Penn, they don’t make them like these anymore!

If I manage to arrive home before the others are asleep, I settle in front of the TV with my dinner and end up watching Tamil serials that the family is glued to.

Published: 12th October 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th October 2017 10:29 PM   |  A+A-

If I manage to arrive home before the others are asleep, I settle in front of the TV with my dinner and end up watching Tamil serials that the family is glued to. In one of them, a woman advices another that she must behave like a good wife to deal with her husband’s alcoholism — get him high on you, and he’ll never need the high of the alcohol goes the gyaan.

In another instance, a man, unable to deal with his impotency, is convincing his wife to be remarried in an act of ultimate sacrifice. There’s the woman who will fall in love only with the one who proves his manliness, the one who drugs her love interest into having sex with her, and other narratives that are fantasies of who and how women should be.

None of these involve a happy woman unburdened by her family, a woman who is chasing her career without being vilified (all women but the leads wanting a career are vain), a woman who maintains platonic friendships with men or a woman with agency. I claim to be entertained by the serials I watch. I tell myself that I find their ridiculous plots funny. But I never stop talking about how regressive they are, how these serials are made and written mostly by men for a predominantly female audience, and how they lack basic research.

When such serials are watched everyday from morning to night, these ideas tend to stick. So many people are being fed false stereotypes and factually flawed storylines packaged as drama, and we can do so much better to challenge and change the ideas of women and culture through the idiot box.

A well-meaning friend sent me the YouTube link to Penn, a series I had never heard of until now. An 8-episode mini-series directed by Suhasini Maniratnam, Penn aired in 1991. As the title suggests, the series is all about women but the USP is that it had some of the most popular female leads of commercial cinema starring in each episode before it became normal for heroines to have a second innings on TV. Amala, Bhanupriya, Geetha, Radikaa, Revathy, Saranya, Shobanaa, and Suhasini, were the actors that play the leads with a stellar supporting cast and crew.

Now the best thing about the series is that you see the protagonists have careers from doctors to art gallery managers (revolutionary for 1991), but more importantly you see these women laugh, have friends, have fun (Shobanaa sings with her friends on the road, in the auto, in the hostel!), make decisions, fall in love, stand their ground, stick up for themselves and get support for doing that. The men? My goodness, won’t I find a man like Dr Murali from episode five? Where went the secure, respectful, understanding just nice men from the world of serials? Really, in all my years of watching mega serials with my family, I’ve seen neither a romance that is built mutually, nor a man waiting.

So watching Penn did bring me joy. After joy, I went through a series of emotions starting at surprise, dwelling at shock and ending in anger. How did we, in a span of decades manage to drop from there to here? And why are those who did see serials of that time tolerating the nonsense we are showed everyday?
It is not to say that the cartoons of 2017 serials did not exist way back in 1991, but why aren’t we being told the good old stories now? Why are we watching women weeping and plotting on mind-voice on repeat and not much else? Maybe the viewers need to ask themselves if they want better. If they do, its about time we appeal to Suhasini Maniratnam to leave rivers to the revered and bless us instead with Penn Part 2.

Archanaa Seker

The writer is an activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton


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