India's popular soap operas become a national soapbox

Some story lines include health information and appeals for tsunami victims.

Tune in to one of India's most popular soap operas, and the stars occasionally sound more like activists than actors. A servant enters the room, but her employer knows that something is wrong.

"I need to take my son to the hospital," the servant says, her eyes welling with tears as she describes his diarrhea symptoms. "He is getting worse."

Immediately the employer looks into the camera - cue the dramatic music - and chooses a course of action. She gathers the servant and the ailing son and rushes them to the doctor, who dutifully states what global health groups say is an effective remedy for fighting the ailment: "What the child really needs is oral rehydration salts to help him retain water."

No, this is not a commercial break. It's the weepy but influential world of India's most popular soap opera, "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi." While "Kyunki" is usually a standard soap opera of family squabbles and female aspirations, the show is among a growing number that use their influence as an occasional platform to educate viewers, most of them middle-class women and housewives, about a variety of social causes, from treating diarrhea to the rights of women and the importance of donating to tsunami victims.

"Our show is one of the most watched on Indian television, and we are aware that the Hindi-speaking belt of northern India has the highest number of deaths due to diarrhea," says Smriti Irani, who plays the main character on "Kyunki," a tough-as-nails daughter-in-law named Tulsi. So the staff of "Kyunki," with the advice of the World Health Organization and the US Agency for International Development, decided "the most efficient tool to encourage the use of ORS [oral rehydration salts] and to provide a platform for getting the message across was to write it into our script."

It is hard to quantify just how many Indians watch a show like "Kyunki" (whose full title means "because the mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law.) In much of rural India, the only thing available is Doordarshan, the state-run television station that sticks to a diet of folk music, news shows, and travelogues. But in metro areas, where the population grows each year, cable is the only thing anybody watches. Starting around 8 p.m., 6 of 10 households are tuned into soaps.

Turning to night-time soap operas to project a public-health message may seem an act of genius, or desperation. But the problem of childhood diarrhea is so severe in India - at 550,000 deaths per year, it is the second-leading cause of death for children under the age of 5 - that every avenue for getting the word out is fair game.

"I feel we're a good platform to get a message across," says Monika Bhattacharya, a marketing executive at Star Plus, the channel that carries "Kyunki." "When you show a documentary or a commercial about AIDS, people just tune it out, but we've done a program about ORS before on 'Kyunki,' and people feel like they are watching a part of the story. They respond to it much better."

The appeal of soaps, Indian fans say, comes from the fact that they peek behind the curtains into the daily problems of the typical - OK, perhaps not-so-typical - Indian joint family. And joint families - where grandparents, two or more sets of married couples, and grandchildren live under one roof - gives the soap operas lots of jealous, infighting, backstabbing material to work with.

"Kyunki" sets the dysfunctional standard that most other soaps try to match. The lead character, Tulsi, played by Smriti Irani, is the perfect daughter-in-law: honest, kind, deferential, and always misunderstood by the other members of her family. Her only ally is her mother-in-law.

If Tulsi is popular among her viewers - most of them Indian housewives themselves - it may be because she has a penchant for taking strong, principled, even violent, stands. For Ms. Irani, playing India's best fictional daughter-in-law comes with a lot of responsibility.

"I do things on TV, knowing that I influence a lot of young women, and I am aware of that responsibility," she says. "People don't appreciate it if you use the emotional bonds they make to characters to influence them in some commercial way. But it's not risky when you're trying to spread the message that has some public benefit."

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