The chances of domestic peace have just gotten better. The battle for control of the television remote will be less intense in households across the country, now that Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi has finally gone off the air.
The path-breaking and at times ridiculous soap opera held the nation in its thrall for most of its eight-year run. It was easy through these years to be dismissive about the tear-soaked family saga that had more twists and turns than a Himalayan road. But now that the curtain has finally fallen on the story of the Virani family, perhaps it is time for a cooler assessment of what this serial and its many clones are really all about.
There were a lot of modern themes lurking under the revivalist garb of the serial. The protagonist Tulsi stood up against various adversities and went so far as to kill her son after he raped his wife. Other similar serials too have women of substance, even the vamps. The interesting thing is that new research shows that some of these attitudes seem to have rubbed off on rural women who have access to cable television. Serials such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi could have had a deeper impact on Indian society—and a positive impact at that—than most of us snobbishly assume.
Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago have an astonishing story to tell us. The two economists studied data for five states between 2001 and 2003, when cable television spread rapidly in rural India.
There was significant change in the attitudes of rural women during these years. They were more likely to resist domestic violence, were ready to step out of their homes on their own, keener to take part in household decisions. The old preference for sons over daughters also lessened. More girls went to school. Fertility declined, an indication of greater freedom in sexual choice.
Public television has been used through the years to change social attitudes. For example, Mexico used a soap opera in the 1980s to promote family planning. The research by Jensen and Oster suggests that our own soaps may have unintentionally done more than leave behind a trail of wet handkerchiefs.
Are the saas-bahu serials less regressive than is usually assumed? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org