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Out of the Box – Televisualised Identities and Their Politics
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Out of the Box – Televisualised Identities and Their Politics

shaheen

 

Shaheen Ahmed

shaheen“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true”

~ Baudrillard1

No truth about television can be truer than this quote – television is a reality, a reality which is nothing but simulacra. As Jean Baudrillard explains the real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models – and these can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in hyperspace without atmosphere2. Thus, it becomes the question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself which means that the real will not be produced again.

Probably, we can use the logic of the hyperreal to argue about the creation and re-creation, the assertion and the re-assertion of certain hegemonic identities in the television serials being aired prime time in Indian television. A lot has already been written about the soap operas especially the ones that were produced by Balaji Telefilms which aired primarily on the Star network since the early 2000. Here I intend instead to look at so-called family comedies which are currently on-air in Sab TV, a satellite channel with emphasis on the hit comedy serial “Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasmah”. Here I will attempt to not only look at the regressive portrayal of women but also how stereotypes of certain communities are created and reinforced through the garb of these family oriented serials. This engagement becomes all the more pertinent during this time as the general elections have hugely polarized the populace and there is the looming possibility of a right-wing government heading the country.

“Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasmah” is a sitcom that airs on SAB TV and was first aired on July 28, 2008. It has a prime time slot of 8:30 PM from Monday to Friday. In August 2010, this sitcom became the most watched show in Indian television garnering a TRP of 4.28 and is the longest running daily comedy show on Indian television. It completed 1400 episodes in April 2014 and has won several television awards. The Wikipedia page for this serial eulogizes it by saying – “It has often been noted for its frequent references to issues of social importance in the country and its positive approach towards the problems faced by the society. Applaudable performances by its lead and supporting actors alike have also contributed in making the show a success”. The serial is based on the happenings of Gokuldham Society and its members. Further waxing of eloquence of the serial includes the description of Gokuldham society which is described as “an ideal mix of India’s social fabric. In the society, they have Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, South Indian, Bengali, Parsi people living together in harmony and peace”.

taarak mehta

This living space in the serial is highly important as the city including the private living space is essential to the construction of the middle class. The first point about construction of hegemonic identities can be pointed out in the choice of the name for the society. Therein lies itself the cue for whom the living space has been created. Gokuldham has religious connotation for Hinduism where Lord Krishna was said to have been born. So instead of probably choosing a more secular name for the society which is set in the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, the makers of the show choose a name which shows the exclusivity of anyone from any minority community.

The first key to negotiating with the hidden ideologies in this serial is through the social space shown in the serial.

Social space is understood as a field of cultural production in and through which social agents seek to position themselves by improving or stabilizing their status, negotiating access to values and rules of the ‘game’ allegedly played3. Thus for the middle class it becomes a struggle of accessing the cultural space, accumulation of prestige through the performative accumulation of various forms of capital by means of distinction and classification: economic (e.g. financial), social (e.g. relations and network), symbolic (e.g. prestige, honor) and cultural capital (e.g. qualifications, competencies, skills)4. This is where the importance of the concept of a physical space like the city comes into being. As Brosius explains, the city is imagined as much as it is a social arena in which people compete for symbolic power, for an improvement or at least stabilization of their individual positions and access to particular resources. Thus the private space within the city itself i.e. the individual residences or homes become an important axis through which the politics of identity construction and exclusivity/inclusivity are played out.

If we apply Fuller and Narasimhan’s definition of the middle class to the tele-serials, whereby they have defined the ‘old’ middle class as a property-owning petit bourgeoisie, and the ‘new’ middle class consisting of educated and qualified professional and technical service employees, we do notice the kind of change that serials have undergone in their portrayal of characters in the last one decade; from the opulent mansions of Ekta Kapoor’s serials to the middle-class societies in serials like “Taarak Mehta…” Central to these societies of middle class apartment blocks, is the open space within the society where alleged oppositions of secular and religious domains can be constructively reconsidered. It is in this context, that it’s important to reconsider the role of religion in secular societies such as India when it comes to the shaping of civic and urban religion and transnational religio-spiritual movements, for it is particularly the new megacities of the global South that seem to draw such new initiatives5. Thus, the ground at Gokuldham society becomes the space where all the major festivities pertaining to Hinduism are performed like Holi, Diwali, Janmastami, etc along with a show of the patriotism on Republic Day or Independence Day. There is however, no space for the celebration of any other secular event or festivity neither is there a space for the celebration of any festival from any minority community or religion. One exception that has been noticed was the episode in December in 2010 when Christmas and New Year’s eve were celebrated (this was later followed by an Eid Special the date or time which I cannot confirm). Thus, the private space too becomes the arena where politics of hegemony and soft-Hindutva are played out.

This identity construction is even more evident when we analyse the main characters in the show and of course the regressive portrayal of the women in the show. The show revolves mainly around the character of Jethalal Gada a Gujarati businessman and his family. Then there is Taarak Mehta, again a Gujrati who is a writer by profession and the narrator of the show. There is a Marathi family where Aatmaram Tukaram Bhide is the male head who is a teacher by profession and also the secretary of Gokuldham society. There is a Punjabi family, the Sodhis where the male head Roshan Singh Sodhi is a garage owner. The Hathis are another family where Dr. Hansraj Hathi is the overweight head of the family and lastly there are the Iyers where Krishan Iyer is a scientist.

In this entire character construction, it is more than evident how the hegemony of an upper class and upper caste domination is played out. There is not a single character here who is from any marginalized section of the society. There is no character who is a Dalit or Scheduled Caste/ Tribe. The only Muslim character here is a small time shopkeeper Abdul, who also works like an errand boy for the members of the society if and when needed. This kind of an identity construction can be understood through an understanding of the term cosmopolitanism.

As Brosius argues, cosmopolitanism, identified with ‘world-class’, seems to have become an increasingly important asset for India because her governments, both national and regional, can employ it in order to appeal to overseas Indians and foreign corporations and business alike. The appeal raised through this rhetoric is for the NRIs or the Non Resident Indians to invest in India’s economic growth. The label “We are World-class Now’ is very important to the overseas Indians, and besides opening up to investments in real estate sector, for instance, the Indian government wants to present the country as stable and prepared to meet the western demand6. Thus as Brosius goes on to say, there is a ‘partial cosmopolitanism’ or selective transnationalisation at play in order to send out appealing signals to respective desired groups.

There is another point to be noted here, and that is the locating of the point ‘popular’. This is essential especially when it comes to understanding the functionality of such serials and the audiences that they are catering to. In culture industries, the figure of the ‘popular’ mediates between producers and audiences7. During argues that the culture industry attempts to produce what the public wants and at the same time it generates public desire by marketing its products as if they were always already popular. Now this blurring of the chain of supply and demand when it comes to the construction of identities in television is applicable. The pandering to soft-Hindutva is evident when we analyse the characters in Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma.

We find a truly complicated form of glocalisation at work in and through the lens of this concept in the search for and claims made over the definition of a ‘distinctly (Hindu) Indian’ modernity as enclave cosmopolitanism8. So in this careful construction of a soft-Hindutva identity, the Other or the marginalized is made exclusive. Thus, there is no space for a Dalit or a Muslim to be sharing the same kind of cultural values or a professional middle class state with an upper caste Hindu identity. Through these political and commercial tactics and logics, the popular is constantly pushed towards the normal, even the universal9. Hence, there is the constant reinforcing of ‘Unity in Diversity’ in this serial which in fact is the appropriation of the minority into the hegemonic dominant ideology.

taarak mehta 1

The portrayal of the women in the series is another aspect that needs to be seriously analysed. The main women in the series are Daya Gada, Anjali Mehta, Roshan Sodhi, Madhavi Bhide, Babita Iyer and Komal Hathi. The first and foremost observation about these women is that unfailingly all of them are home-makers without any professional aspirations or careers. If one even glances at the Wikipedia page of this serial whereby all the women are actually described in terms of their personas and attitudes towards their husbands, it becomes amply clear that in this modern Hindu nation, the place of the woman is always at the home tending to the family. As Purnima Mankekar says, women’s place in the nation is analogous to their place in the family: it is their duty to protect and to sacrifice for the family. But in this scheme women do more than play a supporting role: it falls on them to protect the integrity of the family and nation and to do so by inspiring and if necessary inciting their men to fight for the motherland.

This kind of a portrayal is essential to be seen in the light of the mythicizing of the motherhood in nationalist ideologies. Its continuing potency is evident in the prevalence in popular discourse of the notion of Bharat Mata or Mother India, which being rooted in the Hindu concept of the Mother Goddess. One way to map the historical transformations in gender politics is through the politically shifting articulations of the mythological text Ramayana, which may be termed as India’s first nation-building narrative. Namita Gokhale underlines the importance of mythology in the country by arguing that the complex social, political and religious attitudes of ‘modern’ India cannot be understood without an understanding of our myths and their impact on the collective faith of the people. Reality, according to Rashna Imhasly-Gandhy, can only be understood experientially and the best way to convey it to the masses in a culture is through a myth or a tale. Thus, it is really not surprising when at diverse political junctures during 1920-1990, the gender politics of Ramayana narrations inscribed ‘women’ as subjects of national tradition and as citizen-subjects.

The ideal of womanhood is projected onto Sita who becomes the perfect role model as partner and mother. In the nationalist discourses since 1920 as represented by Gandhian rhetoric, Sita signifies the feminine, ‘uncolonizable’ domain of the nation that is semiotically timeless but politically contingent10. Thus, we find that in that period of nationalism, images of Sita-Savitri-Damayanti provided the images of self-sacrifice, chastity and moral power. According to Reba Som, by emphasizing on these qualities, nationalists attempted to prove the spiritual superiority that existed within the internal sphere of the home, which compensated for the cultural domination by Western scientific ideas in the material or external sphere which had to be accepted. This leads to Partha Chatterjee’s argument, that this ideological form of the Sati-Sita-Savitri construct is a product of the development of a dominant middle class culture which served to emphasize with the force of mythological inspiration what had in any case become a characteristic of feminity in the ‘new woman’, viz. the ‘spiritual’ qualities of self-sacrifice, benevolence, devotion, religiosity etc.

This argument can be used to probably understand why till date, women in most of the Indian serials are almost always shown as homemakers without any good education or career goals. Though there has been much criticism and discourse on the portrayal of women in these serials in mainstream media as well as on the internet, yet the dumbing-down effect of a woman is still persistent. Thus, it is not surprising to see Jethalal Gada admonishing his wife Dayaben in privately as well as in front of the community as ‘Nonsense’ every time she makes a mistake. She is shown as a half-brained woman whose words or advice even her son Tappu does not adhere to. But then again, she is subservient to her husband, despite the kind of repressive treatment that is meted out to her. Like a dutiful Indian Hindu wife she will keep fasts including Karwa-Chauth for her husband, cook his meals and be there at his beck and call. With the Iyers again, a typical Indian North-South binary is played out. The stereotyped Krishan Iyer is a dark Tamil with an extremely fair north Indian wife, Babita. Thus, within Gokuldham, and especially by Jethalal, he is subject to crude taunts about his dark skin. Babita, because of her fairness, is the object of desire for Jethalal despite the fact that both are married. He tries in as many ways to woo her away from the dark Krishan, because she ‘deserves’ to be with someone who is not so dark. The fact that he is a scientist or that Babita is attached to her husband is of no consequence. It is very much akin to the discourse of a contemporary Sita in need of a rescue.

For the male members of the Gokuldham society, the idea of fun is at ‘boys night out’ which means heading to the household of Roshan Sodhi who is a Punjabi Sikh. But to go for a round of drinks and enjoyment they have to lie to their spouses. This recurring theme again perpetuates stereotypes at many levels. While re-inforcing a typical north Indian typifying of the Punjabi male as a boisterous and loud person who ‘enjoys his Patiala peg’, it also shows how ‘traditional women’ are supposed to behave and act. Alcohol is seen as a sin, a western construct and so the ‘ideal Indian wife’ who not only abstains from alcohol herself but has to act as the shield preventing her husband from drinking.

Another important prism through which we need to look at this serial is also through the ‘construction of reality’. The serial constructs for us what it means to have ‘unity in diversity’ as the hegemonic fetishistic regime of consumption asks us to do. In such a regime, the viewer is enthralled into identification with an imaginary world in which threatening knowledge is allayed by beautiful images11. This is how these ‘realist’ texts work. What this serial has done, is manufacture the idea of ‘real middle class’ milieu in India. As Heath argues, the realist text denies that it is constructed or produced but presents itself as merely a picture of the world. Hence, the otherisation that is so palpable in this serial demands attention.

The straddling between modernity and tradition and the upholding of morality of being a moral judge of the people and hence the nation, leads to the dominant Hindu majority middle class in asserting their rights and positions of power and privilege over the marginalized or the minority. As Nilanjana Gupta says, modernity in India is a complex matrix where many traditional values and ideologies coexist with modernist values. This in itself is a troubling proposition as it is often the clash of the dominant ideology with the marginalized one. Hence the soft pandering of Hindutva on the television serials such as “Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasmah” which is a dangerous trend as has been seen in the last few decades. Also the cast has in no unequivocal terms rendered its support to Narendra Modi. They campaigned for Modi and BJP in December 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HA-sbyOXkWY). This kind of a subtle politics of exclusion and identity creation which has a reach into the houses of millions of homes in the country is definitely a cause to worry about. Such kind of politics of representation is what adds to the fire to the already boiling cauldron of identity politics.

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Notes

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth#cite_note-76

[2] Baudrillard, Jean “Simulacra and Simulations”, The Visual Culture Reader, Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff

 [3] Brosius, Christiane “India’s Middle Class – New Forms of Urban Leisure, Consumption and Prosperity”, P 15

[4] Ibid, P 15

[5] Ibid, P 34

[6] Ibid, P 29

[7] During, Simon, ‘Introduction’, The Cultural Studies Reader, Second Edition, Routledge Publications, 1993

[8] Brosius, Christiane “India’s Middle Class – New Forms of Urban Leisure, Consumption and Prosperity”, P 29

[9] During, Simon, ‘Introduction’, The Cultural Studies Reader, Second Edition, Routledge Publications, 1993

[10] Zacharias, Usha, “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of The Nation”, Social Text, 69 (Vol. 19, No. 4), Winter 2001, pp. 29-51

[11] Heath, Stephen “Lessons from Brecht”, Screen, 1974, 15 (2), 108-9

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Shaheen is an M.Phil 1st Year student at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU, New Delhi and is also an arts practitioner.

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