In Ekta Kapoor’s new web universe called ALT Balaji, series such as Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain and Karle Tu Bhi Mohabbat surprisingly sport no sindoor, no sanskari vivaah, no mother-in-law troubles and no sister-in-law to carry tales. Just like Smriti Irani, India itself seems to have outgrown Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’s Tulsi. Like with Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, the individualistic nature of the streaming platforms gives Ekta Kapoor more freedom to flaunt India’s changing urban reality.
The kitchen has been replaced by the office, the dining table by the work table and the blingy sarees by jumpsuits and linen dresses. First marriages are broken, second marriages can be tense, and children learn to adapt to two sets of parents.
“Koi hamara khoon kyun chuse? Hum khud hi apna khoon chuste hain (Why should anyone suck our blood. We can do it to ourselves),” says the posh woman to the chauffeur, while telling her cousin about a vampire facial. The forties are the new 20s, she adds. Go get yourself the coffee shop cutie even as your ex-husband preps for his second stint at fatherhood, changing diapers and wiping vomit.
Sheena (played by Suchitra Pillai) in AltBalaji’s Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain may as well be speaking for the new urban middle-class woman when she gives this advice to her cousin Poonam (Gurdeep Kohli) who has just been divorced by her husband of 20 years. Poonam gives the best years of her life to her husband (the ageless Ronit Roy) and two children, and when it comes to a divorce, she steps aside gracefully for the new woman in her husband’s life, Ananya aka Ana played by Mona Singh.
It’s the same in Karle Tu Bhi Mohabbat that reunites the popular TV couple Ram Kapoor and Sakshi Tanwar. He is an alcoholic fading movie star called KK, she is his strict but loving on-off second wife and de-addiction counsellor nicknamed Tipsy. Their relationship has its ups and downs, each has their platonic best friends (of the opposite sex) and most importantly, the women have jobs other than mopping up after their husbands, children, in-laws.
Dealing with the Ekta Kapoor conundrum
Ekta Kapoor has always been somewhat of a conundrum for Indian feminists. She was a successful businesswoman, breaking important glass ceilings in the entertainment world and generally being the Boss Lady of Balaji. But the TV content she dished out was crass and cringe-worthy for the modern urban woman. That’s just Ekta Kapoor — difficult to caricature and condense. So it was only natural that she launched a Times Now-Mirror Now-style non-identical twins with Alt Balaji to capture the slice of the market that wants change. About a decade ago Star TV attempted a similar makeover by changing it’s tag line to Rishta Wahi Soch Nayee and launching new soaps.
No longer is the woman content to be Mother India, veering between suffering silently as her husband takes a lover and seething actively when her son rapes his wife. Like Mona Singh in Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain, she doesn’t want to be last in her husband’s priorities after his first family, and thinks nothing of taking off on a work trip to Qatar to clear her “headspace”.
Yet, has that much changed from the ethos of Kyunki and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki (2000-2008), soaps which transformed Indian viewing habits, with their pativrata wives and their parivar-loving husbands? In this new web world, domestic goddesses are also consummate professionals. As Ekta Kapoor has said: “On TV, you have to make content that is way more conservative and way more palatable.”
New women, old values
The ALTBalaji app gives Ekta Kapoor the freedom to experiment that TV didn’t. So, even when a wife is devoted enough to go to jail instead of her husband in Baarish, at least she has a job in the jewellery firm. Again, just like Kyunki and Kahaani, these series embody the times they are in, marrying post-liberalisation consumerism with traditional values. The characters are uniformly well-to-do and both men and women work in post-reform professions such as interior design, jewellery design or psychological counselling. Where the woman is a stay-at-home-mom, as in the forthcoming Mentalhood, starring Karisma Kapoor, she is a blogger. As she says about her character: “She is a mom, who has a blog where she shares her emotions. Even though she is old fashioned, she is today’s woman.” The message is clear: Change, but slowly.
In addition to Earth Mother, Kapoor’s app, ALT Balaji also celebrates Bharat Mata. These are the new warrior women who fight for the country, whether as soldiers in The Test Case or in the forthcoming Code M, where Jennifer Winget plays a military lawyer — a role that comes with a lot of responsibility, according to Winget. In MOM (Mission Over Mars), a forthcoming series, the focus is on fictionalising the lives of four ISRO scientists. “This show is on the women who sent the mission on Mars — partly fictional keeping in mind the sacrosanct nature of ISRO,” Kapoor has written, highlighting the “sacred” nature of ISRO’s role in nation building. As Samar Khan, the producer of The Test Case, adds: “The stories on the streaming platform are more modern and the characters are more today.”
And the demographic, like the shows? Just call it the 2.0 version of the saas-bahu audience. It’s the New India, which celebrates women as powerhouses while ensuring they are still as parivarik and sanskari as their predecessors in 2000. Goodbye Tulsi and Parvati. Hello Ananya and Tipsy.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.