More Spellbinding Soap Gathas

Down south, the mega serials become linguistically ­diverse, similarly fixating audiences for years on end

Epic Frames
A still from Saravanan Meenatchi (above); Radikaa in Vani Rani (left); a still from Parasparam

For more than five years, twin sisters Vani and Rani have occupied the drawing rooms of Tamil families. Their trials and tribulations, misunderstandings and patch-ups have gripped Tamils in an emotional bind. In Tamil Nadu, the ‘twins’ plot is almost reaching the inexhaustive ‘saas-bahu’ proportions of north Indian TV. Radikaa Sarathkumar, the main protagonist of Vani Rani—that features in the 9.30 to 10 pm slot on Sun TV, and which has now crossed 1,600 episodes—plays a twin in a mega serial for the fourth time. An accomplished actress from the big screen, and also the producer of all her serials, she has carried the ­rebounding roles with elan.

A veteran who has been associated with Sun TV for over 20 years, Radikaa says keeping the audience interested and invested in a ser­ial beyond 1,000 episodes is a lot of hard work. “Our creative team and my fellow artists have stuck together for years and sailed along smoothly. It’s a major achievement for a serial this long,” she says. “Usually, you find important artistes dropping off midway through, but I’ve been lucky on this count.”

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Sun TV is as big as it gets in the Indian tel­evision scene. The Broadcast Audience Research Council lists it as the channel with the highest viewership in India! And the nearly dozen serials it has aired, that have completed the 1,000-episode mark, help ret­ain the loyal viewer base. “TV serials form the backbone of Sun TV’s success. They’re the reason it has succeeded to keep so many viewers locked to the channel’s screen,” says Subha Venkat, a writer and creative cons­ultant based in Chennai. “The channel runs 18 serials on a daily basis, with the mega ser­ials commanding the majority of loyal followers. Most of these happen to be heroine-driven family dramas, where the antagonist’s role is also often played by women. This formula has somehow struck a chord with women viewers all over the state,” adds Sudha.

But the largely unchanging mega-serial formula has required tweaking too, so that newer generations of viewers don’t lose int­erest. Those endless frames of conspiracy and emotional turmoil are therefore being peppered with other zones of relief. “Younger audiences prefer romance, office-based environments and other, more youthful interludes in serials. We have to constantly reinvent if the mood becomes too heavy and the indoors become too monotonous. So the serial shows the families having fun to lighten the mood. Travelling to a hill resort, for instance,” says Emmanuel Prince, the creative director of the production company Saregama, whose serial, Valli, has crossed 1,000 episodes on Sun TV.

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Romance is that other telly monolith. Its success on Tamil TV can be gauged from the popularity of Saravanan Meenatchi, a romantic mega serial on Vijay TV that is into its third season, touching nearly 1,800 episodes, the highest for any Tamil show. The real life romance between the lead pair, Senthil and Sreeja, culminating in their marriage, earned it more eyeballs and devotion. “The demand for the serial grew by so much that we had to continue each season with a new lead pair. This is probably one mega serial with the most youthful audience,” says a producer with Vijay TV.

Producers throw in bonus surprises at times to add much-needed zing for loyal, long-term viewers. For its thousandth episode, the crew of Naadhaswaram on Sun TV went for the historic long take—telecasting the entire 20 minutes live with a single unedited shot. Similarly, Radikaa took her Vani Rani team to Australia to shoot a dozen episodes there in collaboration with Tourism Australia in 2016.

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Even Malayalam serials, which normally wrap up in 300 to 500 episodes, are now happily spilling beyond the 1,000 mark. Actor Vivek Gopan of Parasparam, the Malayalam serial running on Asianet, attributes this to viewer support. “Unless the audience accepts it, no channel can extend a serial’s life. Parasparam has crossed 1,500 episodes enti­rely due to viewer support,” he says.

Althahir Rashee, who produces the Malayalam serial Karuthamuthu, credits the scriptwriters’ skill for a TV show’s longevity. “Karutham­u­thu started as a story of a dark-skinned woman—Bala­mol, but it became so popular that we extended it to her third generation. Now, it’s well past 1,000 episodes. If the TRP had dropped, the channel would not have given this space to us,” he says.

But when it comes to sheer mass consumption of entertainment, it is difficult to beat the Telugu audience. ETV alone can boast of more than a dozen mega serials that have crossed the 1,000-episode mark. ETV’s Abhishekam, originally produced by the late Dasari Naryanan Rao, is being telecast even now. It has crossed 3,000 episodes.

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A while back, Hindi serials dubbed into Tamil invaded the TV scene down south. Their opulent backdrops and attractive costumes and makeup seemed to pose a challenge to many Tamil serials, luring many viewers away from their homemade dramas. This made the threatened Tamil TV producers step up on the gas. “Tamil serials have now upped their production values. We have set designers, costumers and make-up men just like in the movies. Some ser­ial producers even use DI (Digital Interme­diate) for impr­oved output,” explains Prince.

Ramm Kumar, a market researcher, says the success of serials in south Indian languages compared to other states is because more households in these states have televisions. “When TV penetration is high the content will also be rich and varied,” says Kumar. “The Hindi audience would form the larger bloc because of the size and geographical spread of Hindi speakers, but TV viewers in south India are known to be bigger spenders. So serials here can readily find ­advertisers to bankroll the production costs and the slot fee they have to pay to ­channels,” he adds.

***

Tamil

Saravanan Meenatchi

Vani Rani

Valli

Malayalam

Parasparam

Karuthamuthu

Kannada

Lakshmi Baaramma

Puttagowri Maduve

Agnisakshi

Telugu

Abhishekam

Adade Aadharam

Manasu Mamata

Swathi Chinukulu

Muddha Mandaram


By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai

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