Akhir kya hai Anandi ki maut ka raaz?” “Serial mein sadma! Kya hoga Anandi ka?” It’s 7.15pm on Wednesday. Even as Hindi news channels are in breaking news mode about the impending death of television’s most popular child character, the girl who plays her—Avika Gor—is giggling. Her parents, Samir and Chetna Gor, know exactly what’s going to happen to Anandi, as she has been known to viewers for the past two years, but they are not telling. “Avika is very good at keeping secrets. If I ask her to reveal any suspense even to her grandparents, she doesn’t,” says Chetna, braiding her 12-year-old daughter’s long, thick hair.
No child’s play: The shooting for this episode took place three days before Avika’s school exams began.
It is comical to see the family laugh as they watch television audiences debate the possibility of Anandi going into coma. Stunned viewers, being interviewed in their homes, are being asked how they will deal with her death. Someone thinks Avika’s parents have asked her to leave the show and concentrate on her studies. A man says there is a court case against the theme of the show and it’s coming to an end.
I’m settled in the Gor drawing room in Mumbai to watch the episode that’s making more news than anything else on TV that day. The Colors public relations (PR) machinery has done its job well; everyone knows Anandi is likely to die. Samir, who works in an insurance company, has been getting calls from family, friends and work associates from different parts of the country asking about her death. As Anandi, the protagonist of one of television’s top-rated shows, Avika is adored by TV soap-following audiences of every kind. Old women cried when her Dadisa locked her in a dark room for disobeying her. Young mothers and fathers wept when the feisty child parted from her parents because she was married off to be converted into a docile beendni. Children love watching the chuhiya being bullied by her beend. “When the show started out all the kids in my school used to ask me, you are chuhiya, right?” says Avika.
Also See How the story unfolded (Graphic)
The family has temporarily shifted home from Mulund to Kandivali so Avika can be close to the studio where the shooting for the serial takes place every day after school. In the big, bustling housing complex, someone always has a relative from out of town who wants to meet Anandi. “I have fixed the timings for her to meet her fans. After tuitions she meets them and then comes home. We can’t displease them, after all,” says the TV star’s father.
Balika Vadhu was Colors’ bread-and-butter show when it launched in the general entertainment channel (GEC) space in July 2008. Bigg Boss and Khatron ke Khiladi had actors such as Shilpa Shetty and Akshay Kumar to propel them up the TRP charts, but this soap was relying on its concept. “Initially, it was the theme of the child bride that worked. But soon Anandi became this blue-eyed girl of television and a cult figure. That’s exactly what we wanted,” says Ashvini Yardi, head of programming, Colors. “Get well soon” cards poured into her office after Anandi was shot and people praying for the child bride’s recovery made it to the news.
The first time television viewers went through this kind of upheaval was when Mihir from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi died and had to be brought back on public demand. Since then, many TV protagonists have been killed and “returned”.
Balika Vadhu started a trend of child protagonist-based shows, so why is the channel resorting to the attention-grabbing techniques used by other shows? Has the child been sacrificed for TRPs? “It isn’t a gimmick. It’s a part of the story and you will see the connection soon,” promises Yardi.
Mona Jain, COO, Vivaki Exchange, the media buying unit of Publicis Groupe, says there are rumours that Avika wants to quit the show but most likely this dramatic twist is the channel’s reaction to dwindling ratings. “This show isn’t even in the top 5 any more,” she adds. From a high of 5-6 TRP in the general viewership segment, it has fallen to the current 3-4 TRP. Star Plus shows Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai and Bidaai have taken the top two spots.
At the Gor residence on Wednesday, a Hindi news channel is running a poll asking people if they will watch the show after Anandi’s death. About 80% have said “no” so far. The family can’t hide its excitement. “I am very happy,” says Avika, the only time she shows any emotion at the proceedings. Finally, it’s 8pm and Colors is the channel of the hour. Jagdish has run away from home to Mumbai, only to be caught by the beggar mafia that wants to maim him and send him out on the streets. As the camera zooms in on the dagger close to his leg, Jagdish screams for Anandi. “Oh shit,” says Chetna, hands involuntarily cupping her cheeks in suspense. “She cries for every serial,” laughs Samir.
He points to a cupboard where he has kept all the newspaper clippings about his daughter. He used to do the rounds of studios with her as she failed one audition after another and played bit parts in serials. By the time 10-year-old Avika was selected for Anandi’s role, she had about 100 failed auditions behind her.
Now when he watches his daughter on screen how does he react? Avika puts her cheek out to her father and he kisses it. “This is how he reacts,” she says, all self-assured and calm in her night suit, biting into a pizza. She has her entire career planned out. “I want to be a model, then Miss Universe and then get into acting after that.”
Twenty minutes into the show, the chase is still on, with the police, Anandi and her father-in-law running behind Jagdish and his captors. The parents were present for this shoot on Madh Island and are discussing, in Gujarati, what had happened behind the scenes there. Chetna points to a section of the boat where she was hiding so she wouldn’t come into the frame. Samir points to a man on screen. “He kept asking me what’s going to happen to Anandi, saying he’s from the TV industry and won’t tell anyone,” says Samir, with the smugness of someone who is privy to a big secret.
By now, Anandi has been separated from the group. She suddenly spots Jagdish and shouts out his name. His captor runs away, leaving Jagdish free. And then, as in innumerable films, the couple runs towards each other. “Sab slow motion mein hain (it’s all in slow motion),” says Samir. The camera then circles the crying children, who unite for a long hug as the commercials begin.
It feels wrong, the way the scene has been shot. We have seen this clichéd scene in many movies with adult actors. It doesn’t seem right for two children.
There is complete silence in the drawing room now, as there must be in thousands of drawing rooms across the country as people wait for Anandi to get shot. The commercials end, the villain who has come back to shoot Jagdish takes aim, but Anandi pushes away Jagdish and takes the bullet on her forehead.
As blood spouts all over her face on screen, Samir smiles at his daughter. Anandi falls to the ground.
“Why was there no message at the end?” Samir laughs, referring to the short social messages at the end of every episode. “Goli marne se maut ho jati hai (you die if you are hit by a bullet) would have been good.” He has saved the empty bullet shell from this episode. “This is the first time she’s getting shot, after all,” says Chetna.
As the end credits roll, the phone calls begin. Samir’s friend’s wife calls, crying, and wants to talk to Anandi. Avika’s iPhone and Samir’s BlackBerry start beeping with text messages. At 8.30pm, news channels are already telecasting screen grabs of the episode and half-an-hour specials on Anandi’s death have begun. “TRP ya majboori? Kya hoga Anandi ka?”
Well, Thursday’s episode had a doctor pronounce her dead.
It is the most stereotypical death for this child bride. In an act of ultimate sacrifice, she dies to save her husband. The TRPs will now most likely hit the roof. This is the story of Indian television.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint