NEW DELHI -- Defying all the conventional wisdom about Indian television viewers -- notorious for dogged allegiance to campy soap operas that pitted idealized brides against scheming mothers-in-law -- the hottest show on TV today is a progressive, heartwarming drama about a plucky little girl caught up in an illegal child marriage.
Called Balika Vadhu, or "Child Bride," and set in rural Rajasthan, where marrying off daughters before they hit puberty is still a common practice, the show has caught the imagination of urban viewers across the board and throughout India, ushering in a revolution of sorts in cable television programming.
It has helped Colors, an upstart channel launched by Viacom and Network18 in July last year, supplant Rupert Murdoch's Star Plus as the most-watched Indian television network -- a title Star Plus held for nine years running. And it has unleashed a new wave of progressive programming devoted to issues facing India's "distressed daughters."
"What started out as a 0.8 rating on Balika took us about 13 weeks to get to 8," said Rajesh Kamat, Colors' chief executive officer. That means 8 percent of the entire television audience is watching the show. "Typically an episode that peaks for us would touch about 17 million people," Kamat said. "If you were to take a monthly average, it would be in the 72 million zone."
Development workers are pleased, but skeptical about the impact such shows can have from a cable television platform that doesn't reach the poor people depicted on screen. "In the rural population very few people are watching this kind of serial," said Sharmistha Basu, a consultant at New Delhi's International Center for Research on Women.
"Hardly any people have a television set, and especially not a channel like Colors that comes only on cable or dish TV. But in the rural-urban transition zone, people are watching it, and it is starting a dialogue about child marriage. If migrant laborers from rural areas are coming to work in these areas, they can take back those words to their villages."
This isn't the first time Indian television has flirted with shows about serious issues. In 2005, USAID helped fund a family drama that focused on the still-pervasive problem of aborting female fetuses to try for sons. Before that the BBC World Service Trust teamed up with Doordarshan, India's state-owned, free-to-air television channel, to create a detective series that raised awareness about HIV/AIDS. But this is the first time such shows are being launched for profit, and the first time that they are striking a chord with such a wide swath of cable viewers who aren't captive to state-owned television.
And it marks a huge change. For nearly a decade, India's lucrative cable market was dominated by a single soap opera -- "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" ("Because a mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law, too") -- and a host of imitators. Dressed in glam saris and sparkling with jewelry, the women of these shows plotted and schemed, remade themselves through cosmetic surgery and returned from the dead, all the while promoting the regressive message that women's only source of value and power came through marriage and childbirth.
"Normally we said it was very regressive, and at one level it was, because it was always in a joint family setup where the women never did anything except fight with each other, and were bound by tradition," said Shailaja Bajpai, longtime television critic for the Indian Express newspaper.
Because as much as 50 percent of the television audience comprises women, programming can potentially play an important role in inspiring new thinking about the way daughters -- and unborn girls -- should be treated. For example, though child marriage is illegal and the average age at which marriages take place is rising in India, its rural backwaters still account for almost half of the world's prepubescent brides, according to UNICEF.
Apart from taking away their childhoods, these unions also frequently take away their lives, as UNICEF calculates girls between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as women between 20 and 24 -- a fact that may contribute to India's high maternal and neonatal mortality rates. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are also five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
"There is a legal measure here and our government is also trying to do a lot of incentive schemes for delaying marriage," Basu said. "But the main problem is the internalization of these values by the people." In villages, she says, people believe marrying their daughters off before they hit puberty is the only way to be sure they go to their weddings as virgins -- which is essential to the family honor. "The government is not able to crack this norm."
Only time will tell if television can achieve what the government can't.
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