*Trigger warning: Mention of marital rape*
Cable television is an important part of most Indian households. My home was not too different. I grew up bartering study hours for TV viewing hours. Shanti, Tara, Shaktimaan, Uncle Scrooge, Alladin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Swabhimaan, Alpviram, Sa Re Ga Ma, Antakshari, etc. were staples while growing up.
If I close my eyes, I can still imagine the music that played before DD news. I can imagine the star cast of “Mile sur mera tumhara, toh sur bane hamara”. I can continue to reminisce and imagine being a child again.
This age of television was soon replaced with K serials (from the house of Ekta Kapoor). Being a Malayali, I also watched Malayalam serials during dinner time. In the late 90s, K serials and most Malayalam serials set new standards to glorify patriarchal practices, stalking and abuse. As a tween and later a gullible teen, I believed that this was love. I believed that abuse in the name of the family was completely justified.
As I grew older, I realised that fiction begets facts and vice versa. This macabre representation was accepted without question because the truth in most of our homes was uglier than fiction. As I grew older, these serials/daily soaps were no longer on my watch list.
It was fortuitous that I recently started watching a daily soap named Anupamaa. It happened because I spend a lot of time with my mother. However, it held my attention because it starred actress Rupali Ganguly (of Sarabhai vs Sarabhai fame) in the titular role.
The serial started like any other. The overbearing male breadwinner who can never be faulted. The breadwinner’s mom; a loud, over the top woman who loves to taunt her daughter in law and is willfully ignorant of her son’s flaws. The daughter in law a.k.a Anupama who got married too young and never received an education. She believed in giving till it hurts and then some more.
Her subservience works as a testament to her engagement with her family. She continued to smile through her tears as her children shamed her for not speaking English. She believed in existing for her family and she did this from a genuinely happy place.
Anupamaa, as a character, is abused by her husband and family. The abuse is mental, emotional and economic. The character, however (like most women we know), doesn’t recognise the abuse. In case she does recognise the abuse, she believes that it’s gods wish and, hence, her TV show.
I have lost count of women I know in similar positions. I don’t blame the women. I blame the patriarchal structures that support such unstinting subjugation.
However, at one point, Anupamaa undergoes a paradigm shift. She walks in on her husband of 25 years, as he prepares to engage in physical intimacy with his girlfriend. While she sees this unfolding in front of her in their marital room, something changes inside Anupamaa. She breaks down and takes her own time to rebuild her shattered self. This new self is a different Anupamaa and the change in body language has been beautifully enacted by Ganguly.
While parts of the show get tediously prolonged, a certain important point of view is expressed — that a woman can have agency is discussed. This agency isn’t bestowed upon the woman. The titular character has to bear the cross of her husband’s infidelity.
She is expected to blame herself for being uneducated and unpolished. She is expected to forget and forgive her husband’s indiscretions the minute he fakes regret. She is blamed for the breakdown of her family simply because she refuses to bow down.
She has agency, albeit partial. She has few of her own who stand by her. This, though basic, is heart-warming because it was depicted on mainstream television.
Why do I write about this? I am a physician and I have seen women who have experienced marital rape. They stayed in their marriages because they had no agency. They stayed in their marriages because they did not have a family to turn to.
I am a woman who knows other women who have stayed in such abusive marriages. It’s not their fault that they did. They did so because they knew no other way. They were economically enslaved and knew not how to exist beyond the marriage. They had no agency.
Like I mentioned earlier, facts beget fiction. While Anupamaa is far from perfect, it is hopefully a beginning. It lends hope that we may soon see on TV (and in real life) independent women who are not demonised for being independent and desirous of their self-respect.