If it's Arushi, it's got to be a serial

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By Television soaps have started incorporating anything that is topical and talked of, notes Smitha Verma
  • Published 6.07.08

The year 2001: The lead actor in a daily soap dies. There is nationwide hysteria over his death. He is resurrected and the serial achieves a record television rating points (TRP) of 22.4, the highest ever in the Indian television soap industry. Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi aired on Star Plus creates history of sorts by bringing a dead character back to life.

The year 2008: The 16-year-old granddaughter of the protagonist in Kahanii Ghar Ghar Ki is murdered in her bedroom. The grandfather is arrested for honour killing, there is a trial by the media and there are blood-stained clothes. The inspiration comes from real life. The ongoing episodes of the series have a striking resemblance to the Arushi case, in which a teenager was killed in a Delhi suburb. Aired on Star Plus, the soap is once again enjoying a high TRP.

Suddenly, soaps have started incorporating anything that is topical and talked of. Television viewers who were till now over-fed with polygamy, illegitimate children by the dozens, amnesia, plastic surgery and resurrection can now look forward to glimpses of real life in daily soaps.

“A story is a work of imagination where the writer borrows a lot of stuff from real life. People enjoy watching shows where they can relate to what is shown in the story,” says Devyani Ogale, assistant vice president, corporate communications, Zee TV. Their popular soap Ghar ki Lakshmi Beityaan showed a character getting stuck in Mumbai floods and “most viewers could empathise with the character”.

The serial Kasamh Se aired on Zee TV had the Mumbai train blasts as one of its sub plots. Despite an outcry, Balaji Telefilms is currently showing the Arushi murder in a soap opera with slight modifications.

“Soap audiences identify with a character. So if they believe that something ‘real’ can happen to a character they are bound to watch it,” says Nivedita Basu, creative director, Balaji Telefims.

Reality sells — be it reality shows or real life incidents in serials. “News channels have become entertainment channels that show murder cases with enactment, so daily soaps can’t be blamed if they incorporate real-life crime stories to get people addicted to their shows,” says Prabhakar (he does not use a surname) at the Centre for Media Studies, Delhi.

Real-life incidents act as the perfect flavouring for many series. It is not just crime or sensational issues that matter to producers. Occasions such as Holi, Diwali, Karva Chauth and Durga Puja pop up in storylines during the festivals. “Topical issues have great value. They make the characters on television appear as real as possible,” says Sheetal Wagh, creative head, Ghar ki Lakshmi Beityaan, Zee TV.

Clearly, in the battle for eyeballs, new avenues have to be explored. Every trick has been played out in the saas-bahu series — and now, along with wild imagination, a dose of real life is being injected into soaps. “A real life instance with enough masala and glamour surely pushes up TRPs,” says Ogale.

The credit for this goes to Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms that developed the saas-bahu genre. “Topical things get eyeballs rolling as it is more relatable than imaginary ideas,” says Basu.

TRPs are important for channels as advertisers rely on this data while deciding where to place their ads. If the TRPs are good, the revenue generation is higher for the channels and consequently for the production house.

There are no prizes for guessing why soap czarina Ekta Kapoor and Balaji Telefilms rule the roost on every channel.

“This is the age where news channels are fictionalising news to a big extent. If there is scope for exploiting an issue without attracting any controversy, why can’t the entertainment channels explore this option,” asks Rajib Chatterjee, business and programming head, Zee Bangla. The Alpha Bangla channel had shown the famous Lodha-Birla battle four years ago (with different names) in its serial, Searchlight.

Most production houses would like to deal with “non-controversial” real-life issues. “We don’t want to strike the wrong chord. If there is a lesson to be learnt, one can show such issues but without hurting anybody’s sensibilities,” says Sunjay Wadhwa of Sphere Communications, which produces Saat Phere on Zee TV.

In the war to garner more TRPs, the idea-deficient television industry is trying to gather as much fodder as possible from every nook and corner of society. “Bankruptcy of ideas is a major issue. The daily soaps are struggling to keep viewer interest alive,” maintains Prabhakar.

Trying to connect with reality has also attracted flak. Episodes showing mercy killing and marital rape in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi were high on TRPs as well as criticism. “We drew a lot of flak for our popular soaps Betiyaan and Dulhaan Banoo Main Teri as they dealt with gender discrimination and illiteracy. Though these were termed regressive soaps, these issues are a part of society. And we do have high TRPs for these shows,” says Ogale.

However, there is no consensus yet on how much is “too much” in the telly world. “We can’t call it a trend as not everyone is doing it. TV serials have a big impact on people from small towns who believe whatever they see. So cashing in on a sensitive issue depends entirely on a channel’s or producer’s belief and conviction,” says Sanjay Upadhyay, creative head, fiction, Sony Entertainment Television.

So who’s complaining? Definitely not the production houses or the TV channels. The viewers are not using the remote or changing loyalties when saas-bahu serials incorporate real-life crime. The proof of a serial’s popularity lies in its TRPs. With Arushi’s murder, the soap factory has got the finger right on the viewer’s pulse.