(What men want; and other thoughts on daily soaps)
Looking for ideas for my weekly Metro Now column on the foibles of mankind, I saw a feature story about how increasing numbers of Indian men want their brides to be like the women they see on TV soaps. Apparently, in matrimonial ads around the country, eager young bachelors are putting in specifications that read: “She should be like Tulsi in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi or Saloni in Saat Phere” (this is of course in addition to the usual “traditional yet modern, fair but homely, virgin yet whore” litany).
Given that India has one-sixth of the world's population, this new trend carries huge implications for the future of the family unit. Based on what little I've seen of the Ekta Kapoor variety of daily soaps, these are the qualities I imagine the average Indian male now looks for in his life-partner:
– Her range of facial expressions must include Pursed-Lip Discontentment (when the saas-ji is praising another daughter-in-law), Simpering Complicity (the innocent girl being bullied around by more dominant family members), Evil-Vixen Smirk (when a nasty plot has succeeded) and Frantic Eye-Roll (when a plot is being unmasked).
– She must wear twice her own weight in jewellery at all times, even in the kitchen and the bedroom. Laden with family heirlooms passed down over 20 generations (most of whom are still living characters on the show), arms covered with gleaming bangles, she should resemble the robot in Metropolis, or at least an extra from a 1950s cult sci-fi movie. This means that in addition to carrying cups of tea hither and thither on trays, she can double up as a security guard: if a burglar enters the house, all she has to do is stun him senseless with the reflective glare from her 7,000-carat necklace.
– She should be able to walk in slow-motion, like the heroines (and all other characters, for that matter) of these shows.
There are two reasons why everyone on a daily soap must walk in slow motion. First, because it creates a Dramatic Effect (though people with IQs above 8 might disagree with this idea), and second, because when a new episode has to be produced every day, you need to stretch things out. It would be too much to expect the poor writers to actually work on a 25-minute script daily (what are they, bloggers?), so other dramatic devices must be used. Thus, whenever a character says anything spectacular on a soap (and of course, these people only ever say spectacular things; you'll never hear an uncomplicated "saaso-ji, pass the garlic prawns please"), it will be said in a room containing 20 others, and we will be shown elaborate reaction shots of each of these people (Evil-Vixen Smirk, Frantic Eye-Roll, etc). Or a reaction shot of a single person replayed five times, with the camera twirling drunkenly around the room, and thunder-claps on the soundtrack. This is an efficient way of prolonging a five-minute scene for a week and thus cutting down on extraneous costs (because all the money must go on the really important things – the clothes, hairstyles and bangles).
Come to think of it, maybe the new lot of bride-seekers have the right idea. If we all modeled our family lives on daily soaps, world problems would end immediately – everyone would be too busy simpering at each other in slow motion to worry about the big issues.
P.S. This business of slow-motion brings me to some general observations about the Indian daily soap, which differs markedly from its western equivalent. In the US too, daytime soap operas are generally regarded as the nadir of human achievement, but if you go beyond knee-jerk snobbery it’s possible to appreciate the professionalism with which they are made. For instance, key roles are usually played by actors with some experience in theatre (even if it isn’t Grade-A theatre), each scene is rehearsed as a scene in a play would be, and then shot in a continuous take, with the action simultaneously captured from different angles so that the footage can later be edited for maximum dramatic effect.
In Indian soaps on the other hand, I doubt that actors have to ever memorise more than a couple of sentences at any one point (which is just as well, because in most cases their previous acting experience has been restricted to saying “After using Fair & Lovely, I found a wealthy and loving husband who will only beat me twice a week”). Scenes appear to be filmed not in lengthy takes but in five-second installments and the emphasis is on reaction shots, which are probably put together separately. (I imagine that when the actors come in to work each day, they are clothed, made up and then asked to stand in front of a stationary camera and twist their faces and roll their eyes in as many different ways as possible. This stock footage can later be interspersed with the freshly filmed material whenever required.)
P.P.S. One of the many things you don’t know about me is that I’m something of an expert on the history of American daytime television, so expect more posts of this sort.