When the spice is right
How did they ever find time to make love? In Indian soap operas, watched nightly by tens of millions, the women were so busy scheming, disparaging, fighting and baring their fangs, within the large cast of the typical Indian joint family, they didn't have time for intimacy.
That has changed, with the first love-making scene shown on Indian television recently in the hit soap Bade Ache Lagte Hain ('All Looks Too Good').
It was the latest in a string of scenes and themes aired on Indian television recently to veer into once-taboo subjects and touch on the social changes gripping the country.
By Western standards, the scene was tame. The couple are relieved after it is confirmed that the wife (played by Sakshi Tanwar) does not have breast cancer, as suspected, and they explore their feelings for each other. The portly husband (Ram Kapoor) pulls his wife, Priya, towards him, and they kiss. They are discreetly shown making love in a candlelit bedroom with (what else?) a slushy Bollywood track in the background.
A middle-aged married couple making love without nudity or explicit shots is not exactly trailblazing stuff, but for conservative India, it was sensational. The country buzzed with talk of the scene, which has attracted almost 300,000 hits on YouTube. Yet, rather than being bombarded with angry protests, the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council reported receiving 'two or three'.
This shows how soap producers such as Ekta Kapoor, known as the 'queen of television' in India, are finding acceptance as they push into new realms by portraying emotions and situations never before shown.
Kapoor and others have caught a whiff of the new zeitgeist and are trying to capture the social change India is undergoing. Earlier serials were one of a kind: Disney-style sets with palaces as homes where overdressed, heavily made-up women in silk saris and enough jewellery to light up a small town, viciously scheme with - or against - evil in-laws while out-of-tune violins screech in the background.
The new soaps are tackling old taboos such as child marriage, homosexuality, female feticide and colour discrimination. One of the biggest new themes is the nuclear couple, its intimacy, emotions and lives, instead of the dramas of a large joint family spanning several generations and all living under one roof.
'There is a whole new movement towards looking at couples, their emotions and intimacies, at conjugal sex and at individual relationships,' says The Indian Express columnist Shailaja Bajpai. 'This reflects what is happening in society, how people are living in nuclear families now, rather than joint ones.'
The findings of a census released last month show a dramatic change from just a generation ago, when the joint family was the norm. Seventy per cent of households in India now consist of only one couple.
With divorce also on the rise in India and an increasing number of couples parting soon into marriage because they are incompatible, the subject of remarriage - another hithero taboo subject - is being featured in a serial called Punar Vivah on Zee TV. The protagonists are a divorcee and a widower who decide to remarry for the sake of their children. The soap examines how they deal with the complexities of remarriage in later life.
While acknowledging these attempts to tackle bold subjects, Bajpai adds: 'Yes, some of it is very experimental, but in a very middle-class sort of way,' she says. 'So the setting is invariably marital, never pre-marital or to do with infidelity, and the characters are always respectable middle-class people.'
This is perhaps inevitable, as the vast majority of viewers are middle-class and lower-middle-class women. But these sensibilities are also changing dramatically.
'Viewers are prepared to have fixed ideas challenged and to be shocked, largely as a result of hugely popular reality shows, which have pushed the limits of what is acceptable,' says social commentator Satish Jacob.
Boyfriends 'set up' their girlfriends to see if they are cheating on them in a reality show called Emotional Atyachar (based on the US show Cheaters); people misbehave with abandon on Big Boss; and ordinary folk confess to corruption, embezzlement, adultery, threesomes with prostitutes, neglect of children and parents, and betrayal of relatives and friends on Sach Ka Saamna (based on the format of the Fox Network's The Moment of Truth).
'I think the popularity of reality shows and these new soaps is a backlash against the immature, juvenile stuff that Bollywood dishes out, as though we can't cope with the dark, complicated things that happen in real life. People recognise themselves in these shows, and that makes it gripping,' says soap addict and teacher Jyoti Anand.
When it comes to getting basic messages across to vast rural audiences about hygiene and gender equality, policymakers and social activists have realised that, after Bollywood, television soaps are the most powerful medium for influencing people.
A soap conceived by Unicef was a huge success, with 500 episode shown before it finally went off the air in October. Kyunki... Jeena Issi Ka Naam Hai ('Because ... That's What Life Is'), broadcast on state-owned channel Doordarshan, was watched by more than 145 million viewers between 2008 and last year. Through the lives of the characters, the series projected subtle messages about social as well as health issues.
One of the characters was Savita, a young midwife and a widow. Her status in the village raised the issue of social exclusion faced by Indian widows. As the series followed her at work, it showed Savita realising that a pregnant woman who faints after carrying water from the well is anaemic - a chance to discuss the nutrition and care of pregnant women in a country where 55 per cent of all women are anaemic.
Beyond being innovative and original, what soaps have demonstrated is that people will watch programmes that go beyond shrieking women in shiny saris, that educate viewers and change perceptions and attitudes.
The latest taboo-buster stars Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan. The first episode of Satyamev Jayate ('Truth Alone Triumphs') shone a light on female feticide.
If Khan's programme is followed by similarly socially aware soaps, the position of Indian women could improve, activists say. This is what happened in Brazil, where soap operas had a tremendous impact on the status of women by showing feisty, empowered women rather than submissive ones.
New Delhi television producer Suhaib Ilyasi says that the new crop of soaps could be a harbinger of a new era of public service broadcasting. 'Cable television viewing has changed from being an overwhelming urban affair to being 50-50 urban and rural,' he says.
'With more villagers and small-town viewers, television executives are realising they must feature issues that matter to them.'