As India's Soap Opera World Turns, Mother-in-Law Always Reigns

Narendra Bisht | The India Today Group | Getty Images

Mothers-in-law are not a joke on Indian TV. They are the law.

Soap operas dominate prime time here and the mother-in-law reigns in almost all of them. However plucky the heroine or serpentine the plot, every love story seems to circle back to marriage and the many relatives who come with the words "I do."

The extended family is still the bedrock of Indian society, where modernization meets its match. Soap operas here are outlandish — some so stylized and wildly melodramatic they verge on camp. But they are also oddly prosaic; expressions of duty, deference and parental obligation that inform everyday lives.

Television isn't an insurrectionist force in India. It's a relatively young medium struggling to adapt to a vast viewing audience that respects tradition and suspects change. Like many an Indian bride, television here occasionally tests the boundaries but mostly finds its way by following the rules and not making too many waves.

The rules can seem confounding to outsiders: India is a country where female infanticide can be a soap opera plot point in prime time but scenes of casual dating are taboo. In this realm it is the mother-in-law who is the metronome of Indian family values, issuing orders, giving advice and setting the rhythm of acceptable change.

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Speed-clicking the remote after 8 p.m. is like watching a PowerPoint display of passion in hot pink, glimmering tears and the occasional stinging slap across the face. Sweet, noble Sandhya dreams of entering the Civil Service on "The Light and the Lamp Are We," one of the top-rated shows in India, and her handsome husband, a humble candy shop owner, is all for it. But there's an obstacle that drives the narrative: Her mother-in-law is adamantly opposed.

The basic plot of "Child Bride" is evident from its title, and this soap about an under-age wife is also a top-rated show — under-age marriage is still prevalent enough to wedge its way into the family hour. More shocking, perhaps, is that in more recent episodes the in-laws accept the young heroine as their own and — brace for it — encourage her to leave her husband (he's a philanderer) and find a better match.

That may be a fantasy, but matriarchal interference (call it guidance) is marriage Indian-style. When Indian women discuss the need to "adjust" to matrimony, they don't just mean adapting to a new husband. They mean moving in with his parents, grandparents and siblings, a custom that is still the norm, even in prosperous families. In a country with 1.2 billion people, about 148 million households have television and that amounts to as many as 600 million viewers. In the slums of Mumbai even the sections without running water sport satellite dishes on top of corrugated roofs. Almost everywhere, Indians gather in front of the family television and the mother-in-law controls the remote.

"Women like to see their favorite characters express their own feelings, so the mother-in-law identifies with the mother-in-law, the daughter-in-law with the daughter-in-law," is how Ekta Kapoor explains soap opera transference. Ms. Kapoor, a 37-year-old television and film producer who currently has five shows on the air, became queen of the Indian soap world with her breakthrough series, "The Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law, Too,"one of the all-time hits of Indian television that ran from 2000 to 2008.

Male children are favored in Indian society, and wives join the husband's family at the low end of the pecking order, often relegated to kitchen drudge work while the mother-in-law rules over the grandchildren. "We live with our parents until we are married, then we live with someone else's parents," Ms. Kapoor said. "There is pressure to give everything to the son. It's a source of conflict in so many homes." (Ms. Kapoor, the daughter of well-known actors, is single and owns her own house but lives with her parents in their home anyway.)

The family structures — and tensions — on soap operas mirror those of the audience with one glaring difference. In many series yearning and betrayal play out in marble mansions. Women are draped in silk and encrusted in jewels, a fantasy of wealth that has grown all the more seductive since the rise of India's billionaire class. The formula has lasted for more than a decade because it puts identifiable characters into aspirational settings.

The yearning isn't for "Dynasty" dcor or even the real-life luxury lofts of India's new rich. The sets of houses look like a maharajah's palace; the costumes are so lavish and vivid, they would stand out in a Bollywood wedding scene. Social dynamics, on the other hand, look more like middle-class life in overpopulated Mumbai or New Delhi. Even in vast mansions family members gather in tight clusters; no dispute, no matter how personal, breaks out without bystanders. A lover's quarrel takes place in a crowd.

The classic Indian soap opera shot has two characters at odds. One says something shocking, or slaps the antagonist's face, and the camera slowly pans a circle of men and women frozen in horror and dismay, as chords of dramatic music rain down.

Privacy, even on a soap opera, is not at a premium. As Aarti Gupta Surendranath, a film and television producer, put it, "In India giving someone his space is just rude."

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The television landscape is just as dense. There are many hundreds of channels, and regional television is booming. The most popular soaps are translated into several languages, and many regions, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu, have their own channels and programs. Television is a bigger industry now than Bollywood, and Bollywood actors are beginning to do television; the field is destined to keep growing. The Internet is not yet siphoning away the nation's television-viewing youth.

MTV is here, and so are shows like "What's With Indian Men?" a youth-oriented travel show on Fox Traveller, a channel owned by to News Corporation. It stars two saucy young Indian women who travel the country, sampling local sites and cheekily interviewing local men.

But there are dozens of soap operas on the air at the moment, and they are popular. Reversing the economics of American TV, they are also cheaper to produce here than game shows like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

At the family hour touchy social issues like divorce, suicide or infanticide are filtered through a thick gauze of sentimental tales of love and courtship — and mothers-in-law.

There are growing numbers of single career women in India, and in Bollywood romantic comedies, but mainstream television is not yet ready to celebrate their independence. After recently testing a pilot about a group of single Indian women living together, Sony, one of India's leading networks, dropped the experiment. "An Indian 'Friends' just won't work here," said Sneha Rajani, a senior Sony executive in charge of programming. "A family unit is essential for success."

On their own time Indian network executives in cosmopolitan Mumbai watch "Homeland" and "Grey's Anatomy" and say they itch to create comparable niche shows. But right now there's too small an audience. India is in the middle of making the switch from analog to digital, but premium cable is still in the future.

Some producers are ready to take the risk anyway, notably the Bollywood star Anil Kapoor, familiar in the West as a star of "Slumdog Millionaire." He bought the right to adapt "24" and intends to play the superagent Jack Bauer. (Mr. Kapoor played a moderate Muslim leader in Season 8 of "24.") That Fox series was a hit here, especially with men; it was shown on weekends, when matriarchs hand the remote over to husbands, who turn on cricket and the Indian police procedural "C.I.D."

It's not just the high-tech action sequences of "24" that are daunting to adapt. Government conspiracy and Islamic terrorism are treacherous topics in a country where corruption is widespread and Hindu-Muslim tensions acute. Raj Nayak, the chief executive of Colors, the network behind "Child Bride" that has also teamed up with Mr. Kapoor, said the creative team hasn't figured out how to navigate the political and religious sinkholes. "It's very sensitive," he said. "We'll have to find a way to Indianize it Bollywood-style."

The issue of India's Muslim minority is so fraught that until recently soap operas ignored it. "I would love to do a Muslim soap, but it's just not realistic," Ms. Rajani of Sony said.

The ZEE network took the plunge in December, with "I Do," a family saga with a love triangle about Zoya, a young Muslim woman raised in New York who returns to Bhopal and is torn between two men: Asad, the tall businessman with smoldering good looks who is disturbed by her modern ways, and Ayaan, the younger half-brother, a long haired guitar-strumming layabout.

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The look of "I Do" is distinctive, the colors deep, the sets contemporary. Characters greet one another with an Urdu salutation instead of the familiar Hindi "namaste" and sprinkle in a few words of Urdu along with a little English. (Hindi-speaking television characters often toss in English phrases like "are you mad?" and "profit margin.")

ut the themes and emotions on "I Do" are the same as in conventional soaps: love, marriage, mothers and mothers-in-law. ("Just because she wears jeans doesn't mean she isn't a decent girl," Asad's mother tells him pleadingly.)

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Glossy Indian television ads for cars, motorcycles and beauty products provide some of the most modern — and westernized — images on television, and even those are careful not to offend. In an ad for "Attitude," a skin cream, a smiling college student gets out of a car to greet her extended family, gathered for her return. Her relatives freeze when a second woman climbs out; her friend is a tough-looking young woman with Goth-style clothes and matching expression. The chill is broken when the visitor comes forward and bows respectfully at the feet of the matriarch. Everyone sighs in relief, and the family goes inside for a celebration.

Some television producers want to embed more conspicuous public service messages in their programs. "I despise soaps about kitchen politics; they are regressive," said Ajit Thakur, the general manager of Life OK, a baby sister channel of Star Plus, a major network owned by News Corporation. Life OK has a soap opera called "Domestic Violence," designed to focus attention on spousal abuse.

But when the channel asked viewers to call in with advice for the abused wife, Mr. Thakur was taken aback that almost half urged her to stay with her wealthy, handsome, if violently possessive husband. A lot of the older women, he said, argued, "Well, at least he really loves her." (He ends up killing her with poison, but she is reincarnated via heart transplant and the new heroine plots his comeuppance.)

Soap opera subplots are often inspired by tales from the "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata," epics that are the pillars of Hindu culture. Ms. Kapoor said that when she wanted to have a heroine kill a man to avenge his abuse of another woman — not a normal role for women on TV — she deliberately shot her in the pose of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

Religion can't be trivialized, however. Inspired by "The Tudors" and "Rome" Ms. Kapoor tried to do a more daring series about the "Mahabharata" that humanized the gods. It bombed because it was too irreverent. Life OK is having success with its more traditional depiction of the adventures of Lord Shiva.

Family is also not to be trifled with. There are evil twins, fake deaths, comas, resurrections, time leaps, heartbreak, suicide, longing and lots of conflict on soaps — husband scolding wife, wife scolding maid, sister accusing sister, mistress threatening lover — but it is rare to see a younger person speak rudely to an elder. Heroines can be feisty, like the young woman raising her younger siblings by herself on the astonishingly titled "Hitler Didi." (Hitler here is a metaphor for bossy.) They can sometimes be defiant, like Sia, who rebelled when her future mother-in-law, Ammaji, the village leader, incited the killing of baby girls on "Don't Come to This Land, My Lovely Daughter," a Colors network show that highlighted the problem of infanticide in rural areas and ended (happily ever after) this year.

But deference is essential and that's not just made-for-TV fantasy. In real life the Bhats of Mumbai are a modern family of sorts: Durga, 26, works as a secretary in a real estate company and her husband; Sunil, 32, works in computer technology. They have a 15-month-old boy, Siddanth, and live in a tiny two-room apartment in a concrete apartment tower in an industrial area of Mumbai that happens to have a small paddock of buffalo next door. They share the space, no larger than an R.V., with Sunil's mother, Jayshree, 53, and his sister Sheela, 28. His mother's 78-year-old mother-in-law, Taralaxmi, sleeps nearby and spends her days in the apartment.

Both parents work hard, saving to send their son to private kindergarten. But everyone gathers at night to watch "Pavitra Rishta" ("Pure Relationship"), a top-rated soap opera, where the family, Durga said, "is like ours, a joint family." Taralaxmi is a charmer, full of stories, and one evening before the show began, she pointed to her daughter-in-law, Jayshree. "She used to be thin," she said cheerfully. "She put on weight after menopause." Even in India that didn't seem like a compliment. Jayshree kept smiling and did not reply.

"Sunil's grandmother has her views and she loves to talk," Durga said. "We just let her go, just as I do with my mother-in-law. You have to keep things moving when you live together in this kind of space."

Like many a soap opera heroine Durga has learned to adjust.