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The Great Indian Serial

Prior to the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, the only television channel in the country was the state-run Doordarshan. When the airwaves opened to private investment, the number of television stations broadcasting in India exploded. In addition, the introduction of satellite television at around the same time brought television to remote and hilly areas that would have been difficult to serve by conventional transmitters.

Today, the amount of material produced for Indian television is staggering. I tend not to be particularly interested in television (I prefer the narrative framework of movies), but I can’t help being intrigued by a genre of show that has no direct analog on American TV: the Indian serial. Like American soap operas, Indian serials broadcast new episodes each day of the week. Unlike soap operas, though, many Indian serials enjoy mainstream popularity; the most popular are broadcast at prime-time. Furthermore, the serial format in India does not constrain shows to a particular genre. Serials may be sitcoms, historical dramas, or even retellings of the Hindu myths.

Last summer, when I was studying Hindi in Jaipur, the family that I stayed with had a TV in their dining room, which they enjoyed watching at mealtimes. The grandmother’s favorite show was Devon ke Dev…Mahadev (Lord of Lords…Mahadev), which featured effects-heavy reenactments of the exploits of Shiva, as recorded in the Shiv Purana. For the other members of the family, the clear favorite was Taarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashma (Taarak Mehta’s Upside-down Glasses), about a group of diverse, if stereotyped, Indians living in a planned housing development in Mumbai. The episodes follow the antics and escapades of a large ensemble cast, including the title character Taarak Mehta, modeled after a real-life Gujarati journalist whose newspaper column inspired the show’s name. Several storylines run in parallel during an episode, sometimes merging at the end of an episode or block of episodes. The show began in 2008 and will air its 1500th episode this month.

A characteristic of Taarak Mehta and the other serials I have seen is the dilation of time. (This is also the case with American soap operas.) Nothing happens fast on the shows. A storyline about a single evening may fill up two weeks’ worth of episodes. The runtime of each episode is always liberally padded. Each episode begins with a recap of the previous episode, and ends with a preview of the episode airing tomorrow. Each commercial break is also preceded by a preview of the best one-liners coming up brek ke bad (after the break). Within the episode, footage from the show’s ever-growing corpus of past episodes appears as flashbacks. Much of the running time of an episode is also taken up by reaction shots. If a scene has ten characters in it, and one of them says something shocking, the reactions of the other nine characters are shown in close-up, oftentimes accompanied with a sound effect such as a bell or a trumpet. This is part of the distinctive style of serials, and it conveniently allows the producers to save on writing and set-up costs.

This episode, which aired last week, gets off to a quick start with reaction shots and sound effects when some of the cast’s children try to apply for a Rs. 50,000 loan:

Given the diffuse nature of the storytelling of Taarak Mehta and other serials, it is tempting to compare these shows with the ancient Indian epics such as the Mahabharata, which had sprawling narratives that featured stories within stories. Such a comparison may not be out of place. But I also want to point out that the Indian serial is a wholly modern form of storytelling as well. Although it may draw on a millenia-old Indian storytelling tradition, it also depends on modern technologies for its creation and dissemination—video cameras, satellite television, and even YouTube.

Batman Goes to India

Batman gets a lift after his imprisonment, in a deleted scene from The Dark Knight Rises.

Batman gets a lift after his imprisonment, in a deleted scene from The Dark Knight Rises.

About midway through last year’s summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises, Batman (the superhero alter-ego of Bruce Wayne) confronts Bane, a demagogue supervillian who has begun to terrorize the populace of Gotham (New York City by another name). Bane and his thugs defeat Batman, strip him of his superhero costume and send him to imprisonment in a far-away land.

Up to this point, the storyline and production design of The Dark Knight Rises have been grittily realistic (ignoring, for the moment, some questionable physics). Many of the exterior scenes in the film were shot on location in New York and other American cities. But during the sequence of Batman’s imprisonment, the tone of the movie changes considerably. Bruce Wayne and a band of sullen fellow-inmates are imprisoned in the bottom of a pit. Although the dialogue gives no geographical specifics, the prison seems to be in an exotic and mysterious land. The prisoners’ clothing appears to be coarse homespun cotton or wool, and they attempt to escape from the pit with the help of a thick hemp rope. The prison, wherever it is, seems to be in a place bypassed by the technological changes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I don’t think I will be giving away much of the plot by revealing that Bruce Wayne does not spend the rest of the movie trapped, Joseph-style, in the bottom of a pit. Instead, he heroically ascends the wall of the pit, makes a leap of faith, and climbs out to daylight and freedom. Upon emerging from the pit, he walks in front of a hilltop castle that identifies exactly where he has been imprisoned. The castle, Meherangarh Fort, is built in the unmistakable Rajput style, which is native to the state of Rajasthan in western India.

Amber Fort, a Rajput palace outside of Jaipur.

Amber Fort, a Rajput palace outside of Jaipur.

Ramchandra Temple in Jaipur. The spreading roof in the top center of the picture is a motif adopted from the architecture of Bengal.

Ramchandra Temple in Jaipur. The spreading roof in the top center of the picture is a motif adopted from the architecture of Bengal.

In their heyday, the Rajputs were a military aristocracy that ruled many small rival states in what is now Rajasthan. The political structure of Rajput country was similar to western Europe in the Middle Ages. The Rajputs built innumerable forts on hilltops and plains in Rajasthan; the fort that Bruce Wayne was imprisoned nearby is one of them. Hallmarks of the Rajput architectural style include scalloped arches, domes, domelets known as chattris, wide and curved roofs, and rich ornamentation in some cases. Although the Rajput style used some of the same motifs as Mughal architecture, Rajput plans tended to be more complex and less regimentedly logical than their Mughal counterparts.1

Rich ornamentation in the Peacock Gate of the City Palace in Jaipur.

Rich ornamentation in the Peacock Gate of the City Palace in Jaipur.

Rambagh Palace, an example of Rajput architecture from the early twentieth century.

Rambagh Palace, an example of Rajput architecture from the early twentieth century.

There may still be places in the world, like Bruce Wayne’s prison, that are untouched by the modern age—places with no synthetic fibers, electricity, concrete, motorable roads, motor vehicles, and Coca-Cola. But Rajasthan is definitely not such a place. I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between the movie Rajasthan and the real place while watching The Dark Knight Rises. To be precise, I was watching Batman Teen (Batman Three), the Hindi dubbed version; I was watching it in an air-conditioned, digital projection theater in Jaipur, 180 miles away from Jodhpur and Batman’s prison.

  1. Philip Davies, The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India: Islamic, Rajput, European (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 323. []

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