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Rupali Ganguly’s ‘Anupamaa’ Succeeds Because of the Tropes It Avoids

'Anupamaa' is a breath of fresh air in the crowd of sexist and regressive TV content.

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TV
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Rupali Ganguly’s ‘Anupamaa’ Succeeds Because of the Tropes It Avoids
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For a long time, Indian TV was saturated by similar content– known colloquially as ‘saas-bahu’ serials or daily soaps. There was no dethroning these shows when it came to TRPs; if one went off air, two others took its place and most were unapologetically regressive and sexist. Shows like Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Kundali Bhagya, and Kumkum Bhagya ruled TRPs for a while but they were dethroned by Rupali Ganguly-starrer Anupamaa.

Why does the show work? Many have said that it shows a progressive storyline, it shows nuanced conversations around themes of family, gender, and mental health, it shows X, Y, and Z but I’d theorise it’s because of the things it doesn’t show.

Anupamaa works because it deviates from the saas-bahu genre enough to not be the same ol’ while matching what a wide range of audience needs. Anupamaa isn’t just successful on Star Plus, it also works on OTT (on Disney+ Hotstar); well enough for a sequel. I’ve known people across age groups and demographics who tune in to the show, day after day.

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Rishte Vahi, Soch Nayi

“Men are forgiven for everything, why? We teach our daughters and daughter-in-law to think before they speak, why don’t we teach our sons too?”
Anupamaa

The Rupali-starrer too begins with a similar premise to many other shows– a woman whose identity or vajood revolves around her husband and his family. Her husband, Vanraj Shah (played by Sudhanshu Pandey) is misogynist and abusive. He often belittles Anupamaa, something their elder son Paritosh (Toshu), played by Aashish Mehrotra, has inherited.

Sudhanshu Pandey as Vanraj Shah in Anupamaa.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

However, right from promotional content before the show, the makers had made it clear– the show would be about Anupamaa and her agency. Instead of romanticising the idea of women being able to ‘do it all through anything that is thrown at them,' Anupamaa clearly portrayed Vanraj and his family as antagonists.

The show focused less on how the man feels and more on how the violence and misogyny permeating the Shah family affected Anupamaa.

Think of Aham Modi and Gopi from the extremely successful drama Saath Nibhaana Saathiya. Not only did Aham neglect Gopi but he actively belittled her at every occasion and yet, there she stayed, ever the adarsh (ideal) wife and daughter-in-law. Gopi was convinced that with love and “perseverance,” she would ‘change’ or 'fix' Aham, and what’s worse is that the show actually shows that this works.

Aham and Gopi Modi from Saath Nibhaana Saathiya.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

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Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, arguably one of Indian TV’s most successful sitcoms, also frequently uses sexist WhatsApp-forward jokes about wives and women. The men are also ‘fed up’ of their wives and their indiscretions are passed off as ‘innocent mistakes’ or ‘men being men’.

Jethalal and Daya in a still from Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasmah.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Anupamaa moves beyond that. After Anu gradually starts to attain agency, she frequently questions the double-standards between her and Vanraj in the Shah family, highlighting the double-standards in the way patriarchy treats men and other genders.

She also tells Vanraj and Paritosh that they are responsible for their own growth and need to stop relying on the women in their lives to make them better people.

Saas, Bahu Aur…

“If a woman wants to live life on her own terms and wants to make her own decisions, she is made to feel like she’s making a mistake…a sin even. When a husband apologises, a woman is asked to behave like a goddess and forgive everything…I don’t want to be a goddess.”
Anupamaa

Anupamaa’s relationship with her mother-in-law Leela Shah (Alpana Buch) is contentious at best. Leela perpetuates the patriarchy in the Shah family and overlooks the way her son Vanraj and Toshu behave with the women around them. The show, however, gives this nuance. In a scene, Leela breaks down and talks about how that is the way she has had to adjust her entire life after she got married.

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While it doesn’t absolve her of blame, it adds perspective to the ‘saas’ who often remains an antagonistic figure in daily soaps. The show also features Arvind Vaidya as Hasmukh, Anu’s father-in-law who is very different from the usual ‘henpecked’ husband trope of the ‘manipulative’ wife and often stands by Anu, as she starts to distance herself from the Shah household.

Anupamaa also contrasts Anu’s relationship with Leela with her equation with her daughter-in-law Kinjal (Nidhi Shah). Very early on Anu decides that she will not treat Kinjal the way she was treated, breaking a cycle of generational abuse that is extremely difficult to do for scores of women around the world– often due to the circumstances they’re in.

Anupamaa and Kinjal in an episode of Anupamaa.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Mother-in-laws are often reduced to evil caricatures in Indian TV– not to say that women do not live in abusive households post marriage but when it is reduced to tropes, it gives into the dangerous idea that all women plot against each other.

For instance, there is a lot wrong with the show Kaahin Kissii Roz but the worst of it all is the mother-in-law Ramola Sikand (Sudha Chandran) who tries to murder people multiple times (and I think succeeds sometimes), is manipulative, and frankly has broken multiple laws.

Then there are Mohini Basu (Shubhaavi Choksey) from Kasautii Zindagii Kay and Ishwari Dixit (Supriya Pilgaonkar) from Kuch Rang Pyar Ke Aise Bhi who place their sons on a pedestal and make it their mission to chase away the women they’ve fallen in love with.

A still from Kuch Rang Pyar Ke Aise Bhi.

(Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

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A Journey of Self-Discovery, At Its Pace

“Keeping quiet in the face of injustice doesn’t result in peace, it just results in silence.”
Anupamaa

In a particularly excellent scene, an inebriated Anupamaa calls out the entire Shah family on the way they’ve treated her. She points out how even the people in the family who supported her did so in their comfort zone and well within the confines of patriarchy that the others enforced.

Why didn’t her father-in-law support her when her husband and mother-in-law forced her to stop studying further? Why must she face the consequences of a decision that wasn’t hers?

Anupamaa doesn’t immediately become emancipated in a quick-fix solution– the act of emancipation in patriarchy is majorly dependent on privilege and thus, before Anu can truly leave the Shah family, she must take small steps towards freedom. She stops being at their beck and call, she starts her own business, she starts working, and starts driving.

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For several women in India, the road to agency starts with baby steps and Anupamaa reflects that reality.

A highly-talked-about aspect of Anupamaa is Anu’s relationship with Anuj Kapadia (Gaurav Khanna) but thankfully, Anu doesn’t step from one relationship to another. She doesn’t depend on Anuj for success, only support. She also asserts early on that she needs time to reconnect with herself before anyone else. And the show gives her that chance.

Anupamaa and Anuj in a still from Anupamaa.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

So far, Anupamaa has maintained that she doesn't want her marriage with Anuj to change her or make her backpedal on all the progress she has made for herself. Often, shows start out with multi-dimensional female characters but end up putting them into binaries of women with jobs and homemakers.

Erica Fernandes, the lead of Kuch Rang Pyar Ke.. had even exited the show in the latest season and wrote, "I hope you'll always remember Sonakshi from the first 2 seasons and not how weak and confused she was made to look this season."

Women Supporting Women?

“A woman often plays the side role in her own life but I refuse to do that anymore. I will be the heroine of my own story and stay that way.”
Anupamaa

Think Prerna and Komolika; think Rashi Modi and Gopi; think Mandira and Tulsi (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi). What do all of these have in common? Often, in daily soaps, the few women in speaking roles would be pit against each other almost always because of a man. One would be the ideal woman and one would be the vamp and their characteristics remained one-dimensional.

Anupamaa and Kavya in a still from Anupamaa.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

To an extent, Anupamaa and Kavya Gandhi (Madalsa Sharma) do meet many of those characteristics. Kavya is the ‘evil, modern woman’ who ‘steals’ Anupamaa’s husband.

However, the show also explores how she, too, is confronted with the same life Anu had in the Shah house even though she has considerably more agency and privilege than Anupamaa.
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Perhaps one of the best characters in Anupamaa is Kinjal– a woman who refuses to quit her job, has Anu’s back from the start and vice versa, and often clashes with her husband Toshu when he’s wrong. Her mother, Rakhi Dave (Tassnim Sheikh) is elitist and disrespectful but even then, she grows to understand Anupamaa.

Anupamaa gives its female characters multiple dimensions and gives their characters nuance. Some of them are antagonists, some protagonists, and some oscillate between the two.
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Kavya and Rakhi do side with Vanraj and his family who continue to place hurdles for Anupamaa and Kinjal. Anupamaa, thus, can’t be completely absolved of blame when it comes to the Madonna-whore complex but it takes a step in the right direction.

The Right Direction; a Long Way to Go

Themes like mental health, sexual assault, victim blaming, and workplace harassment are often discussed with nuance and yet, on the other hand, Kavya continues to have a relationship with her abusive ex-husband. It’s a duality that the show often indulges in. Vanraj and Anu, without any disagreements, agree to send their daughter Pakhi to a psychologist when she needs professional help.

The show is not devoid of flaws. It’s not a pariah of feminist portrayals but at a time when saas-bahu shows have dominated airwaves for years, Anupamaa wins because of the tropes it chooses to avoid.

The show found a way to appeal to a large audience while avoiding the many exploitative formulas that daily soaps use.

There are still some preachy moments about what a ‘family’ means or what things ‘must matter’ to every woman.

Will the show retain its steam or fizzle out? That remains to be seen but one thing is clear, Anupamaa was a revolution for TV, in a time where a part of India settles on a couch and clicks on OTT and another part huddles in front of the TV during ‘prime time’.

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Topics:  Anupama   Rupali Ganguly   Anupamaa 

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