I remember waking up as a young girl to the dramatic sounds of Tamil soap operas and their exaggerated slow motion scenes. It was definitely not the way to wake up a six year old girl. My entire body would cringe. Why are these serial characters always so sad? Why do Tamil women, especially the older folks, never stop watching them? It must be the beautiful sarees advertised adorned by the cast members in the serials.
I never understood until I grew older and hit middle school when I found myself falling for this vicious trap, even though my guilty conscience told me not to. There was something about them which made me never want to miss an episode. One in particular I recall was called Chithi. This serial reflected the life of a strong, independent woman in her thirties. It opened the world of Tamil serials to me. At a point, I became addicted to them and just couldn’t get enough.
The main character in the serial, Chithi, went through the many challenges of raising a stepdaughter and dealing with societal judgments for the decisions she made. Radhika Sarathkumar, who played Chithi, continues to be active in Tamil serials today. In a day and age in which most Tamil movies portray heroines as eye candy who rarely play meaty roles, Tamil serials such as these are the diamonds in the rough. They provide women in households with something to relate to. They hold women in a position that is equal to men by allowing them to take on deeper roles as seen in Radhika’s serials even to this day.
I use Radhika’s serials as a prime example because of the female empowerment that exudes in them. But I understand that not all serials are this way. With that said, even in Radhika’s serials there are parts which have a touch of patriarchy in them. These serials can be never-ending, overly emotional, and have very similar story lines. However, it is important to realize that this may be a reflection of society and the reason why the targeted audience, Tamil women, watch it as often as they do.
After attending university, due to my increasing workload I stopped attending all my classical dance, violin and Tamil heritage classes. I found my ability to speak my mother tongue had decreased immensely even though I speak Tamil with my parents daily. Similar to Tamil movies, watching these serials on a daily basis really added a touch of Tamil that would have otherwise been omitted. It required little commitment; by spending fifteen to thirty minutes of my day, I was finding a way to preserve my ability to speak Tamil fluently in addition to speaking with my family.
Moving past women’s empowerment and language preservation, some of these Tamil serials also provided me with a scope of religion. For example, watching serials such as Ramayana, Shivam and Mahabharatham, I get to understand where my parents come from when they tell me about ways to become a better Hindu.
The morals engraved in them and the way they deliver life lessons to their viewers are infectious. Moreover, it is serene to see the epic cinematography in these shows. One in particular, Mahabharatham, is a serial based on one of the longest epic poems of human history. To see these serials during my leisure time allows me to truly get in touch with my roots.
I am not telling you to watch Tamil serials starting tomorrow. But I am expressing the advantages of being open-minded to it or to understand when others watch them. It is not as horrific as it may seem. It can be empowering to see a character go through similar feelings and to watch how they cope and handle various situations. This is especially helpful for older Tamil women who may be looking for someone to relate to where otherwise they may not be able to in Tamil movies.
It also gives second generation Tamil-Canadians who are Hindu, such as myself, alternative ways to learn the customs and values of religion through these serials based on the great Hindu epics.