During my first days, I enormously abused the wonderful hospitality and kindness of a friend’s family. Throughout all my foolish claims that ‘I’m definitely going to move out tomorrow!’, they provided friendship, advice, and good cheer. They were probably the only things standing between me and a homicidal rampage through the streets of Saket.
They also provided a deliciously bemusing array of dishes from Maggi noodles to Bengali fish head dal to soy nuggets. All were excellent: but there was one special feature of dinnertimes that struck me. When I arrived, they noted that British people eat their evening meal very early—around 6pm, let’s say—whilst Indians typically dine a lot later, at perhaps 8.30 or 9. Not this family. Immediately they warned that dinner would definitely be after 10, and maybe as late as 11pm. Why?, I asked.
Then came the shamefaced revelation: ADDICTION TO SERIALS.
At first, I misunderstood and thought this was some late-night jonesing for the Honey Monster, a little Ricicle-snorting—and we’ve all been there. (My healthy morning self-loathing back home has led me to buy Oatibix: by 10am you’d knife your own grandmother for some to Frosties to rub in your eyeballs.) But no, these are good ole-fashioned soap operas, and there are HOURS of them each day, drip-fed in tiny ten-minute crack-morsels in between adverts.
These serials are quite clearly directed at the advertisers’ beloved demographic of podgy but well-meaning females. The men are either rugged child-schlepping love interests, or (once they’ve been pinned down by a woman) feckless, lazy, incompetent buffoons shepherded by their eye-rolling but loving daughters/mothers/wives. The protagonists are all in their mid-twenties and implausibly good-looking and doe-eyed with vast hair, whilst the villains cackle a lot whilst staring loonily over their luxuriant moustaches.
Luckily, there’s so much English in the dialogue (“bahut complicated hai”, “Arre, yaar, goodbye aur best of luck”) that I could get the gist of the least ludicrously implausible, identical-twin-free episodes. Leaving aside chauvinistic mythical dramas like those about the Maratha anti-Muslim hero Shivaji, the plotlines lurch through all sorts of worthy subjects: official corruption, child marriage, wife abandonment, and the relationship between the dreaded mother-in-law and her daughter (hence the name ‘saas–bahu TV’). All this to a thundering sub-Carl-Orff soundtrack punctuated by inexplicable lightning strikes at moments of particular high tension, e.g. doors opening, chai being served. In one ten-minute segment, nine minutes were in slow motion, fourteen people got married, brothers whipped out guns and jerkily fought with cartoon thwacks, a bhang-addled middle-aged woman attacked people with tridents, and a lot of mobile phones rang whilst the camera swooped to and fro into each overacting OMG WHO IS CALLING ME face.
Dyspepsia, sleep deprivation, a strikingly poor grasp of martial arts: these serials are the scourge of the New India. Time for cold turkey.