The Old Order Has Changed

EYE - January 29 - February 4, 2012


One of her case studies was about a TV advertisement of a leading brand of household liquid cleaner in the UK, which had the male voice-over saying, "Kills one hundred percent germs-DEAD", and a visual showing the woman cleaning the house. She explained that one of the reasons the brand was losing market share was that its ad was out of sync with the rise of feminism. The ad had the male, authoritative voice-over coded as "master" and the workabee female coded as "servant". A decade or so ago, a popular Indian toilet cleaner brand ran an ad with a woman relaxing with the newspaper and the husband saying appreciatively, "That's my wife cleaning the toilet", and explaining how easy it was to achieve great cleaning with no effort. Today, while toilet cleaner ads still talk to the woman and explain the wonders of U-bends and germs to her, it isn't the "this is you job and I'm glad you are making progress in it" kind of conversation.

It will be some time before our ads show the man cleaning the toilet and the woman expertly commenting on it. But we have done even better, in that insidious way India has of morphing. Ads now have women laughing openly at the poor man stuck about two centuries behind and utterly incompetent in dealing with his mother or with his weight or contraception or his home and office load. She, on the other hand, blithely innovates and organizes her way through it all, is the opinion leader and the boss, and the one whom the kids look up to, in order to solve their problems. Like Ogden Nash said, "As for father, why bother?" He brings the problem and she the solution, he is the "before" and she the "after"! And please note, her laughter is not the "let him think he is superior, we know best" woman's room laughter. It isn't even the "poor man, what does he know- my husband cannot even shell peas" laughter. It is the out-in-the-open, good-humoured teasing laughter of the winner. The upper-class, educated, urban Indian woman has indeed turned the tide slowly and imperceptibly!

The same religion, with different rituals, is being depicted on TV soaps. Many from my peer group and social class, both men and women, say that the soaps are regressive, and a blot on women, but I think they are getting taken in by the decoy trappings and are not looking beyond the ghungat and the grihasti, and the subversive mind of the ghar ki rani. They are not noticing how the men in these serials are often reduced to convenient props, or powerless protesters or tyrants, who don't realize that the rug is being pulled ever so gently from under their feet. Most often, they are mama's well-brought-up boys who are gradually being "reformed" by their wives, rather than the other way around.

I love watching as many of them as I can, and as one of the women in a focus group explained to us, they help drag issues confronting so many families, from inside the dark closet to the living room where the family watches TV together. Of course, some of the packaging is absurdly exaggerated, but that's what makes for interesting viewing. Mrs Kaushik Ki Paanch Bahuein has a sergeant major tyrant mother-in-law, a liberal but hold-your-tongue-and-keep-the-peace father-in-law, and four daughters-in-law who toe the line despite one being a police officer! Along comes Lovely, who slowly, but surely, changes power structures in the household, not through open rebellion, but by role-modelling and by being the bad-good-bad-good girl, making it hard for us to decide whether she merits applause or disapproval.

Anandi of Balika Vadhu is the woman sarpanch, the apple of her parents-in-law's eyes, who has silently yielded turf to her husband's second wife. Is she a loser or not? In Ram Milaayi Jodi, Mona becomes chief strategist and advocate for her mother-in-law in trouble with the rest of the household--and has turned the tables of power with logic and smarts and goodness. Of course, the vamps abound with their traditional intrigue. But look beyond them, at the message that there is a new way of winning!