Small is big: Is Bengali television rewriting the rules of women’s empowerment?

July 18, 1861. In Bihar’s Bhagalpur was born Kadambini Ganguly, who along with Anandi Gopal Joshi, became the first female doctors to qualify for practicing western medicine. Fraught with controversies, the 62 years of Kadambini’s life had all the elements for making an engaging biopic in Tollywood. Yet, it was Bengali television that drew inspiration from her life. Currently, Solanki Roy and Ushasi Ray – extremely popular faces of Bengali television – are playing Kadambini in two different serials for Zee Bangla and Star Jalsha.

Two channels exploring the life of one character can be a coincidence of sorts. But beyond that, does this choice of subject say anything about the content of Bengali television?

To some extent, it does.

Not just Kadambini, Bengali television is now relying heavily on empowered female characters to rule the TRP. “Rani Rashmoni” – another extremely popular megaserial – is based on the life of Bengal’s pathbreaking revolutionary and social reformer. On July 24, the serial will be airing its 1000th episode with viewers being glued to the screen to watch the rise of a simple girl named Rani to become an effective leader who worked for social and women’s reforms and even dared to go against the British traders.

Even serials based on contemporary plots are following the same path. Jaba Sengupta – the protagonist of one of the longest-running Bengali serials titled “Ke Apon Ke Por” – is a domestic help-turned-lawyer whose sole aim now is to deliver justice.

From “Subarnalata” and “Goenda Ginni” to “Dwip Jele Jae” and “Saudaminir Sangshar” – women fighting for themselves, their dreams or those who have been forever deprived have been grabbing eyeballs on Bengali television for some time now. Many who had moved away from television because of its preference for melodrama-laced plots are slowly connecting with stories that highlight the aspiration of female protagonists. If the protagonist of “Alo Chhaya” aspires to be a scientist, “Jamuna Dhaki” is about a village girl who grows up to become a successful female ‘dhaki’. “Bokul Katha”, the recently-concluded serial, was about the protagonist becoming an IPS officer. The USP of “Krishnakoli” has been the empowering story of the popularity of a kirtan singer who breaks the taboo of skin colour and wins hearts through her talent to become an RJ and a singer.

Kora Pakhi, yet another popular serial with Parno Mittra playing the protagonist named Amon, is about a tribal girl who aspires to be a print journalist. “Phirki” – the story of a girl saved by a transgender – is championing the protagonist’s fight for the trans community. An oven-fresh serial – “Titli” – is about a hearing-impaired girl who is aiming to become a pilot. Mohor, one of the most popular serials running on Bengali television now, is about a student with a voice of her own who speaks her mind even if that means countering the director of her college.

But then, this certainly doesn’t mean that the ‘saas-bahu’ tussle has been completely done away with. The irritating thunderclap in the background still hurts the ear every time there is a tiff between rivals. Women decked in tacky gold-plated necklaces still pace down drawing rooms. And of course, Chitra Sen, as the evil mother-in-law, still rolls her eyes at every occasion she gets to counter her daughter-in-law, Sreemoyee (Indrani Halder). Then there is the much-hated mischief maker – June Aunty. She is at loggerheads with Sreemoyee – the ex-wife of her husband. These venom-spewing female characters add spice to the narrative that curiously revolves around a man living in the same house with both his ex and present wives. But what is reassuring amidst all the chaos is the current track of “Sreemoyee” that highlights Indrani’s search and struggle to create an identity for herself in the professional world.

The number of these serials with empowered female protagonists might not yet be in the majority. But the sheer popularity of most of them on the popularity charts makes for an interesting case. It indicates a subtle change in the preference of viewers who don’t appreciate regressive content. Makers have understood that tracks highlighting only a love triangle and the high-voltage “tu tu main main” in a joint family can’t be the central focus of a Bengali serial if it has to win the TRP race. A misogynist character like Bishan Nandy, who is regressive to the core, is written in a way that he doesn’t get any sympathy from the viewers of “Ke Apon Ke Por”. The working mother, Aditi Roychowdhury, who had to once leave her family for wanting to pursue her career of a professor, finally gets support from her husband in “Mohor”.

To do away with regressive content and usher in the rise of empowered women can lead to two conclusions. It can indicate that the profile of those watching Bengali serials is changing and hence forcing the makers to churn out content accordingly. Or, it might suggest a change in the preference of existing viewers. The former is a little too early to expect. The latter is more likely in the current circumstances. Having faced various challenges within the four walls of their house, viewers of Bengali serials are now raring to go and conquer the world outside. They can easily connect with the lonely battles of homemakers who have sacrificed their all for the family and now want to carve a niche for themselves in the professional world. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the serials show these protagonists revolting against their families. Not every protagonist is a fighter ready to take on the patriarchal world. Many are just waiting for their turn, hoping to get support of some family members to realise their dreams.

Dealing with dalliance and discord, the viewers understand, will remain a constant part of their daily struggles as they are for the protagonists of the favourite serials. But for now, they are ready to believe that being doormats is not their only option. Most importantly, they are liking the idea of Bengali serials slowly rewriting the rules for the middle class female viewers and showing them that it is fair to be in pursuit of their dreams, balance personal and professional lives and also expect support to make them come true.