Some people have mentioned in the past that they’re puzzled by my Ekta Mata fascination. To these people I say: go forth my children and gaze upon the marvel that is her new TV soap, Bairi Piya.
It takes real talent in the cojones area, after all, to take an oft-repeated criticism of your company’s productions – to wit, the lack of any resemblance to reality as we know it – and twist it to your satisfaction to the point where it is both a plausible answer to your fiercest critics and a giant one finger salute to their sensibilities.
Featuring a “ripped from the headlines” plot, Bairi Piya is set in rural Maharashtra where the farmers have it bad: they’re not just battling Mother Nature for her doubtful bounty but most of them are deep in the clutches of the local moneylender who actively encourages them to not only get into debt but to pledge their comely young daughters if they don’t have anything of value to hock. Fathers desperate for money figure this is an acceptable gamble – after all, God is great, the crop will soon be in and what can the moneylender possibly want with their daughters?
As you can imagine, this is not a situation that is going to end well. When a swarm of locusts (?) destroys the year’s crops, more than one family lives to rue the day they made a deal with the devilish moneylender. In the aftermath, one farmer copies real life farmers of that region and kills himself and his entire family because they have lost everything. Another farmer, more pertinent to our story, gets to live because their daughter “pays off” the debt.
Welcome to the main plot point.
The moneylender, you see, is not working for himself. He’s the right-hand man of the local landowner, Thakur Digvijay Singh, a charismatic sociopath. Despot of all he surveys, one of his more charming customs is the local variant of droit de signeur (“entitled hereditary serial rapist” works just as well in modern parlance).
Indeed, Digvijay is the kind of lovely fellow who sincerely views his relations with the young village women who (we’re led to believe) routinely end up in his bed as a distasteful necessity: they need their families’ debts forgiven and he has his own needs that require discretion (thanks to the old devoted ball and chain at home who’s blissfully unaware of her husband’s rape-fabulous lifestyle).
Unfortunately for his well-reasoned comfy set-up, his latest “partner” is best friends with a girl called Amoli. She doesn’t know what happens to all these girls who get carted off by the moneylender, and has no idea that Digvijay is the puppetmaster, but knows she isn’t going to sit idly by and watch as her BFF gets kidnapped and shipped off to face an unknown fate. While everyone else is wringing their hands and her friend is getting raped, she manages to send Digvijay’s wife to the rescue (albeit after the fact) and gets her back home.
Digvijay is not a happy camper. His wife is now increasingly nosy, he’s out of a playmate, and a despised poor person is at the root of all this new evil in his life. He will have his revenge! But wait! He gets even more unhappy when he gets a good look at his unlikely nemesis.
Amoli (Supriya Kumari) is absolutely fetching with giant gray eyes that frequently make her resemble a startled kitten. Digvijay, twisted alpha male as he is, can barely stop himself from drooling at first sight. Oh no! How can Amoli possibly save herself?
Sounds like your average old-fashioned potboiler pitting good against evil, doesn’t it? Rape bad, power evil, truth good, woman virtuous, etc?
Bairi Piya‘s greatest liberty with the formula lies in its casting choice of Digvijay. Played by Sharad Kelkar, a former male model, Digvijay is presented as a flawed hero figure. That’s right, I said “a flawed hero figure”. Being rape-inclined is a flaw, didn’t you know?
Unlike your usual shortcode for evil in Indian productions, Digvijay is not an unattractive man. Nor does he lick his lips, indulge in double entendre, speak in childish rhyme, dress in lame or say “muahahaha” when he laughs. And unlike his possible counterparts in real life (about which opinion is mixed), he is not short, paunchy, with a double chin and dowdy clothes a size too big for him. On the contrary, he is tall, appears to be in excellent shape, dresses well, and manages to accomplish his evilness with nothing more overtly sinister than a steely glare. Even his theme music when he’s thinking rapetastic thoughts about poor virginal Amoli sounds romantic rather than the usual crash-boom-gong-DOOM music that typically accompanies all evil-doers in the Ekta Mata universe.
Amoli, he explains to his disgusted (without being willing in any shape or form to take a stand about it) friend, is not your usual run of rape victim. Her refusal to lie down and think of her family’s barren acres at his command have somehow converted her into his obsession. And there are a couple of things that Bollywood has taught us about men who obsess over women:
1) It’s lurve.
2) It’s all her fault.
3) Her love will save him if only the stupid, wicked girl could recognize that all-important truth.
Granted, Bairi Piya doesn’t actually make this case in so many words. What it does, however, is subtly play on the audience’s past familiarity with similar storylines. As the enthusiastic reaction to the show at its official (?) forum testifies, it’s already managed to gather a dedicated following that recognizes that Digvijay is a vile serial rapist who raped Amoli’s best friend right before her wedding – and are now waiting to see him “reform” through love of her.
But the show does explicitly draw comparisons between three different generations of women.
Digvijay’s mother is the steely-spined aristocratic woman of a by-gone who openly hints at a less than stellar married life when she sees her son set his sights on Amoli. Her primary concern, she makes clear, is not Amoli’s well-being but rather that her son has had the temerity to let his libido make the decisions to the point where his wife, her beloved daughter-in-law, might actually find out the truth of his, um, alternate lifestyle. At least his late lamented father had the decency to conduct his raping out of the sight of his family.
Amoli’s mother is the hapless farmer’s wife who tries her best to stick up for her daughter but when confronted with the true might of the Thakur’s rule, meekly bends down and counsels her daughter to accept her would-be rapist’s plans for a “marriage”. At least it’d be respectable rape, carried out on a proper marital bed with the promise of much money and jewelry to follow. Good times!
In the middle is Digvijay’s wife, the (allegedly) emotionally fragile Urmila, who thinks her husband is spun out of sugar and rainbows. Occasionally she attempts to think for herself and accidentally does some good, at which point Digvijay gets mighty upset and gently suggests that she is making life difficult for him with all this thinking business. So she begs his pardon and cooks him lunch. Which he doesn’t eat because he’s too busy fantasizing over Amoli. Interestingly though, her mother-in-law frequently reiterates that she won’t stand for her husband’s extra-marital shenanigans if she ever found out. Keeping in mind my 30-something friends, wait until she finds out that his favorite pick-up line is “I rape you now”, is what I think.
And last but certainly not least, is Amoli and her BFF. The youngest characters, they’re apparently also the only ones who can notice that Digvijay isn’t exactly a prize in the marital department. The proposed marriage sounds a great deal like legalized sex slavery to Amoli and she is not hoodwinked by all the fancy glitter he promises to throw on the walls of her cell. And you know what? She would be correct! Which is a first for anyone on this show!
Now some would argue that this is a great deal of thought over nothing – I mean, it’s an Ekta Mata soap, talk about a tempest in a teapot. But when a rape (or, if you prefer an erotic lit euphemism, “non consent”) fantasy is sold as primetime viewing to women across India, I feel it deserves a commemoration of some sort, wouldn’t you?