QUEEN'S ROAD: Indian television does not usually allow a great deal of space for symbolism and subtlety but sometimes while surfing channels, you come across something that is done right, with a certain amount of empathy. Epic Channel for instance is replaying Tagore's memorable fiction and even though nobody can redo Charulata after what Ray imbued the story with, Epic's version directed by Anurag Basu and with Amrita Puri in the lead was miles ahead of the nonsense churned out in the name of populism. I was also shocked to see a rather sensitive portrayal of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a gay husband on Bindass, a channel known neither for sensitivity nor refinement.
The story's biggest strength was Pooja Gaur, an actor who gave some amount of gravitas to the rather overwrought proceedings in Mann Kee Awaaz Pratigya, years ago. She was incredibly moving in this short episode about a young bride who cannot understand her husband's indifference and falls for a playful and sensitive co-student in her college. Even though most of the stuff that unfolded was predictable, it was done with finesse, especially the confrontation scenes between Pooja and her mother-in-law when the latter berates her for displaying open affection for the new man in her life in a Durga pandal and Pooja reminds her that she will no longer live a lie to protect a vague notion of 'honour'.
Also effective were the scenes where Pooja finally makes her husband come to terms with the banality and emptiness of their marriage and leaves just as an idol of Durga is being carried into the house. The point being she will no longer play a mute goddess but reclaim her identity and womanhood from traditions that deny her the right to be.
Indian TV does not reflect for most parts the upheaval in gender equations. In the crime shows and many episodes of Emotional Atyachaar, the women are either victims or sexual aggressors and gold diggers. In the soaps, they are either impossibly good or unbearably toxic.
It is hard to find real women on TV like Charulata who still represent the complexity and simplicity of a gender caught between tradition and personal fufilment. Pooja's portrayal of a young, modern wife had the wistfulness of Charulata and also the courage of someone who has seen the clear light of the day and won't go back into darkness. When her mother-in-law desperate to keep her at home for the sake of propriety says, ''You can have an affair...outside this house,'' Pooja is revolted and says, ''How could you think that I will leave a dual existence like your son?''
Most importantly, the story touched upon the hypocrisy of our society where gay relationships or relationships of mutual consent are suppressed to keep the status quo in place, regardless of the human cost. We still live in a country where parents kill their daughters for loving Dalit boys. And the shocking bit is that this is something we have gotten used to. Somehow a woman allegedly killing her daughter over a three bedroom flat is bigger news. Though in both kind of stories, the issue is more or less the same. Preservation of the perception that society has of you. And the desire to control your children, especially daughters and keep them away from being inconvenient.
It does say something about us that most crimes against women are committed to ''teach them a lesson' in docility. We want our daughters to be independent but only to a point. They must not bring 'shame' to the family. Even a recent print ad unwittingly showcased that fact when a bejewelled bride went with the tag line, ''I may not have chosen my husband but I can choose my jewelry.'' We want them to make peace with unhappy marriages and live within the confines of our morality because there is the great unknown beyond. Few Hindi films and serials show that great unknown where freedom lies along with all the challenges of choosing and not just accepting a life.We will for instance never see a serial like Jackson Heights on Indian TV (A Pakistani show currently being replayed on Zee Zindagi) where a hairdresser caught in domestic abuse and a taxi driver making do with a loveless marriage find companionship in New York with the woman's adopted daughter even encouraging her to find her own joy. Or Kashmakash (a serial that was first aired as Mera Raqeeb in Pakistan) where two cheated partners find themselves turning to each other in a strange turn of events.
Be it Newshour debates about Indrani Mukherjea or a young woman who juggles boyfriends like credit cards on Bindass or Sandhya in Diya Aur Baati Hum who is a spy, a terrorist hunter, a bahu and a wife and a mother and everything that the maker on a whim wants her to be or the vamp in Satrangi Sasural who will go to any length to consummate her lust for a married man or the eternally young mothers-in-law who plot against their families for reasons best known to them, Indian story tellers on TV reek of bombast and soggy generalisations about women and even Indian men who are cut out of a cardboard.
And when you catch Varun Badola, the heartthrob of the '90s and an incredibly gifted actor in a Star Plus serial, you shake your head in resignation because the articulate and passionate protagonist of so many stories is now a prematurely greying father. Meanwhile, the great Indian soap factories continue to manufacture rainbow bubbles and toxic froth.