Anupamaa Shah, the protagonist of the beloved TV serial Anupamaa, began her life on screen as a paragon of submissive domesticity. However, since premiering in July 2020, the show has aired more than 1,000 episodes and audiences have seen Anupamaa come into her own, leave her failed marriage, fall in love and do everything from fight cancer to set up her own dance academy. “It is a very intimate relationship between a woman who’s been watching Anupamaa for four years. Anupamaa was there when Covid-19 happened, Anupamaa was there the day her husband was rude to her, the day her child came first in class, and the day she drove for the first time. Every journey is going to be with Anupamaa because she has become her best friend,” said writer Harneet Singh, who has written shows like Bade Acche Lagte Hain and Ishqbaaaz.
In the sprawling landscape of India's entertainment industry, TV writing emerges as a distinct genre – brimming with a unique blend of wackiness and earnest intentions. In serials and soap operas, the mundane becomes dramatic and the impossible is folded into the everyday. TV shows have been dismissed and misrepresented as regressive by many (mostly people who haven’t watched them and only know, at best, the memes the shows have inspired). Yet the writers defy expectations, flourishing against all odds and spinning yarns that delight their audiences. The world of the TV show is one where dramatic revelations and unexpected plot twists are normal, a keen reminder that sometimes the most far-fetched of tales and audacious storytelling is what you need to keep yourself grounded. “Indian television keeps going on because it speaks to an audience to which OTT and films do not,” said Singh.
If the world of television soaps looks dramatic on-screen, it’s because of a punishing schedule behind the scenes. Bhavna Vyas, who has written shows like Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai and Anupamaa, said, “Creatively, we have to deliver from Monday to Sunday. First it used to be five days a week, but now it is seven days a week.” Fittingly for someone who writes in a genre that has focused upon the domestic and feminine space, Shashi Mittal, a writer on Diya Aur Baati Hum, likened the TV writer to a housewife. “We have to decide like housewives have to decide ki aaj kya khaana banana hai (what should I cook today),” said Mittal. Vyas concurred with this take. “TV writers ka kaam maa ka kaam hota hai (our jobs are akin to mothers). You have to present the same food with small variations to make it interesting everyday,” she said.
With producers eyeing new audiences because of the OTT revolution, television writing in India is currently in a state of flux. The medium has always been dynamic, changing with sharp responsiveness to audience feedback, but now writers are experimenting with formats. There are reboots, such as Tera Mera Saath Rahe, which brings back much of the original cast of Saath Nibhana Saathiya. Some are trying finite series with a predetermined storyline and tighter episodes, like the third season of Bade Achhe Lagte Hain, which wrapped up in three months instead of continuing indefinitely.
When faced with the prospect of producing a show that needs to span over 1,000 episodes, resorting to tried-and-true tropes becomes inevitable. However, within those constraints, there’s also the need to come up with inventive ways to utilise a trope because otherwise the show may lose the viewer’s attention. With the way our consumption patterns have changed over the years, especially with the internet and social media changing how we find and see entertainment, many shows lean on the absurd, which is equally entertaining to both earnest and ironically-inclined audiences. Who can forget Simar from Sasural Simar Ka getting entangled in and strangled by a curtain, for instance? And that’s not even the half of it. “Simar went to pataal lok (underworld) and even became a fly,” Singh reminded us.
When a show is successful and characters have struck a chord with audiences, it is in the channel’s best interests to prolong it by whatever means necessary. “When you have to sustain a show, you have to stretch it. Then you have to hit on the tropes,” said Singh. Akash Deep, who has written for Sasural Simar Ka as well as other shows like Saath Nibhana Saathiya, said, “Most of these shows start with a realistic story and then suddenly enter a more dramatic stage. You say they are unreal, but … the strangest, most unrealistic things happen even in real life.”
While this is true, the signature style of TV serials — immortalised through memes — is to have plot twists that are hilariously beyond the pale of realism, like Gopi Bahi washing her husband’s laptop with soap and hanging it up to dry in Saath Nibhana Saathiya, or when the protagonist Mohini delivers a watermelon instead of a baby in Harphoul Mohini. When the channel is worried about TRPs dropping, it is common practice to inject absurdities in the show to make sure people sit up and take notice. In Harphoul Mohini’s case, when audiences were not sticking around till the end of the episodes, the “watermelon pregnancy” track resulted in viewers coming back after the last ad break.
Often, these meme-worthy moments serve as catalysts for surges in television rating points (TRP). “You can’t deny, it is entertaining to watch [Komolika] try and ruin a party,” said Deep, referring to the character from Kasautii Zindagii Kay (which was rebooted in 2018 to great success) whose adventures have included leaving an event and driving all the way to a bridge, only to ask her ex-lover to jump off it. Singh said, “Your ratings tell you where you are, and you have to listen to your audience.”
This is particularly significant because the daily soap has traditionally been a woman’s medium. “There used to be no outlet for women to have their own stories, right?” said Singh. “Cinema screens were completely taken over by men. They had the spending power. They would go out and buy tickets. And so television became the space for women.” With women as the target audience, the plots have revolved around women’s desires and the issues that affect them, from adapting to life after marriage (Saath Nibhana Saathiya) to fulfilling her professional dreams (Diya Aur Baati Hum). There’s space in these shows for women characters across the spectrum of age as well as morality. From heroines who uphold a moral code to unapologetically extra villainesses, they’re all in TV serials. Finding true love is a key ingredient and so, the TV hero has changed over the years. “They have become more sensitive and understanding towards women,” said Mittal, speaking about the characterisation. Vyas pointed out another critical detail: “They’ve become hotter.”
Television serials are female-led and female-oriented, with women both behind and in front of the screen. In Hindi, Shobha Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms Private Limited have produced some of the most successful daily soaps in Indian television history, including Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, Kumkum Bhagya and Bade Acche Lagte Hain. “Your top producers are women. Most channel heads are women.” said Singh. The writing rooms are a mix of both men and women, with “someone doing the episodic story, someone doing screenplay and someone doing dialogues,” Singh added.
According to Singh, television writing is more crisp now. “Writing has become a little more snappy because you spend the story faster. There is such an abundance of content that people are drowning in it,” she said. “So TV is trying to become more real and more engaging.” Few television heroines, for instance, are now going to bed with heavy make-up and even heavier jewellery. Additionally, in order to keep up with heightened competition, “Television writing has also become more fast-paced,” said Mittal.
To claim that OTT is an inherently more progressive space than television — especially if such a claim is made solely on the basis of viral memes — is to do a grave disservice to these shows and their writers. “If you think these shows are not progressive, that is not the case,” said Deep. “There is no topic that TV has not touched … we have spoken about domestic violence, the pressure on middle-aged girls to get married, we have even spoken about marital rape.” Irrespective of whether there are more jeans or saris being worn on TV, Deep would like you to know one thing: “Indian TV heroines were progressive and are progressive, in accordance with how times are changing.”
“Television is a medium that is closer to you. These characters come to you and you welcome them into your house,” said Singh. “That iconic shot of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in which Tulsi is inviting you into the house is literally the way TV does it. These characters enter your home and they become a part of your daily life.” Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the audiences play a key role in how characters evolve. TRP ratings, which some writers referred to as the “report card”, and audience feedback keep writers (and the characters they create) on their toes. This has been a tradition that dates back to the pre-social media era. “We would get letters, emails and even phone calls from fans,” said Vyas. “People would find our numbers and call us to praise or complain about the show.”
In many ways, writers are more keenly aware of their audience when writing for television. Writing for over the top (OTT) platforms, in contrast, involves a certain amount of guesswork about what an audience will latch on to and balancing it with creative and intellectual aspirations. More often than not, prestige projects on OTTs (like in mainstream cinema) cast well-known actors as protagonists, leaning on their celebrity status to draw audiences. In sharp contrast, daily soaps make stars out of unknown names. “I have developed shows for OTT as well, and have come to realise that it’s just a difference in audience,” said Deep. “Aapki audience kya hai, aapko sirf woh pakadna hai (You just need to know who your audience is).”
No matter how confident the channel or the writers are about a particular storyline, if it doesn’t connect with the viewers, it simply doesn't. “I remember Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon was all the rage,” recalled Singh. “I was part of the writing team of Season 3, and I was so excited because Barun [Sobti] was coming back to TV. It was a huge project. But the ratings were not as expected.” Despite guest appearances from popular characters from other shows on the network and celebrities like Baadshaah and Mika Singh, the low ratings eventually resulted in the show being wrapped up prematurely.
One thing, however, is clear. Whether they’re watching their favourite shows on their television screen in the living room or streaming them on phones, revisiting or catching up on episodes during a long commute, the loyalty of the audience is unwavering.
As the culture of appointment viewing withers in India (much like it has in the rest of the world), soap watchers are now taking advantage of streaming platforms like Disney+ Hotstar and SonyLIV to catch up on episodes they may have missed. “Even on OTT, the most-watched content is TV shows. It’s just that people are not necessarily sitting down at 9pm and watching new episodes. Instead, they’re watching these shows on their own time,” said Mittal. According to media consulting firm Ormax, shows like Anupamaa and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai are consistently on its list of “Most-Liked TV Shows”, on the basis of viewer engagement. It is this audience that streaming platforms wish to acquire. “TV ka apna ek sur, apna ek audience abhi bhi hai (TV has a tone and audience of its own even today),” said Vyas.