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February 04, 2020

Leading Ladies

Text by Megha Shah

From 1993 to 1997, Tara crystallised the many dimensions of contemporary urban womanhood on our television screens with a never-before-seen realness. While revisiting the agelessly feminist show’s talking points, Megha Shah is driven to consider the misguided handling of female agency in the current Indian entertainment landscape

Ta ruh ruh ta ta tuh tara…
It’s 9.00 pm and that show is on. My six-year-old self registering the melody as the long loud peal that signals the arrival of ‘bold adult’ content.

I can’t be sure why I had settled on this understanding of the show’s nature. It may have to do with the fact that it came on past my bedtime or that my dad always slipped away and left my mom to watch it alone in the living room, calling it a ‘ladies show’. On the nights that I was out of bed, I watched my mother more than I watched the television set. She seemed entirely absorbed. And then there was that kiss. “Lip to lip kiss” I had heard my aunt call it, leaving me certain there were many other categories of kisses and this one, undoubtedly the most audacious.

Or, perhaps, I hadn’t really thought of the show this way. And quite possibly the significantly disparate entertainment landscape of the 2000s had cemented my expectations of what regular programming was like, implanting a layer of scandal in my memories of this not-so-regular show. Further, almost every mention of it in popular media since then has suggested it was either daring or unscrupulous. The recently-released film Saand Ki Aankh, depicting the story of sharpshooters Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, is one example. In one scene, the women of a rural household are gathered to watch Tara, when the patriarch enters the room. He is livid and blames the show for corrupting their minds and morals.

But in truth, the makers of Tara never intended for the TV serial to have any shock value or message for society nor did they believe they were creating anything particularly modern or ahead of its times. They simply thought they were depicting the times. And, for the most part, they were.

Writer Vinta Nanda, who conceptualised the show, had moved to Mumbai at the age of 19 and was living with three other friends in an apartment. “I thought there was a story to tell about this experience,” she tells me in a phone conversation, seeming almost disbelieving of her gumption. “When you came from a small town like Chandigarh or Jammu or Kota (in the ’90s), you had to watch how loud you laughed; you’d only stepped out of the house in a salwar kameez so far. When you came to Mumbai, it was like you were breathing for the first time. I can’t explain what it felt like to be able to go to Studio 29 at night with your friends and get drunk. That kind of internalisation of freedom in a young woman’s life was what constituted the essence of the story.” Nanda and her friends — a fashion designer, a journalist, another in the hotel business and an air hostess with Air India — became the inspirations behind Tara’s characters. She wrote about their misadventures, meaning purely to create heady storytelling. “People told me later that the show was pioneering and revolutionary. At the time I had no idea that it was.”

The show, which ran for five years (1993-1997), is impossible to find online. The episodes are not available on Youtube or on any streaming sites; even Zee TV’s website offers no clues. Nanda herself has no copies of the footage, not a single episode. The links cited on Wikipedia are defunct, and the information on IMDB is meagre. So I write to a contact at the channel. “Oh wow,” she says. “We’ll really have to dig.” A week later, I have 21 episodes in my inbox. The quality is poor, there’s static and blurriness, sometimes the background score completely drowns out the dialogues. I feel like I have a rare and fragile treasure in my possession, in need of restoration.

The plot revolves around Tara (Navneet Nishan) and her friends trying to find their feet in the city post college. Tara has a home in Bombay but moves out to share one with her friends because of a strained relationship with her father. She finds a job in PR at a hotel and enters into a relationship with her boss, Deepak Seth (Alok Nath), who is married and has a young daughter who reacts unfavourably. The beer-guzzling Sheena (Amita Nangia) lacks focus in her career and has a series of unsuccessful relationships. She seeks to feed an all-consuming void with affection and attention. Aarzoo (Neha Sharad) is the sturdiest, she becomes a journalist and seeks to humanise tragedies and uncover truths, often at her peril. Their friend Kanchan (Ratna Pathak Shah) moves in and out of their lives. She is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman and aches to find meaning and an anchor that can legitimise her existence. With every episode, each character is drawn out significantly to explain where her insecurities or behavioural tendencies stem from — some of them pinioned beneath the weight of their broken homes or unconventional childhoods, a reflection of the changing social climate and familial structures of the ’90s. They are all in need of cash and a fresh start.

Yet the mood is light and the pace languorous. Entire conversations between characters find air time, ones that don’t necessarily advance the plot but are simply enjoyable for their indulgence of a thought. Although written in a lingo used by the Hindi-speaking youth of the time, the characters speak a ‘cultured’ tongue, projecting their ‘khhs’ and ‘ghhs’ from the backs of their throats. There’s a clear urban filter on everything. The sets are modern, the women smoke and drink without that becoming a character trait, they have a gay friend (played by Deven Bhojani) and their clothes are young and chic (without being OTT) some of them designed by a very young Anita Dongre.

“I have always been rather offended with the depiction of small-town people in popular media, that’s not how we thought or dressed or acted,” says Nanda. The characters she drew up were complicated women whose problems were not designed to seem adorable. They found it natural to be in charge of their decisions; they questioned double standards and patriarchy, entered into complicated relationships and erred often but continued to pursue their realities doggedly.

The show has the texture and integrity of a novel. Every chapter or episode has a self-conscious grace that honours this form; the script that Nanda had submitted to Zee before the start of the show was a 150-page novella. The show does fall prey to some of the usual television-drama tropes (flaws that are intensified by watching it 25 years after it was intended). The plot line often roils, the performances (and the background score) get dramatic, the sound quality is awful, at some point there’s even a time leap. But Tara, the show, is too capacious, willful, and personal for ideals like perfection. And, like a good book, it remains focused on the point of creation and charges forward with functional single-mindedness.

It’s almost embarrassing that an astutely-written show about ordinary womanhood — a portrayal of middle-class, urban young women as they are — can be considered morally corrupt to some or as breaking new ground for bold, risk-taking television to others. My childhood memories, implanted or not, confound me as I watch more episodes. How bizarre and even tragic to consider this to be anything but the story of a bunch of women — quite like the kind I would grow up to be — doing nothing extraordinary except trying to make the best of their lives by using their agency as a guide. During my research one of the actors in the show who preferred to remain unnamed asked me, ‘But why do you think the characters were so great? Most of them were negative,’ making me wonder if perhaps the cast themselves knew what they had made. If they had grasped that the heroines’ ability to be insecure, vulnerable, jealous and lead imperfect lives was not just one of the greatest achievements of the show but also what sustains its legacy as one of the most honest portrayals of womanhood in Indian entertainment.

In October 1991, India’s first private broadcast channel was launched by Subhash Chandra. At the time, television was a Doordarshan monopoly, a result of the colonial Indian Telegraph Act from a century ago. Satellite television was a glorious idea whose time had come, but Chandra was having a difficult time getting his newest business started. Thus far, he owned a packaging unit and an amusement park (EsselWorld), and Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist Richard Li had already rejected his proposal for a joint venture to launch the channel. Li had just launched a media and entertainment business in Asia with four satellite television channels — BBC, Star TV, MTV and Prime Sports. So instead, Chandra decided to lease a transponder on Li’s satellite for $ 5 million a year — A staggeringly large amount for a business that most considered risky in the first place. But within the first year of being in business, Zee was in the green. And soon, one of its best-performing shows was Tara.

Karuna Samtani, a 32-year-old advertising executive had been hired as the vice president of the company. As the person in charge of content for India’s first private channel, hers was a big responsibility. While she sometimes had trouble commanding respect from her peers (“I resorted to only wearing saris to look older and serious”), she managed to get the channel on air in six months after signing the transponder deal. She remembers Nanda and the director Raman Kumar approaching her with a pitch and feeling instantly sure about the script. “There was no feeling at the time that I was commissioning anything too bold. There was no TV before this; modernity was yet to be defined.”

Because there was no yardstick to measure up to, no formula to resort to or much insight into what would work, Samtani and her team relied on that rare, ethereal thing: quality. “While I was asked to try and increase the rating by one point every week, there was very less interference from the channel,” says Nanda. “We didn’t have the time,” explains Samtani, we had 18-hour days and we were just in a rush to put out as much content as possible.” And so Nanda wrote the dialogues of every episode in English which were then translated to Hindi, she made her own trailers and had creative autonomy. “Today, a show is at the mercy of the creative directors and producers of the channel and they change frequently, so the person who commissioned the show is no longer there; another guy’s picking up his work and adding his own vision.”

Tara was a resounding success. Fans cut across ages, gender and geographical lines. Letters poured in, some claiming that the show was a reflection of their own hearts. “There was never a commercial spot free on the show,” says Samtani. “It was phenomenal.”

Tara didn’t exist in a vacuum,” Nanda clarifies. “If the ‘90s were the golden age for TV, the ’80s on Doordarshan was the platinum age. Shows like Hum Log and Buniyaad were beautifully woven stories and Tara was a product of this.” But it was the first truly contemporary tale about contemporary women and the audiences were lapping it up. And while there were some plot lines that angered sections of the society — for instance when Aarzoo runs a sting operation on her father’s illegal operations or when Deepak’s daughter Devyani declares she has a crush on a father-figure who helped raise her — most of the shock was experienced by the masses only in retrospect. The show wasn’t trying to hammer home a message of empowerment nor was it trying to set off a fierce debate over contemporary sexual politics, it was only the depiction of a world as seen by a twenty-something urban woman. The message, if any, was delivered on a subliminal level allowing the show to garner mass appeal.

By the time it was 1995, things had started to change. “A film called Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge released,” Nanda sighs, “The protagonists wore western clothes and spoke and behaved in a young, urban way too, but you see, that only happened in London. The second half is all about getting your dad’s permission before committing to someone you love, karwa chauth and dressing demurely,” she continues. “It was the dawn of values-based entertainment. And suddenly that was the market and the climate.”

Politically the country was changing too; 1998 marked the return of the BJP and a more conservative ideology began seeping into all avenues, including television. “Overnight Zee TV’s top management changed and Tara’s content wasn’t looked upon quite as favourably anymore,” Nanda says. She, along with Tara’s lead Navneet Nishan, had also been vocal in their sexual harassment allegations against the male lead and one of television’s most powerful stars, Alok Nath. “My shows were stripped off the channel and I was called into the office. I still remember what I was told, “Aap apne aap ko samjhti kya hain? (Who do you think you are?) It’s the title of a new script I have written and ready.”

In 2000, Ekta Kapoor released Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, a shining example of values-based entertainment and now, almost 20 years down, the same model of perfect female leads, traditional attire, marriage wrecking-vamps and kitchen politics continues to be replicated and abused.

“Nobody will commission a Tara today,” Samtani tells me. It’s been over 20 years since and television programming has gotten even more women-oriented but decidedly less concerned with matters like taste and authenticity. It seems almost illogical to argue, in this woke, post-MeToo world that the heart of popular culture in the country has gotten less neoteric, less enlightened, less real — especially in the portrayal of women, yet it’s the reality we face.

It’s a well-accepted fact that there is an intellectual gap between contemporary shows on prime-time television and many young urban audiences. But in my opinion the web-series and streaming platforms that scores have had to turn to for their daily entertainment have also failed to push the genre of female-driven dramas so far. While Indian productions have excelled in male-lead shows (dealing in particular with crime or the underworld), for me much is still left wanting. Four More Shots Please, which feels like the desi version of Sex and the City, comes across as a shallow pop-lesson in feminism. Seeing Indian women have sex and curse and drink on TV is certainly novel, but the show relies too strongly on this to carry it forward. ‘Look how feministic and devil-may-care I’m being’ seems to be the default character description for each of them. Made in Heaven, is a wittily-written, layered commentary on many social stigmas of upper-class society, but Sobhita Dhulipala’s character — the other Tara — still carries herself as the perfect glamorous, albeit silently suffering heroine. She bears no flaws of her own, her misery is purely circumstantial.

Every year, everything changes in the world of TV. One year we’ve got discs, then streaming, then apps on your phone. But a shift in consumption isn’t translating to a rethink in content. ‘Realistic’ portrayals of women are relegated to rural depictions; urban young women continue to be sexual beings, ensconced in glamour and the male gaze. It’s still a climate where a film like Veere Di Wedding is considered pathbreaking simply for having an all-female cast of A-listers and a focus on female desires (though most of the ‘boldness’ seemed to be scripted in for the two non-A listers) inspite of its clumsy script and two-dimensional characters.

I think about Samtani’s ominous words again and ask Nanda about them, who demonstrates with the perfect example. “I was approached by a producer of a streaming site to write a script about the modern-day Tara, and so I did. But they weren’t actually looking for that. They couldn’t handle the characters with all their flaws. They decided not to make it.”

Commercial pressures, lazy thinking and formulaic quick-fixes plague Indian entertainment. And yet somehow, as though almost by error, something special, something extraordinary in its ordinariness was allowed to thrive for a full five years. The commercial success of Tara should have been trailblazing for a new kind of soap opera, but instead it vanished from our consciousness — and the internet, leaving behind only a lingering memory of something courageous.

To any media producer aspiring to create a thoughtful drama that captures the state of being a woman in urban India, the prototype already exists. If you would like to visit it, hit me up, I can send you 21 crackling episodes.

Cigarettes smoking is injurious to health and it causes cancer. This is an informative article issued in public interest, and is not in any manner intended to advertise, promote and/or encourage smoking or the consumption of cigarettes and/or tobacco.

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