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The cast of ‘Meri Aashiqui Tum Se Hi’ on Colors.
The cast of ‘Meri Aashiqui Tum Se Hi’ on Colors.

Trend Tracker | Beyond the ‘bindi’ belt

Why Hindi television soaps have no use for mainstream fashiontaste isn't the final arbiter

On the one hand is India’s fashion evolution, visible in its malls, magazines, movies and metros. On the other is the kitsch-saturated, time-warped world of Hindi television soaps. The two thrive without a nod to each other. A part of designer prêt is immersed in innovative impulses that bust notions of conventional chic. TV does the opposite—it recycles clichés in dressing. Ten years back, when the K-serials with their women in snaky sindoor (vermilion), long mangalsutras and hair-raising bling were at their peak, some theorized that their rakish glamour would dissolve soon. It would make space for a classier aesthetic, an expected outcome of the fashion industry’s evolution. They were wrong.

The K-club did indeed disintegrate. But what took its place was bustling Hindustan. Content got slanted towards middle-class struggles with small towns as their stage—female foeticide, child marriage, remarriage in traditional families, education and careers of village girls, inter-religion love stories and so on. In tandem, Surat’s synthetic textiles and Big Bazaar fashion got ahead in the visibility game.

“Since storylines of Hindi soaps are focused towards small-town viewers, clothing and make-up too is aimed at that particular class. After all, it is the widest base in the pyramid of viewers," says Shailja Kejriwal, chief creative, special projects, Zee TV. Kejriwal argues that all general entertainment channels (GEC) cater to the lowest common denominator since more households in the country now own television—sometimes more than one set—and TV penetration has gone deeper into smaller towns.

So houses have yellow walls and purple floors, the saris of the bahus (daughters-in-law) have three borders instead of one; blouses have net sleeves and brocade bodices, young girls wear multicoloured anarkalis and men wage big battles in heavy ethnic wear. Mangalsutras may be smaller and sindoor is more a slim maroon line than loud red, but kitsch remains omnipotent. In some of the currently top-rated soaps—from Zee TV’s Kumkum Bhagya to Beintehaa on Colors, from Diya Aur Baati Hum on Star Plus to Tumhari Paakhi on Life Ok—there is an absence of diversity in look. Even if there is a bold plot as in Laut Aao Trisha (Life OK), adapted from the Emmy-winning American thriller Missing, characters look like all the other members of India’s Great TV Ghetto.

Nivedita Basu, creative director at Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms who was with the production house even during its Kyunki... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi... phase, says the audience base began to change towards SEC (socio-economic classification) B and C after 2007-08. “Clothing and treatment in serials now is deliberately made relatable to the middle class. Not only has this kind of content clicked but fashion doesn’t have much to do in this scenario," adds Basu. “Clothes are incidental, it’s the storylines that are selling," she says.

Veteran television director and producer Rajan Shahi, who directed the hit serial Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahi, and now owns Director’s Kut Production House which produces the currently on air Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai that has crossed over 1,500 episodes (Star Plus), says that over the years TV content and clothing have shifted away from realism. “From the Buniyaad days till the late 1990s, television was about realistic shows till it started seeding aspiration. Today, fashion aspirations are blurred among classes and dressing up is no longer just the prerogative of the rich and the elite. For the masses, what’s currently on TV translates into glamour—tasteful or not is a matter of judgement," says Shahi. He adds that costumes and fake jewellery seen on TV have, in fact, generated a consumer movement with such fare available even in markets like Lokhandwala in Mumbai. One of the first questions Shahi says he is asked by people is where can they buy the costumes worn by the character of Akshara in Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai.

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TV costumr designer Roopa Sharma at her warehouse in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

“I suspect marketing and advertising teams concentrate their energies on aspirational small-town India and Hindi fiction dramas. By tagging upward mobility to ostentatious notions of style, they want viewers to consume vast quantities of certain products," says writer and researcher Sameera Khan who teaches journalism at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Khan also believes that over-the-top dressing is linked to the notion of the traditional, conservative Indian in behaviour, values and decorum. Especially for women.

Kejriwal adds to this argument. “Slanting content towards the masses makes sense as any FMCG (consumer goods) advertiser would want to reach out to the maximum number of viewers across India and not to the Malabar Hill woman in Mumbai," she says.

It’s a telling story. One, it tracks how, over the years, Hindi TV has purposefully moved away from city viewers. Two, how the only fashion reflected in serials is a trickle down from ostentatious bridal events with no influence of experimental work. “It is a revelatory comment on the general perception of Indian fashion itself," says Khan. GEC channels assume perhaps that city audiences will either switch to niche global programming or watch Revenge (or The Good Wife or Scandal) instead of Pavitra Rishta at 9pm.

“That’s why there is an attempt to introduce Hindi Premium programming," says Kejriwal. She defines this premium segment through serials like 24 and Yudh or channels such as Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd’s Zindagi, which only telecasts Pakistani soaps. Agreeing that the use of the word “premium" may suggest a class differentiation, she says differences in aesthetic and content between different economic classes in India should be accepted.

In effect, the earnest and ambitious middle-class contestant sitting in the Kaun Banega Crorepati hot seat is both the hero and the target audience of Hindi television today. The K club of K-serials faded away to make way for the small town “Krorepati".

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