FEBRUARY 1, 2004
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Q&A Frank Pallone
US's best-known Congressman in India airs his views on his country's outsourcing angst—and on India's trade prospects.

India's Education Edge
Can India sell itself as a globally competitive source of education? Given the cost differences, it's not an absurd question.

More Net Specials
Business Today,  January 18, 2004
The Crying Game
Jassi, Tulsi, Simran, Malini... they're all different faces that tell the same story: The never-ending Indian weepy, which chronicles, amongst many things, the numerous upheavals in the life of the Indian woman, and which has brought vermilion, the mangalsutra, even braces back into fashion.
NAME: Jasmeet Walia (alias Jassi)
AGE: 25
SERIAL: Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin
AVERAGE TRP*: 4.53 6.06 5.08
USP: Ordinary looks, braces, pink umbrella, innocent but a sharp mind
BRANDS ENDORSED: Rejected Dabur Chyavanprash offer. Sony to retail mugs, pencil boxes, friendship bands, pink umbrellas at top stores with her name embossed on them. Over 100,000 users have downloaded the Jassi ringtone

It's a bitter December morning in the capital, but that hasn't deterred hundreds of Delhiites from congregating at Ansal Plaza in South Delhi. Now these Delhiites aren't exactly behaving the way normal Delhiites (yes, they do exist) would. You see, they've turned hysterical, and there's plenty of shouting, screaming, and stomping of the feet-the kind of treatment usually reserved for a matinee idol or a rock star or, since we're in the Capital, perhaps a voluble politician. But the 25-year-old who is the reason for this temporary bout of insanity isn't any of these. She's gawky. She's ugly. She's a klutz. But she's also television's freshest, and hottest face, Jasmeet Walia, aka Jassi. When she bursts into a Sat Sri Akaal Dilli, the mob, most of whose idea of excitement in saner times begins and ends with a Nirula's ice cream, goes so berserk that Jassi's six bodyguards are forced to intervene, and end the mania prematurely.

NAME: Tulsi Virani
AGE: 45
SERIAL: Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi
AVERAGE TRP*: 14.07 18.68 14.05
USP: Sindoor, mangalsutra, garish saris, and loads of tears
BRANDS ENDORSED: Milton, Stayfree Secure, Keo Karpin, Royal Palms and the Bharatiya Janata Party

It isn't just Delhi that's given in to Jassi's charms. Her four-times-a-week half-hour serial on Sony Entertainment Television is a hit nationwide. That's why Jassi's next stop is Kolkata where she will be assured of a similar (perhaps slightly saner) reception. Just four months after launch on September 1, Jassi is pulling in television rating points (TRPs) of six amongst adult Hindi-speaking audiences. "The equity of the channel has always been variety, youthfulness, and innovativeness. And Jassi represents all these aspects," exults Sunil Lulla, Executive Vice President, Sony Entertainment Television. For good effect, Mona Singh, the actress who plays Jassi, says she's forgotten her real name.

Brand Tulsi

As perhaps would have the Tulsis, Parvatis, and Avantikas of the great Indian weepy, who've all done their bit to bring vermilion and the mangalsutra back into fashion. To be sure, Jassi isn't the only woman scoring big points on the idiot box. The saas and bahus of the "K" weepies (Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi et al) have fan clubs of their own, and are pursued more aggressively by advertisers than by their small-screen paramours. Tulsi, the sometimes saas, sometimes bahu protagonist of KSBKBT for instance endorses not just brands like Milton, Stayfree Secure, Keo Karpin and Royal Palms, but also the Bharatiya Janata Party. "The Indian woman was a brand for TV in 2003. She will also be a brand for 2004," declares Smriti Z. Iraani, who plays Tulsi.

NAME: Dr. Simran Mathur
AGE: 36
PROFESSION: Gynaecologist
SERIAL: Astitva: Ek Prem Kahani
AVERAGE TRP*: 1.5 2.65 1.53
APPEAL: Urban, working women
USP: Modern, liberated outlook. Marries, then divorces a man 10 years her junior
BRANDS ENDORSED: Modelled for Danabhai Jewellers, Pond's Dream Flower Talc, Siyaram, Pepsi. But hasn't endorsed a brand as Dr. Simran

Iraani surely knows her onions. Doubtless it's the woman-oriented weepie that's captured the imagination of Indian television audiences. And it's not just wannabe Tulsis and Jassis who are in the gallery. Rather, it's the entire family that sits back during prime time to watch its favourite family soap, be it on Sony or Star or Sahara or Zee. As Sameer Nair, Chief Operating Officer, Star India, points out: "So long as Indian homes remain predominantly single-TV homes, family drama-or kitchen-politics-oriented serials-will continue to be popular since the entire family sits down to watch television together at prime time."

"Television scales up the dimension of domestic squabble faced by most Indian women by making it a life or death situation," rationalises Santosh Desai, President, McCann Erickson India. "The markings on the head of the female characters, the music, the heroic, epic-like depiction magnify the domestic squabble into a battlefield."

NAME: Avantika
AGE: 27
SERIAL: Avantika
TV CHANNEL: Alpha Marathi
AVERAGE TRP*: 1.1 5.16 5.85
APPEAL: Across Marathi homes
USP: Boldness. Walks out of marriage when she learns husband has had a long-standing physical relationship with another woman living in same house.
BRANDS ENDORSED: Done ads for Vicco, Johnson & Johnson, Ghadhi detergent, Prestige. But hasn't endorsed a brand as Avantika

So it's time for sitcoms, myths, legends, reality shows and all the rest to make way for the woman-at-the-core family soap on the prime band. At least that's what Sahara, which splashed the metros last fortnight with hoardings screaming "Malini Iyer aa rahee hai (Malini Iyer is coming)", believes. A week later the same hoardings revealed that Malini Iyer is none other than yesterday's queen of the silver screen, Sridevi.

The Viewer's Not Stupid

But it isn't as if the audience is in the mood to lap up any family soap that's thrown at it. Sahara is counting on Malini Iyer-due for launch on January 19-bringing in the rating points, something that Karisma Kapur couldn't do with her eponymous serial. As Nair of Star TV points out: "You cannot create a television icon by raising hype around her. A character, like Tulsi, becomes a hit and an icon only if the story is gripping." Karisma by that logic obviously was not.

The formula, you have to agree, isn't rocket science. What's needed are dollops of tears, a few moral and social missives, goodie-goodie bahus versus scheming shrews and sporadic upheavals in the lives of the protagonists-the last an imperative when ratings are south bound. Consider the Marathi serial Avantika, on Zee's Alpha Marathi, whose TRPs oscillate between four and 14 in Maharashtra. "Every time there is an upheaval in the protagonist Avantika's life, the TRP shoots up," chuckles Nitin Vaidya, Channel Head, Alpha Marathi. "At the end of the day it's pure and simple business," says Iraani, who plays Tulsi in KSBKBT, who might well have shattered a few hitherto-cherished illusions with that statement.

NAME: Annamalai
AGE: Around 40
SERIAL: Annamalai
AVERAGE TRP*: 0.11 3.28
APPEAL: Across Tamil homes
USP: Tears and melodrama. The story of a wronged mother of four who becomes the publisher of an investigative publication

The channels, meantime, are busy milking the popularity of their lead women. Jassi, for instance, has over 3,000 pals enrolled to the Jassi fan club that Sony created on its website. Till date, over 100,000 fans have downloaded the Jassi ringtone. Sony will soon sell umbrellas, mugs, friendship bands and pencil boxes at leading merchandise stores across the country with Jassi embossed on them.

NAME: Malini Iyer
AGE: Not available
PROFESSION: housewife
SERIAL: Malini Iyer
AVERAGE TRP*: Serial to be launched on January 19.
USP: Fun and frolic. The story of a Chennai-based girl who doesn't lose her South Indian touch after being married into a North Indian family settled in Mumbai
BRANDS ENDORSED: Not applicable

To be sure, it's one programme (Jassi) in the 9.30-10 p.m. slot that has gone a long way in turning around Sony's fortunes. From a share of 8.2 per cent in the pre-Jassi days, Sony's share was up to over 31 per cent in the ninth to 12th week of the telecast of Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin. What's more, Jassi's success has spilled over to other prime time (8-11 p.m.) programmes as well. In prime time (8 to 11 p.m.), Sony's marketshare has increased from 14.9 per cent during April to June 2003 to 20.3 per cent in August to November 2003. This has also resulted in a 30-40 per cent increase in the channel's advertising revenue. Jassi incidentally has 12 sponsors.

Despite all the brouhaha around Jassi, it just doesn't seem to have the wheels to derail Star's K wagon. The ratings of Kyunki... haven't slipped below 10 in the past four years, and Tulsi has emerged unscathed despite the death of her husband (who was later resurrected on popular demand), a memory loss, a 20-year leap (of faith?), and a plethora of upheavals inflicted on her week after week. Call her Tulsi, or Jassi, or Malini, or Avantika, or Simran or by any other name, the Indian woman in the Indian weepie in the Indian television-viewing household is here to stay.


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