Why Indian soap operas are like Shakespeare’s plays

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Indian soap operas – including Thapki Pyar Ki – are more like Shakespeare’s plays as they would have been experienced in Elizabethan England: cheap, quick and populist.

Television is having its Harold Macmillan moment: we viewers have “never had it so good”. For Western audiences, that means serials with all the complexity, subtlety, visual artistry and budgets once reserved for the big screen: The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, anything Nordic…

The pressures of daily episodes, on-screen competition and the size of the viewing population* have pulled some Indian soap operas in a different direction – and it’s closer to Shakespeare as it 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, including being duped into 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 the inner world of motivation, misdirection, doubt and desire, 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.

TV soap operas obviously have cameras – and yet in TPK and other Indian serials, the monologue remains a key tool in conveying a character’s thoughts, feelings, plans and motivations.

That may be partly because it’s cheaper and faster to just have a character reveal those things given the pressures of filming, but it’s also part of a storytelling tradition. It 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.

In Thapki Pyar Ki, most characters talk to themselves at some point. Most confusingly, this doesn’t just happen when they’re alone: it even happens in the presence of other characters. Depending on dramatic need, sometimes those characters overhear and react yet, on other occasions, remain completely oblivious.

It’s quite an achievement, however, that whichever way it goes, the audience can remain utterly gullible to it: it’s easy to accept the outcome either way and remain under the spell of the story.

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina – ‘god from the machine’ – is a classical (Greek) theatre device in which, 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 sometimes a necessary means of sewing up plot holes.

It doesn’t even have to be a god: sometimes the saviour of a story is 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.

Of course, there’s also much use of the Bobby Ewing Paradigm (Bob was a character in Dallas who died, only to appear in the shower one morning – and all the preceding episodes written off as a dream).

In TPK’s final story track, this includes the revelation of a twin sister never previously mentioned in the show and, in fact, not even known to Thapki herself. You could call that clever writing but fan forums called it as it was: rip-off city.

All’s well that ends well

Resolution was crucial for Shakespeare’s audience: there was otherwise a very real chance viewers might go home deeply disturbed at seeing people slaughtered on stage, or convinced that the magic they’ve seen might follow them home and do them ill.

When the play ends the villains get their just rewards, the artifice of the play itself is revealed, and killed characters might reappear on stage at the play’s close to dance and frolic and be very much alive.

In TPK, too, everything flows towards the inevitable righting of wrongs. 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: a whole track in which Thapki is controlled by a possessed goldfish (including levitating and being hugged by a snake) was written off as ‘I was in on the whole thing’.

Deus Ex Machina and Bobby Ewing are put to good use as required: it’s not just about resolution, but about bringing a sense of order to the world and releasing the spell.

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