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Why Smriti Irani’s Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi rerun feels like a live show today

From the Virani parivar to the Sangh parivar, there’s not much of a distance to travel, as Smriti Irani’s real-life journey has shown us.

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If you can tear yourself away from the results of the five assembly elections, if you are a little weary of watching the ‘live’, ‘exclusive’ and ‘only on this channel’ coverage of the war in Ukraine on Times Now, India Today, CNN News18, Republic TV, TV9 Bharatvarsh, Zee News, India TV, etcetera, etcetera, then let’s talk of other things.

Things like why Smriti Irani may be the best but not the only reason to watch Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, which is enjoying a revival on Star Plus and Hotstar.

This Balaji Telefilms soap opera, dating back to the beginning of the century (it feels odd to say that) was the most popular TV show of its time (yes, we watched television back then), ruling viewership ratings for most of its eight-odd years on air.

The serial was so successful that it was immediately cloned and has remained the template for soap operas ever since — today, nearly every daily soap, be it Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (Star Plus) and Kumkum Bhagya (Zee TV) or indeed Tera Mera Saath Rahe (Star World) about the Modi family (inspired, undoubtedly, by the Prime Minister), concerns a joint Hindu family, like Kyunki’s Viranis.

Kyunki… and serials, thereafter, are all about loving your family — or hating it — and every bit of melodrama that can be squeezed in or out of the huge mansions they live in.

In this case, viewers became the extended family of the Viranis, consisting of up to four generations that live, love and fight within the confines of their Shantiniketan home.

Kyunki was all about the parivar (family) — and therein lies its abiding relevance and appeal. Indeed, it mirrors important life values that now dominate the cultural space as well as the political and social narrative in/of the country. As such it might help us see why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — of which Smriti Irani is now a member — is so attractive to millions of voters. On counting day, that’s something to think about.

Disclaimer: we might be reading things into the serial unintended by its producers who only set out to make a hit entertainment show, which they succeeded in doing, but it’s nevertheless interesting to watch Kyunki… and recognise signposts of the present in the 22-year-old serial.

For, in its essence, Kyunki… was a reaffirmation of the ‘way of life’ of upper-class and caste Hindus.

Also read: Why is Indian TV news focused on Ukraine 24X7? Even BBC & CNN take a break

Kyunki… it still resonates

First off, Kyunki…gave the BJP one of its most charismatic leaders in Smriti Irani.

As Tulsi, the main character of the soap, Irani became a household name — and face. Go back and watch the opening episodes of the show and you will see a tall, slim, lively young woman with speaking eyes and expressive mouth, who exuded freshness and personified what are considered good, wholesome looks. Her ‘look’ was to be the look of heroines in many TV serials, especially of what were called Balaji’s ‘K’ shows — Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kasautii Zindagi Kay, Kkusum, Kutumb, etc.

Tulsi embodied the qualities of the perfect Indian nari — she was a devoted daughter, daughter-in-law in spite of her tiffs with her mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, a loving wife, mother, aunt, whatever. Later, she would also become an avenging goddess who will kill her son for his crimes.

The series, by producer Ekta Kapoor, stressed that the parivar was paramount, no matter what. Think of it, perhaps, as the Karan Johar of television serials — Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham would be released in 2001, soon after Kyunki… began on Star Plus in 2000.

Kyunki… also began the trend of TV serials dominated by the conflict between a bahu (daughter-in-law) and her saas (mother-in-law) or her in-laws, of strikingly beautiful and villainous vamps, huge bindis, monstrously large villa homes and extravagant saris, but these were a kind of window dressing to make the show attractive.

At its heart, Kyunki… argued that a family that stays together prospers together or else all suffer. Doesn’t that remind you of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’?

From the Virani parivar to the Sangh parivar, there’s not much of a distance to travel, as Smriti Irani’s real-life journey has shown us.

The show had widespread appeal to TV viewers who may have felt challenged by the sudden opening up of the Indian economy and lifestyles after the liberalisation of the early 1990s, which brought with it the winds of change and modernity.

This is particularly true for the TV viewing public: overnight, Indians, who had only Doordarshan to watch, could suddenly enjoy cable and satellite TV channels that flooded homes with western shows and values — think The Bold and the Beautiful, a daily American soap with all its extra-marital affairs and sexual openness.

The first ‘bad’ woman in Kyunki…, Payal reflected these changes: she likes to wear western clothes, drink, party, change boyfriends frequently and speaks English — a complete contrast to Tulsi.

In the face of this ‘foreign invasion’ and the idea of modernity, Kyunki… and serials that followed, stressed tradition and a Hindu-Indian way of life — today, that is the dominant prevailing social norm.

The opening sequence of the first episode of Kyunki… has Ba, the matriarch of the Virani family, who must have been well over 100 years old given the number of times the show took a leap into the future, often by decades, doing her morning puja. Tulsi, meanwhile, is the daughter of a temple priest and she will eventually marry Mihir Virani at the temple.

Temples, puja at home, the celebration of religious festivals as well as weddings, became central to the ‘K’ serials after Kyunki… In fact, the opening sequence of Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, shows the female protagonist, Parvati, doing aarti. These rituals, alongside the concept of the all-encompassing parivar, resonated with the viewing public in north India.

Today, we see pujas, politicians, including the Prime Minister at temples regularly. It’s become part of politics.

At a more lighthearted level, Kyunki… would make Gujarat famous a year before Narendra Modi became chief minister of that state. And it’s interesting that Irani’s first appointment as a minister was to the erstwhile Human Resource Development ministry (now the Ministry of Education): in one of the early episodes of the show, she is seen tutoring Mihir’s cousin Chirag on Newton’s third law of motion!

If all of this isn’t reason enough to watch the show, here’s another: each episode is only 17-18 minutes long (at least to begin with) and the characters don’t spend most of that time on the mobile phone.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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