HUM LOG celebrates its 30th birthday this year

Shoma A. Chatterji

Hum Log is the first commercially sponsored program in the history of Indian television. Hum Log’s popularity, and the increased sales of Maggi 2-Minute Noodles, the advertised product convinced many other advertisers to sponsor television programs. This led to an increase in locally produced television serials and encouraged the Indian film industry to become more involved in television production.

hum logIntroduction
Hum Log, the first mega soap on Indian television when satellite channels were yet to appear in our living rooms, celebrates its 30th birthday without much fanfare. The Y-generation of the country hardly knows anything about this soap that set a trend that could have consolidated itself to produce socially motivating and impacting serials but could not because of the blatant commercialization of the small screen in India.
Soon after the Asian games in 1982, the then-Information and Broadcasting Minister, Vasant Sathe, was struck by the use Mexico had made of soap operas to spread developmental messages. A team of experts was sent there to find out why this operation had been so successful. Following the Mexican trip, the idea for a soap opera called Hum Log (“People like Us”) was developed in collaboration with a well-known writer named Manohar Sham Joshi and a little-known feature film director, P. Kumar Vasudev.
Starting from the romantic yearnings of a modest young man from a poor family for the beautiful and spoilt daughter of a wealthy widower, it turned into the epic story of two families, with sub-plots involving brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents. The young man ends up working for the girl’s father who, it turns out later, is a big-time smuggler. The daughter marries a prince of doubtful antecedents who is later involved in getting her father murdered. The prince is finally unmasked and killed. Throughout the story, the young man’s devotion does not waver.i
Hum Log is the first commercially sponsored program in the history of Indian television. Hum Log’s popularity, and the increased sales of Maggi 2-Minute Noodles, the advertised product convinced many other advertisers to sponsor television programs. This led to an increase in locally produced television serials and encouraged the Indian film industry to become more involved in television production.

Audience Impact
The producers and the entire team were amazed with this tremendous audience response. They had never expected anything like this. The serial had no stars. Youngsters with no acting experience, just out of school played the two lead roles among the younger generation and came from amateur theatre in Delhi. Overnight, India’s first television stars were born. They were mobbed in the streets, overwhelmed with awards and accolades. It was as if people were yearning for situations and characters they could identify with.
The tremendous response to Hum Log opened the floodgates. Advertisers discovered the phenomenal reach of television and called for more serials of the same kind. Hopeful young film-makers offered to make them. The authorities, finding that advertising could painlessly provide the immense amount of capital required for large-scale expansion, threw open television to advertising, going against the principles and policies they had laid down earlier.
Production values improved rapidly. Commercials acquired a slick Western look and made a clever sales pitch. Many felt this was an open invitation to the disasters of consumerism. Advertisements are often aimed at children, who sing the commercials and demand the products television dangles before their eyes. Advertisers competed for prime advertising spots that went with the serials then shown seven days a week at 9 p.m., between the twenty-minute national news telecast in Hindi at 8.40 and in English at 9.30 p.m. This was Doordarshan and not the classy, lavishly mounted serials with high production values but low in content soaps and serials we see today on the satellite channels 24/7.
A kind of “serial madness” took over. Film producers, film stars, retired government officials and clerks with contacts in high places jumped onto the serial bandwagon. After the amazing run of Hum Log, hundreds of other serials were made and telecast, some stretching to more than 100 episodes. They featured an extraordinary variety of subjects. But few could sustain an audience as captive and as entertained as Hum Log, Buniyaad and Khandaan did. 
TV viewing audience increased from 30 million in 1983 to 80 million in 1987. Hum Log was telecast during this expansion, when television itself was new to many people. The Hum Log characters seemed real to the audience, and millions of viewers identified with them. Viewers sent more than 400,000 letters, many of them addressed to the characters rather than to the actors and actresses. Many of these viewers identified with one or more of the characters, and many commented on the social issues raised by the show.
hum log teamOn the streets of North India, shopkeepers and merchants closed theirs stores early to celebrate the wedding of Badki and Ashwini, two of India’s most popular television characters. What was the cause of this excitement? In an entertaining manner, Hum Log promoted equal status for women, family harmony, and smaller family size norms. An average of 50 million people watched each of the 159 episodes during the 17-month run in 1984 and 1985--the largest audience ever for a television program in India. The creation of Hum Log was stimulated by David Poindexter, president of Population Communications International, who arranged Mexican telenovela producer Miguel Sabido to conduct a seminar for Indian broadcasters on family planning soap operas.
To evaluate the impact of Hum Log, 1,170 viewers were surveyed after the series ended. Also, 500 letters from viewers were analyzed. Both indicated that the audience liked the show but that its educational impact was slight. Approximately 8% of letters implied some behavioral change. Some letters said Hum Log had led women to seek help from women’s welfare organizations. Also, enrollment of potential eye donors increased after the issue was mentioned on Hum Log. Changes in family planning behavior were not mentioned. Although these letter writers may differ from the average viewer, given the size of the viewing audience even a small percentage change meant a large number of people responded to the show. Hum Log was evaluated by researchers from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.

The Women in Hum Log
Hum Log attacked the dowry system, encouraged women to jointly decide how many children they would have, and promoted female equality in the workplace (Singhal and Rogers, “Television Soap Operas” 109-26). Hum Log was India’s first long-running soap opera for development produced by the government.
But whose ‘development’ was the serial aiming it? If it was the development of women, then it was a self-defeating exercise because the women portrayals were heavily tinged with the politics of patriarchy. Research on the effects of Hum Log on Indian television viewers indicated that ethnicity, geographical residence, gender, and Hindi language fluency were significant determinants of beliefs about gender equality.ii The subservience of women was at that time considered to be socially and culturally appropriate by many Indians, but not by all. One of the intended negative role models in Hum Log was Bhagwanti, the mother of the Hum Log family. Bhagwanti was a subservient, self-sacrificing, traditional Indian woman who was taken advantage of and abused because she always put the needs of others first. Hum Log’s producers intended that viewers would translate Bhagwanti’s suffering into a message for gender equality. However, 80 percent of the women who viewed Hum Log chose Bhagwanti as a positive role model.iii Many men who wrote letters in response to Hum Log indicated they felt that India needed more women like Bhagwanti. Thus, Bhagwanti’s depiction as a subservient woman was received by many Indians as a prosocial message rather than an antisocial one. The success of Hum Log led to the commercialization of Indian television and the proliferation of other advertiser-supported dramatic serials.
Even the marginal character, Sumitra Didi, the in-charge of the women’s centre who acts in and directs street plays focussing on the derogatory position of women in society, is reportedly a happily married woman in personal life (in the serial). Dr. Aparna, who takes Majhli under her care, is a successful doctor married to her professor husband. The tragic song of pathos that runs like an undercurrent speaks of her barren state highlighting that success in career is no substitute for motherhood for any woman.
The second daughter Majhli in Hum Log makes it bold to strike it out on her own, leave the home without the consent of the family, and go to Mumbai. Majhli’s problem was her over-riding ambition, her desperate desire to break free of the stagnant middle class milieu and the vicious circle of poverty, blind belief and out-dated values that threaten to annihilate young and old alike. Such ambition must, according to the show, necessarily incite nemesis – Majhli must be punished for thinking big if the country’s sense of values is to be sustained and celebrated. So, she had to come back, repentant and sorry for her ‘misdemeanors’ and a majority of the viewers was happy. The most important women characters could all be easily read in a negative light. Dadi, the patriarch Dadaji’s wife is shrewish, greedy, proud and an oppressive mother-in-law to Bhagwanti.  She does not accept the assertive quality in Lallu’s wife Usha Rani. But her husband is not only wise and selfless, but also often argues on behalf of his granddaughters and his daughter-in-law. The youngest son’s girlfriend Kamya is a rich and spoilt young brat. Badhki, the eldest of three daughters, is strong and steady, but her strength slips away soon after she marries her doctor lover. Chhutki comes to terms with her independence only when she steps out from her biological family.
hum log sceneThe women in Hum Log were starched and dyed in Khadi, in typical Gandhian style. The women in Hum Log could take up jobs or pursue careers, but such jobs could not contradict or conflict with their wife-mother-daughter role within the family. Kamya was the only woman in the serial who has the guts to leave her debauch husband. Yet, looked at in retrospect, despite her education and modern upbringing, she was gullible and stupid.
However, when Hum Log was re-telecast on the national channel after a decade-long gap, sponsored by Proctor and Gamble, and trimmed down to 52 from its original 159 episodes, it could no longer revive the earlier magic. Viewers had in the meantime been fed on a generous diet of serials with strong and courageous characters such as Stree, Udaan, Adhikar, Pukaar, and to this one may wish to name Draupadi in Mahabharat. Even the lay viewer was no longer prepared to brook the wet-rag, happy-to-be-knocked-around attitude of Majhli’s mother Bhagwanti, or the conformist and convenient ‘rebellions’ of Badki and Chhutki, and most importantly, the negative emphasis placed on Majhli’s character.

Television representations of women in the beginning extended the politics of gender by demonstrating again and again that women are essentially homebound and this specific quality of remaining homebound makes these women ideals to perpetuate and follow for real women viewing these serials and soaps. Satellite transmission has widely expaned the coverage of television in India. Television is a powerful tool. Its influence in shaping the Indian woman’s sense of herself and her future is more than significant. The media’s ability to convey mixed messages to women that fragment their identities makes it difficult for the women to become unified selves. Schizophrenic methods that the media has adopted to portray the roles of women in our society has just that effect on us: we are each an unorganized mixture of different women who have learned that we are always being watched.

The writer is a freelance journalist, author and film scholar based in Kolkata. She has authored 17 books and contributed to many edited compilations on cinema, family and gender.

i. Vasudev, Aruna and L.K. Malhotra: India-TV at the Crossroads – Indian Television Programmes – Fiction; UNESCO Courier, October 1992.
ii. Brown, William J., and Arvind Singhal. Prosocial Effects of Entertainment Television in India,  Asian Journal of Communication 1 (1990): 113-35.
iii. Singhal, Arvind, and Everett M. Rogers. Prosocial Television for Development in India. Public Communication Campaigns. Ed. Ronald E. Rice and Charles K. Atkin. 2nd ed. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989: 331-50.