday evenings. As the market for TV is at home by 8 pm and not much before, TV shows run daily. Most city people get weekends off and go out on Friday nights, so the shows run Mon-Thu. So, I don't think this schedule of TV shows is going to change. It's a shame, really. Very few writers can produce quality material for four episodes a week.

Well-made offbeat shows that feature social issues get a good audience. Of course, some poorly made shows like CID acquire a cult following with people awaiting, "Daya darwaza tod do." with bated breath!

I don't see the weekly format coming in very soon. Producers of weekly shows will fear the out-of-sight-out-of-mindedness of the audience. But you never know.


I hope & pray, if at all 2012 is a year of destruction,all these Saas Bahu Puranas on TV must banish first!


U shud also have mentioned abt the saas bahu thing in 'kya hua tera waada'. Even wen the girl's family refuses to keep a 'almost diovorced' daughetr in d house due to her husband;s disloyalty, her saas comes to the rescue 🙂

indu chhibber

You have taken enormous pains to sum up the TV scenario in India–very laudable–considering the stuff that is dished out….i am allergic to almost all of these serials but i have watched & liked 'kya hua tera vada' & i saw 'phir subah hogi' yesterday…all serials are good in the beginning & then the story goes to the dogs….one exception which stands out,which i loved tremendously was 'Sarabhai versus Sarabhai'…..& yes,'parvarish too is good-so far.


but i thought there r still saas bahu around- saas bina sasural, kya hua etc-but now that i think about it, u r right , tv has changed, thanks for the perspective


Thank you Ruchita! Can't say I am a fan of most of these, but I have been catching a few promos at least here and there – so kind of tells the gist most times! But, yes, boy am I glad we're progressing and opening up so much new stuff!


Thank you! Yes they can, but I doubt if Indian audiences will be ready for it. Most people when they come back home from work around 8 PM switch on the idiot box – while having dinner, while reading the newspaper. Those are the people who would not want it to be seasonal. But as far as the actors are concerned, I think they would be the happiest! Western shows – I agree. After watching shows like Lost, Prison Break, 24 – I keep thinking if such shows would work in India. Bear in the mind, the mass still goes for a Golmaal movie or senseless SRK flicks where you dont have to think than a Kahaani or a No One Killed Jessica. People want entertainment, not serious stuff. But, definitely worth a try.


Thank you! I'll check out yours too!


I agree, I dont think the mass of the Indian audience will be ready to digest seasonal shows. I dont think it can be done for shows already on air. But for new ones, or if Indian Television decides to go for shows like 24 or some kind of thriller series – those can be restructured that way. We used to have shows like India's most wanted, Adalat, etc. Those kind of shows could definitely be made seasonal. And I agree, with more episodes per week plus some "mahaepisodes" as they call it on a weekend, the quality of scripts is going down. Its not an easy job creating content for 1/2 hr every single day of the week. To top it, actors keep falling sick because they get overworked. Probably in everyone's best interests to slowly move towards a seasonal approach at least for some key shows!


LOL 🙂 Don't forget Ekta Kapoor has a knack for killing off her characters and "re-birthing" them again!


I don't watch the show, but see, even that's proof of the observation that show concepts are changing. Where did we ever see saas-bahus being portrayed that way before.


A lot of people seem to be a fan of Kya Hua Tera Vada – haven't watched it yet. I agree with the fact that everything starts out hunky-dory and then becomes a chaotic mess of plots and unnecessary twists and turns. I think the problem lies with the fact that in order to pitch a serial you only need to have the script ready for 13 episodes (at least for English serials, I read that somewhere). So initially that's all that's needed to make an impression. In India, however, its a fad to keep stretching the serials as long as you can, rarely have we seen any show completing in < 50 episodes. EK serials have run for as long as 7 years. That's a lot to keep dishing out good quality material. We need to move to a level where we can consciously restrict the length of a show. After all, quality is always more important than quantity.


Yes, there still are and it will be a while before it completely goes out, I guess. But in the recent shows, this has stuck to the sidelines. Earlier, it used to be the gist of the show. Now the shows revolve around social issues or are romance based and the saas-bahu concept is reduced to a side-story which doesn't necessarily rear its ugly face in every episode.

Saru Singhal

I don't watch much of TV except for News or Live Match. But I have no problems if someone is watching it as many housewives have only these as a source of entertainment. I don't see any progress in terms of quality in 10 years.

Khoty Mathur

Nice dilemma to be in – whether they should have seasons or full on 365 workdays per year! Perhaps they should try more new actors and actresses. I've been wondering which Indian channel to subscribe to. I want a lot of news, discussions, info and some of the above. Still not sure but your post has given me a few pointers. Thanks. Glad there's so much happening.


More than quality I think its variety. Just like in movies. Earlier they used to be typical masalas. Now they have started to be based on real life movies, hard hitting, gritty, depressing at times, yet true. Dont you agree that reality shows are becoming more and more famous and parents are actually opening up to the concept? How many kids did you know earlier who would be allowed to get into the field of entertainment. Just take the case of Rajasmitha who won DID 3. From Odisha. Rourkela. A village. People are coming in throngs from all over to get into these. That's the reach of Indian television.


I agree. They should definitely try more actors and actresses, though that has definitely started as well. Reality shows also do provide a stream of actors even if the show had been about finding singing/dancing talent some fresh faces do end up becoming actors, but once established the actor/actress becomes a top in-demand actor – guess that's true in any profession. I would recommend checking out the Satyameva Jayate promos and then deciding which one to go for, should be starting up soon. Do you get all channels in NZ? I am guessing the top contenders in NRI countries are Star and Zee. Congratulations on your book, I have a lot of respect for people who have published entire novels. Its a huge feat. Thank you for stopping by.

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