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Reality killed the soap star

Reality killed the soap star
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First Published: Fri, Nov 07 2008. 12 30 AM IST

Smoking gun: Tulsi was played by Smriti Irani (right) and later replaced briefly by actor Gautami Kapoor (left).
Smoking gun: Tulsi was played by Smriti Irani (right) and later replaced briefly by actor Gautami Kapoor (left).
Updated: Fri, Nov 07 2008. 10 12 AM IST
It was only eight when it went off air, but in a short life that some thought should have been shorter still, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thibrought untold joy to millions of housewives around the country. The central story, of a plain-faced Gujarati housewife called Tulsi who marries into an unwieldy and frequently imperfect joint family, resonated with India’s women. They knew only too well the challenges of entering and competing with their husband’s families, of battling obdurate mothers-in-law, and keeping catty sisters-in-law at bay.
Smoking gun: Tulsi was played by Smriti Irani (right) and later replaced briefly by actor Gautami Kapoor (left).
Tulsi, played to wide-eyed effect by an at the time unknown actor Smriti Irani, was a paragon of the perfect daughter-in-law. She was graceful, groomed and unnervingly fair, adored by the family’s matriarch Baa, and worshipped by viewers for being the devoted and dutiful wife, daughter-in-law, mother, and eventually mother-in-law to the Viranis. Often, she administered justice as she saw fit, and with it addressed taboo issues such as incest, rape and adultery. When she killed her son for raping his wife, viewers, rather than being horrified, rejoiced.
The show, born on 3 July 2000, came at an opportune moment in broadcasting history. It coincided with the onset of India Shining, focusing on the financial prosperity — albeit at the cost of emotional credibility — of an upper-middle class Indian family. Satellite television was rapidly penetrating second-tier cities, and Star TV, eager to gain network advantage, was making an aggressive push into the Hindi entertainment segment. Kyunki, with its pitch-perfect mix of Bollywood-ish performances and moral — some say preachy — viewpoint, was the obvious contender for the crown.
Bonds: Irani with ‘Baa’, played by Sudha Shivpuri.
Almost overnight, it grew rapidly: Broadcasting five days a week, it managed to attract millions of viewers. It made superstars of its cast. Irani, with the biggest fan following, was often seen as one and the same as her on screen character, something that worked to her advantage when she joined the BJP in 2004. But its wide-ranging effects were to go much deeper. Glittery saris worn by the female protagonists became wildly popular, and women around the country were seen aping the heavy sindoor and giant bindi look from the show.
Matrimonial websites often carried advertisements seeking a girl like Tulsi.
Indeed, audience adoration for Tulsi knew no bounds. They saw her as something of a goddess, who always wished well for the family. She was martyr, teacher, administrator, officer, all rolled into one. She dispatched her son with a bullet when he raped his wife, administered euthanasia to her mother-in-law, adopted a little girl whom she saved from drowning, and in a twist doubtlessly created to showcase her unassailable virtue, raised lovingly the child born of her husband’s affair with his doctor.
Irani’s performance, which garnered several industry awards, moved many viewers. When she broke down sobbing after discovering her husband Mihir’s affair, there were not many left dry-eyed. In fact, his death in the first year prompted such outrage — picketers stormed production house Balaji’s offices in Mumbai — that the scriptwriters had to pen him back in.
Alas, one too many creative liberties eventually did the show in. Critics pounced on the unrealistic plot twists that had many characters, including Tulsi, being resurrected from the dead. In fact, Tulsi’s first exit (she was sent to a mental asylum by her daughers-in-law), it was widely reported, was the result of a fight between Irani and Balaji head Ekta Kapoor. When they made up a few months later, Irani — whose character was, in the meantime, being played by actor Gautami Kapoor — returned. Kapoor was written out as an imposter.
And though in many ways the show’s championing of joint families was a reflection of the country at large, it over-extended the boundaries of plausibility. No one could say for sure, but often there were 20 to 30 members living harmoniously in a single house. The Viranis were thought to be upper-middle class, but the figures they bandied about — Rs2,000 crore and sometimes more — belied any attempt to be a “typical” Gujarati family.
Yet, around the world, Indians from the diaspora tuned in to watch, and it was testament to the show’s appeal that it managed to find a devoted viewership in Afghanistan, where it was one of the top-rated soap operas in the country.
On 10 November, the Viranis will broadcast for ostensibly the last time, bringing to an end nearly a decade of uninterrupted family viewing. However, like the characters it resurrected all too frequently from the dead, the show, it has been rumoured, is in talks to air on a different channel. It couldn’t have been otherwise.
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First Published: Fri, Nov 07 2008. 12 30 AM IST