Why Indian soap operas are like Shakespeare’s plays

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Indian TV soap operas, like Shakespeare’s plays, are cheap, quick and populist. Here’s why that works.

Television is having its Harold Macmillan moment: viewers have “never had it so good”. In the West, TV and streaming serials have all the complexity, artistry and budgets once reserved for the big screen: Dark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo…

The pressures of daily episodes, on-screen competition and sheer size of the viewing population* have pulled some Indian soap operas in a different direction. In fact, they’re closer to Shakespeare’s plays as they would have been experienced in Elizabethan England: cheap, quick and populist.

* BARC India estimates TV audience viewing figures for 2017 as 780 million – that’s more than the entire population of Europe.

Thapki, or not Thapki: that is the question

Thapki Pyar Ki (TPK) was an Indian TV soap which ran for just two years between 2015-2017. The premise involved a young woman with a stammer: the Thapki of the title.

A conveyor belt of rogues and misunderstandings see Thapki battle much o’ misfortune. These include marrying the wrong man, later falling in love with him anyway, then becoming his widow and, finally, marrying his lookalike.

Confusing, yes; but also entertaining, bizarre, good natured, bizarre and confusing. So: why so Shakespeare?

The monologue

Showing a character’s motivation or manipulation is easier with camera tricks and editing. Even tiny tics can give away murderers and philanderers on the big screen.

Shakespeare, who didn’t have a green screen, used the monologue – a single character talking out loud to him or herself. What’s that moody Hamlet thinking, the audience wonders. “To be, or not to be,” Hamlet answers back.

TV soap operas obviously have cameras. Yet TPK and other Indian serials, use the monologue to show a character’s thoughts, feelings and plans.

This may be because it’s cheaper and faster to have a character reveal key plot points. But it’s also part of a storytelling tradition that removes doubt and keeps things simple. We know who the good guys and bad gals are, and we know who to cheer for – because they tell us.

“It must not be denied / but I am a plain-dealing villain.”

Don John in SHAKESPEARE’s Much Ado About Nothing

In Thapki Pyar Ki, most characters talk to themselves at various times. Depending on dramatic need other characters can sometimes overhear or react to these thoughts, while at other times they remain oblivious. It’s quite an achievement that, either way, the audience can play along and stay under the spell of the story.

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina – ‘god from the machine’ – is a classical (Greek) theatre device. Quite literally, a god would appear at the end of the play and tie up any loose ends. It’s a bit of a cheat, but a handy way to sew up plot holes – and very common in soap operas of all stripes.

It’s not always a god, but it is usually somewhat ‘miraculous’. Sometimes it’s what we now call the unexpected twist – such as the bacteria that destroys the aliens at the end of War of the Worlds.

This is a stock tool for Indian serials, some of which make very literal use of Hindu gods to save a story or character’s fate. At several crisis points in Thapki Pyar Ki, a character calls on a god to give them what they want or need … and lo, so it is done.

Other plot explainers included the revelation of a twin sister never previously mentioned in the show (and not even known to Thapki herself). You could call it clever writing but fan forums called it as it was: rip-off city.

It happens in Western soap operas, too, btw. Dallas had Bobby Ewing killed off, only to reappear in the shower one morning, with all the preceding episodes written off as a dream.

All’s well that ends well

Film credits remind us that it’s all make-believe

Resolution was crucial for Shakespeare’s audiences. Otherwise viewers might go home convinced that people had really died, or that the magic in the story might harm them.

That’s why villains get their just rewards at the end of plays (and still do in contemporary films). Finally the artifice of the play is revealed, and killed characters reappear to dance and frolic and be very much alive. We still have this, too, in film credits, especially ‘crazy credits’ featuring outtakes.

Everything flows towards the inevitable righting of wrongs in TPK, too. Each story track ends with a resolution, in which the good guys band together, and the bad guys are overcome.

Sometimes, this involved cut-and-shut jobs. For instance, a story track that saw Thapki controlled by a possessed goldfish was later explained away as a willing collaboration.

Whether it’s Deus Ex Machina or the Bobby Ewing paradigm, this isn’t just about ending a story that’s run out of steam. It’s also about bringing order back to the world and releasing the spell of fiction.

Thapki Pyar Ki: the best worst bits

  • In just two years of telly time, Thapki Pyar Ki spanned 25 years of storylines – yet none of the characters noticeably aged during that time.
  • The third jump moved the story on by 15 years, after which Thapki’s daughters were 20-somethings. Not only did Thapki not age on screen, the actress (Jigyasa Singh) played one of her own daughters.
  • Being attacked by a rabid dog or an ‘annoyed water buffalo’ means potential risk to actors and sets. TPK kept costs down – and comic effect up – by cutting between an uninterested and often stationery animal, and an actor running away. Let’s end here with the gorilla.

Picture credit: Saksham Gangwar