TV drama wants to teach you a lesson
The stories typically revolve around Machiavellian mothers-in-law who torment blameless daughters-in-law, adultery, rape and endless scheming within the garishly done-up homes of wealthy families. Family drama series are hugely popular in India, where millions of women (and quite a few men) rush to finish dinner and get the children's homework out of the way so that they can enjoy the latest episode in the evening.
Realising the prodigious influence of these saas-bahu (mother-in-law, daughter-in-law) dramas, Unicef is harnessing their power to educate as well as entertain villagers in rural India.
The UN children's agency decided a Bollywood-style series might be more effective at conveying important information about topics such as HIV prevention than conventional films, which tend not to register in the public consciousness. Teaming up with Indian health officials, it produced its own Hindi-language soap opera which began screening last month.
Kyunki ... Jeena Issi Ka Naam Hai (Because ... That's What Life Is) is broadcast on the state channel Doordarshan every evening and will reach about 41 million viewers.
Messages about the importance of breastfeeding, sanitation (for example, washing hands and keeping toilets clean) and education for girls is subtly woven into the drama, which follows the lives of six characters in the fictional village of Rajpura.
'The biggest challenge for our scriptwriters is achieving the right balance. If it's only entertainment, then what on Earth is Unicef doing making a soap? If it's purely educational, you lose your viewers,' says Naysan Sahba, a programme communication specialist at the agency. 'People come home tired and want to be entertained, not watch a documentary.'
The mixture of drama and information must be 'seamless', Sahba says. 'We can't have high drama then stop to give a lecture on treating diarrhoea, and then go back to the drama. We want it to be one of the top-rated serials in the country and achieve behavioural change.'
Scriptwriters weave in messages through characters such as Savita, a widowed nurse-midwife. Her job and status offer ample opportunity to explore issues such as social discrimination against widows.
Having Savita care for a pregnant villager who faints while fetching well water, for example, is a chance to discuss topics such as care and nutrition for expectant women - crucial information when more than half of Indian women are anaemic.
Subsequent episodes give writers a chance to persuade viewers that a hospital delivery is safer than turning to traditional midwives, or dai: as the woman nears delivery, a social worker called Kamla explains to her husband that their village dai will not be able to cope as there could be complications with the delivery. In 2006, the infant mortality rate was 57 per 1,000 live births, largely attributed to babies being delivered in villages.
Geetanjali Gill, the actress who plays Kamla, says she has been surprised at how much she, too, has learned about basic health from the series. 'I come from Mumbai, not a village, but I wasn't aware that breastfeeding was so important for a baby's health,' she says.
'So when the baby girl is born, we show how she must be given breast milk rather than powdered milk. Later, as the girl grows up, the issue of educating her will come up.'
These messages may appear rudimentary, but they are crucial in rural India where education, literacy and awareness are low.
Despite India's pretensions to great power status, a National Family Health survey released last month showed that every second child under three is malnourished and 70 per cent are anaemic - all evidence of chronic malnutrition.
But experts say half the number of child deaths from malnutrition could have been prevented; lack of food is not the problem.'That's a big myth,' says Vimla Ramachandran, a child nutrition expert at the Educational Resource Unit in Jaipur. 'It's lack of proper care by parents and ignorance and the tendency not to breastfeed.'
Something as simple as diarrhoea in children, if not treated properly, can lead to malnutrition.
'It's only if viewers identify with our characters that they will take these messages on board and incorporate them in their daily lives,' says Gill. 'After Bollywood movies, soaps are the biggest form of entertainment and can be amazingly powerful.'
Unicef has planned for an initial 130 episodes, each costing US$13,600 to make. But the series could be extended if ratings are good. Its impact on viewers' behaviour will be monitored through focus groups, and audience surveys and questionnaires devised by US researchers.
Sahba is confident viewers will find the TV series both gripping and educational but he isn't taking any chances. He has told scriptwriters the plot must include a malicious mother-in-law: Indian soap operas are inconceivable without them.