Women rule the roost in Malayalam TV marked by top billing for highly paid actresses and their legions of loyal and hard-to-please female fans.

Malayalam television actress Asha Sarath, 34, changes 15 saris in a single day's shoot. She dons make-up at 5 a.m. and washes it off only at 11 p.m. In seven days she shoots for a whole month's episodes, which means she enacts around 14 scenes every day at different locations. On the eighth day, Asha flies back to Dubai, where her family and dancing school await her.

Another popular soap queen, Sona Nair, 35, works in two serials. She has a 20-day monthly schedule with occasional breaks, because, unlike Asha, she lives in Thiruvananthapuram, the television capital of Kerala.

There's also teen star Shaalin, who works on five consecutive days twice a month, while cramming for her schoolwork in between.

This trio is the toast of the Malayalam television industry today. All three are State award winners and have great movie offers too — in fact, two are already straddling both mediums quite successfully. But despite the gruelling TV work schedule, the typecast roles and the social stigma attached to the profession, none of them wants to quit the small screen.

Why?

Because when it comes to entertainment, the average Malayali woman is a complete TV buff who loves her soaps and is extremely loyal to the women stars. Of course, besides this irresistible lure of instant stardom, the actresses also have plum roles and hefty paycheques at their disposal.

Higher pay for the actress

Sample this: Women artistes in leading roles command more than Rs 10,000 a day; even a newcomer gets Rs 2,000 a day compared to the male stars, who, irrespective of the role, get Rs 6,000. It's only the male film stars — making the occasional TV appearance — who get around the same amount as a leading lady. A veteran TV producer, who has many hit soaps to his credit, says, “Women can make a comfortable income from TV. And yes, they are paid more than the men.”

The obvious reason for this is that all Malayalam soaps are family-based and, therefore, women characters and their relationships are central to the plot. Moreover, all viewership surveys show that it's largely the middle- and lower-middle class Malayali women, aged between 35 and 50 years, who are avid TV watchers. But they are extremely hard to win over. Says the producer: “She (the Malayali woman viewer) is very critical and difficult to please. Good acting is a must. But the set décor also has to be impeccable and the characters need to have an excellent taste in clothes. It is these women who ensure the top slots for our actresses in the industry.”

Gruelling schedules

Recalling her salad days in the industry, Sona says, “At that time, I was working all 30 days of the month because I was committed to around five serials. But now, as an accomplished actress with 20 years of experience, I can pick and choose my roles.”

Of course, being selective comes at a price. Sona has a tough schedule as most producers pack in a lot of work on her allotted days because she charges a hefty daily fee. “I enjoy acting and I am now used to the tight schedules. But the only reason I am willing to do this is because of the money,” she says.

Fellow actor Asha, who has returned to TV after a 15-year hiatus, too is a huge hit with the audiences and can command her price. Her role as a sinister mother in Kumkumapoovu has many Malayali women cringing in disgust, but they always come back for more. For her, “staying away from home for the seven days is not easy”, but being a professional career woman she takes it in her stride.

Of course, there are adjustments involved. Married to a businessman who is a frequent traveller as well, Asha has to juggle her schedule in a way that ensures her husband is home to care for their two daughters when she is in India to shoot. She is one of the highest-paid actresses today but insists her expenses run higher. “The producer pays for my tickets on the budget airline but I travel Business Class with my own money.” Also, she gets plenty of feedback on her wardrobe from her female fans and prefers to buy her own saris and accessories.

Another darling of the audience is young Shaalin, who stars in the 500-episode popular teen drama Autograph. In fact, no role has got this 14-year-old as many accolades as the vamp she plays in this serial. Today, although Shaalin can easily quit television for a film career, she hopes her role in Autograph can continue for another two years at least. Her finances are handled by her mother, but she knows she “earns a lot”.

Enduring stigmas

While the money these women earn is certainly empowering, TV actresses have to contend with some negative issues that refuse to go away — such as the plot of their soaps. Media commentator and Assistant Professor of English at Calicut University, Dr Janaky points to the pitfalls of the profession: First, serial actresses in Kerala have to contend with the stigma of being ‘loose' women.

“Further, their positions are not secure. There have been many instances of the lead being replaced overnight by a fresh face. It only takes the viewer a week or so to adjust to the change. Therefore, they are dispensable,” she says.

Of late, there has been another challenge looming. The days when fiction television ruled the hearts and minds of people are over. As another prominent industry producer puts it, “We are competing with reality shows today, especially in terms of creating drama. After extensive research we have come up with some fresh themes.” While the stories still revolve around the home and hearth, the roles have been re-invented. For instance, in Paarijatham, instead of the usual frumpy, white-haired mother-in-law, audiences saw a slim and svelte elderly woman with sharp business acumen. Then, in another departure from the norm, Asha's Kumkumapoovu only stars newcomers, while Autograph is based on teenage angst, a theme the average Malayali is not accustomed to.

But the “hit factor”, according to Janaky, is still the sensitive depictions of broken homes, puppy love, peer pressure and the like. “It is also encouraging to know that apart from the pay packet, fresh faces are getting to do serious acting,” she adds.

Evergreen soaps

Sona, however, has her reservations about youngsters seriously pursuing a TV career. “Today, acting for youngsters is like a stop-gap between studies and an advantageous marriage proposal,” she says, adding that it is the quickest route to fame and easy money for them, unlike for artistes like her who depend on it for bread and butter.

But even for Sona, TV is just a means to make money and not for creative satisfaction. “Movies make the artiste in me happy. Even a minor but strong character in a veteran director's film is a bonus because serials do not give me that kind of fulfilment.” Why is that?

Because the script is not thorough — an impossible feat considering the years that certain soaps stretch for; the dialogues can also be changed on the spur; and acting usually “flows mechanically”.

Says Janaky, “Viewers may change their expectations and reality shows may create a face-off between the two genres... But serials will never disappear or go out of fashion.” After all, what will audiences do without the drama that only TV sagas can bring into their lives?

© Women's Feature Service

(This article was published on June 23, 2011)
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