Exactly 25 years ago, Doordarshan, then the only television channel, began airing the soap opera Hum Log (People like us). Woven into its lengthy narrative were various threads of women's empowerment. The show attacked the dowry system, encouraged women to get educated, decide for themselves how many children they would have, and promoted gender equality in the workplace.

Following a Mexican trip in 1982, the idea for Hum Log was developed by the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, Vasant Sathe in collaboration with writer Manohar Sham Joshi and a little-known filmmaker, P Kumar Vasudev. Hum Log began with the romantic yearnings of a modest young man from a poor family for the beautiful and spoilt daughter of a wealthy widower. It was a story of one family, with sub-plots involving brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents. The grandparent was the patriarchal head of the family, but the reins were almost completely controlled by his wife, the grandmother. The grandfather's only son Basessar, was a talented singer whose love for the bottle had turned him into a wastrel. Basessar's five children, comprised of two sons and three daughters, and his submissive wife made up the extended family unit.

The TV-viewing audience in India increased from 30 million in 1983 to 80 million in 1987. Hum Log was broadcast during this expansion, when television was new to many. Its characters seemed real, and millions of viewers identified with them. Viewers sent more than 400,000 letters, many of them addressed to the characters rather than to the actors and actresses. Many of these viewers identified with one or more of the characters, and many commented on the social issues raised by the show.

The producers were taken aback by the extent of its popularity. There were no stars. The young men and women who played the leading roles had no acting experience. The other actors were from amateur theatre in Delhi. Overnight, India's first television stars were born. The actors were mobbed on the streets, overwhelmed with awards and accolades. It was as if people were yearning for situations and characters they could identify with. On the streets of North India, shopkeepers and merchants closed theirs stores early to celebrate the wedding of the characters Badki and Ashwini. An average of 50 million people watched each of the 159 episodes during the 17-month run in 1984 and 1985 - the largest audience ever for a television programme in India till then.

The tremendous response to Hum Log opened the floodgates. Viewers had been hooked on it, and advertisers called for more serials of the same kind. Hopeful young film-makers offered to produce these. The authorities, finding that advertising could painlessly provide the immense amount of capital required for large-scale expansion, threw open television to advertising, going against the principles and policies they had laid down earlier.

Not quite as intended

But if the show intended to promote women's empowerment, it wasn't too bright about it. Its messages were often self-defeating, because the women were heavily tinged with the politics of patriarchy, or worse still, female characters were often shown sacrificing much for others, or the larger family. Bhagwanti, the mother of the family, was a case in point; she was a subservient, self-sacrificing, traditional Indian woman, endlessly taken advantage of and abused because she put the needs of others first. The show's producers intended that viewers would be angered by her suffering, but in fact, Bhagwanti's depiction as a subservient woman was received as a pro-social message rather than an anti-social one. Eighty per cent of the women who viewed Hum Log chose Bhagwanti as a positive role model. And many men indicated they felt that India needed more women like Bhagwanti.

The tremendous response to the show opened the floodgates. Viewers had been hooked on it, and advertisers called for more serials of the same kind.

 •  Through women's eyes
 •  Media and a 'gender' vision Even the marginal character, Sumitra Didi, who acted in and directed street plays focussing on the derogatory position of women, was reportedly a happily married woman in personal life (in the serial.) Even the childless Dr. Aparna, who took Bhagwanti's daughter Chhutki under her care, was a successful doctor married to her professor husband. The tragic song of pathos that ran like an undercurrent spoke of her childlessness, suggesting that a successful career was no substitute for motherhood.

The second daughter Majhli tried to strike it out on her own, leave the home without the family's consent, and heading off to Mumbai. Majhli's 'problem' was her over-riding ambition, her desperate desire to break free of the stagnant middle class milieu and the vicious circle of poverty, blind belief and out-dated values that threatened to annihilate young and old alike around her. Such ambition should, according to the show, necessarily incite nemesis - Majhli must be punished for thinking big if the country's sense of values is to be sustained and celebrated. So, she had to come back, repentant and sorry for her 'misdemeanours.' Viewers were happy.

Dadimaa, the matriarch, was shrewish, greedy, proud and an oppressive mother-in-law to Bhagwanti. She did not accept her son Lallu's wife Usha Rani's assertive behaviour. Her husband was wise and selfless, and often argued on his granddaughters' and his daughter-in-law's behalf. The youngest son's girlfriend Kamya was a rich and spoilt young brat. Badki, the eldest of three daughters, was strong and steady. But her strength slipped after she married her doctor boyfriend. Chhutki came to terms with her independence only when she stepped out of her biological family.

The women in Hum Log were too starched and dyed in Khadi. In keeping with Gandhian ideology, they women took up jobs or pursued careers, but such jobs were not in conflict with their wife-mother-daughter role within the family. Kamya, the spoilt daughter of a millionaire who the youngest son fell in love with, was the only woman who had the guts to leave her debauch husband. Yet, despite her education and modern upbringing, she was gullible to the point of being stupid.

There is no doubt that the show had its impact. To evaluate the impact of Hum Log, 1170 viewers were surveyed after the series ended. 500 of their letters were analyzed. The audience liked the show but felt that its educational impact was slight. Approximately 8 per cent of the letters analyzed implied some behaviour change. Some opined that Hum Log had led women to seek help from women's welfare organisations. Enrollment of potential eye donors increased after the issue was mentioned. Changes in family planning behavior were not commented on. These letter writers might not be a reflection of the average viewer, given the huge size of the viewing audience. But even a small percentage change meant a large number of people responded to the show.

Hum Log was rerun on the national channel after a decade-long gap, this time sponsored by Proctor and Gamble, and the show was trimmed down to 52 episodes from its original 159. But in the years since the first airing, viewers had been fed on a generous diet of serials with strong and courageous characters in other shows - Stree, Udaan, Adhikar, Pukaar, and Draupadi in Mahabharat. Even the lay viewer was not prepared to brook the wet-rag, happy-to-be-knocked-around attitude of Majhli's mother Bhagwanti, or the conformist and convenient 'rebellions' of Badki and Chhutki, and most importantly, the negative emphasis placed on Majhli's character.

A legacy of confused feminity

What about today? Have things changed for the better for women on television? Sociologist Yogendra Singh believes that viewer identification is linked to the basic question of human identity and the search for a role model in the larger context. "It has to do with the ideals, character, style we would ideally want to have. So all those middle-class women whose husbands were fooling around would actually want to be a Priya," he says, referring to a character from Saans, a very popular serial directed and produced by Neena Gupta. The carefully constructed dignity of these women, implies Singh, is illusory, and they would happily re-unite with their husbands if the opportunity presented itself.

The sanctioning of the notion of women as autonomous and equal citizens, while also endorsing the idea that women are around to be gazed at, is the contradiction that has lessened our potential.

 •  Through women's eyes
 •  Media and a 'gender' vision This explains the cult following some soap stars command. Viewer responses often force the growth of a character in a different direction than how it was originally conceived of. Along with audience identification, there is character-identification with the actress who plays the character over a long period of time. The politics of representation somewhere along the way, merges with the politics of identification firstly, of the audience with the character, and then, of the actress with the character.

The sanctioning of the notion of women as autonomous and equal citizens, while also endorsing the idea that women are around to be gazed at, is the contradiction that has lessened our potential since the days of Hum Log, and the many other shows that followed. Even a strong and well-made serial like Udaan, which tells the story of a woman aspiring to be an Indian Police Service officer, could not make a long-term impact on viewers. Nothing has changed for the better. In some ways, television has fostered the spread of the liberation movement through its vast amount of coverage of women through seemingly 'progressive' talk shows, discussions, debate and detailed news reports. At the same time, television has done more harm than good to women's potential as individuals by putting female conformity to convention and tradition at the forefront.

In the 21st century, one would have expected women characters to be more progressively depicted. But this has not happened. We have seen regressive women, a return to the extended feudal family with property and inheritance disputes, illicit children born out of wedlock, illicit relationships at times bordering on incest, and focus on beauty, tons of gold and stone-crusted jewellery, faces made up so heavily that all the women begin to look similar, creating what Uma Chakrabarti terms 'the homogenous woman.'

With the arrival of Ekta Kapoor, the story lines changed dramatically. Her serials hit the bull's eye. She revolutionised television with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, and Kasautii Zindagi Kay, shows spinning around one female protagonist, and which continue with their never-ending stories. As viewers flocked to her serials, others started toeing the line to keep abreast. This flood of essentially similar shows turned off a lot of viewers, and a large segment of urban Indian women now find these serials regressive.

When the saas-bahu sagas started declining in ratings, Ekta rolled out new recipes - Cinderella stories interspersed with Mills & Boon romance, and these too are being replicated across channels. The Tulsi (from Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) phenomenon of 'freedom' applies even to women who seek their 'liberation' through personalities that are the exact opposite of Tulsi's (Smruti Malhotra) sari-clad conservatism. These women, their descendants and distanced cousins are asexual, angelic, self-sacrificing and stoic. They slither across the small screen with their sexuality. They are mostly crass, loud and unabashedly ambitious.

The result is that our notions of gender equality and modernity are so mixed up that we treat both Tulsi and Rakhi Sawant with overawed fascination. In televised depictions, we embrace puritanical virtue and sensuality with the same confused enthusiasm. The question is - how long do we have to wait for television to hold up a mirror to us instead of having to/forced to look at unrealistic and exaggerated images of a conformist and convenient brand of 'femininity' being spouted forth everyday, reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypical, on-screen images of women created by real and successful women?