Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Tales of Sound and Fury...in the Indian Parliament

Balaji Tele films’ soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because the Mother-in-Law was Also Once a Daughter-in-Law, hereafter Kyunki) had its debut on Star Plus, a struggling Indian television channel in 2000.  Weaving the narrative around the Virani family, Kyunki used melodrama as a mode to use the multiple plots and serial form to foreground idealized femininity embodied in the figure of the daughter-in law Tulsi Virani. The trials and tribulations of Tulsi as she traverses the expectations and responsibilities in a joint familial set-up was seen as emblematic of the contradictions of tradition and modernity that foreclosed any neat resolution.

The success of Kyunki soon triggered off a series of soap operas that were labelled as saas-bahu(mother-in-law-daughter-in-law sagas) transforming the production house and television channel and making their leading stars into household names. The title songs, opening montage and aspirational lifestyle that marked Kyunki were starkly different from the serials that were telecast till then, especially by the State broadcaster Doordarshan. The domestic success was replicated in other Asian countries such as Srilanka and Afghanistan where Kyunki was telecast as part of the dubbed foreign programmes in Sinhala channel Sirasa TV and Dari language channel Tolo TV.

The popularity of the Kyunki was such that the onscreen death of the male character was mourned by the viewers andfan protests marches were organized forcing the production company to rescript and incorporate the character back into the narrative. Kyunki was telecast till 2008, a closure that was contested by the producer, leading to legal adjudication between the producer and the channel. Melodrama seemed to have been an intrinsic factor that played out even in the production of Kyunki when one of the actors filed a defamation suit against the producer Ekta kapur and the production house for non-payment of dues and disallowing him to take up other projects.

The actress who enacted the role of Tulsi Virani was Smriti Irani, a model who rose to prominence after Kyunki. Her rise to fame was such that Bharatiya Janatha Party, a Hindu Right wing political party nominated her to the Indian Parliament in 2014 and she is currently the Minister of Human Resources Development. While entry of actors from film and television was not new in Indian politics, what was in fact new about Smriti Irani’s political entry is the way it was mediated through her role as Tulsi Virani. For instance, being an elected democracy, the educational qualifications of the ministers were not always a point of contestation in India. But with Smriti Irani taking oath as the Minister, one of the first questions raised against her was her lack of educational qualifications. Irani’s reply to the press that she had a degree from Yale University led to a flurry of memes and twitter responses, linking her to Tulsi Virani, especially when it was proven that it was a leadership programme that she had attended in Yale along with a few other parliamentarians.  

The allegation of exaggeration and excess was linked to the form of soap opera and the mode of melodrama that it employs. In fact, in all controversies that Smriti Irani was later implicated in, the social media were quick to link her television persona to be the reason why she cannot perceive the reality. For instance, following the suicide of a research scholar in 2016, after his rustication from the University for organizing events that questioned the ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Smriti Irani gave a statement in the Indian Parliament. 

Irani’s speech seemed to draw on melodrama’s familial focus as she went onto call the dead scholar “her child." She even defended herself as a “mother” who could not harm her children and declared that she would rather behead herself than be sullied by such allegations.While her speech clearly lacked focus on the issue at hand, and even deliberately misled the audiences, what was striking in this instance was the way that melodrama’s “degraded” status was soon pulled into the debates within the political sphere. This was  in this meme that soon became viral over social media. The larger takeaway from this however, is that melodrama is not merely an industrial form but a mode of imagining everday life, and its familial can be conveniently slotted even in spheres such as electoral politics and protest movements.

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