Portrayal of the Elderly on Indian TV Soap Operas

Dr. Kaifia Ancer Laskar*
Suneeta Sarkar**


The ubiquitous media is an all pervasive force. This study aims to bring out the various ways of the representation of different groups on television. Media portrays various minority groups, especially the elderly, unequally. This study tries to focus on the design of the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of the elderly by looking at the codes followed by two select India soap operas.


Television, Culture and Society

The ubiquity of television and the intricate ways it is woven into the everyday lives of so many people makes it difficult to analyse the issue. According to Dennis McQuail (1983), since the earlier days of research on mass communication, a distinctive cultural perspective on mass media has been developing. James Carey (1988) relates social life with the ‘sharing of aesthetic experience’. Media theorists, both past and present, have identified what they believe to be myriad ways that television works to order and organise everyday lives of its viewers. But many of them failed to empirically document how television imagery, or more generally the media imagery, enters the ‘meaning making’ activity of the people who use it on a daily basis (Lembo, 2000).  According to Lazarsfield and Merton (1977), television possesses a broader and normalising power conforming to the elite interests. Accordingly, they claim that these norms and values work as a kind of symbolic fabric in supplying people ‘discourses’ for making their social experience meaningful. This will help people find their place in the larger culture. One common picture of contemporary media is its emphasis on cultural diversity. But to what extent the relative diversity and pluralism of the media might itself operate within a system of domination is questionable. The media has a power to challenge “deviant” behavior through “narcotising dysfunction” (Lazarsfield and Merton, 1977). A central notion in most critical works is that of power, and more specifically the social power of groups or institutions. Summarising a complex philosophical and social analysis, we will define social power in terms of control.

Thus, groups have (more or less) power if they are able to (more or less) control the acts and minds of (members of) other groups. This ability presupposes a power base of privileged access to scarce social resources, such as force, money, status, fame, knowledge, information, “culture,” or indeed various forms of public discourse and communication (Lukes 1986; Wrong 1979). Different types of power may be distinguished according to the various resources employed to exercise such power: the coercive power of the military and of violent men will rather be based on force, the rich will have power because of their money, whereas the more or less persuasive power of parents, professors, or journalists may be based on knowledge, information, or authority. Note also that power is seldom absolute. Groups may more or less control other groups, or only control them in specific situations or social domains. Moreover, dominated groups may more or less resist, accept, condone, comply with, or legitimatise such power, and even find it natural.

The power of dominant groups may be integrated in laws, rules, norms, habits, and even a quite general consensus, and thus take the form of what Gramsci (1971) called “hegemony”. According to Gramsci (1971) this concept of ‘hegemony’ refers to ruling ideology particularly to denote the cultural dominance. In fact, hegemony is a constantly reasserted definition of a social situation, by way of discourse rather than political or economic power, which becomes real in its consequences (McQuail, 1983). Class domination, sexism, and racism are characteristic examples of such hegemony. It is also noted that power is not always exercised in obviously abusive acts of dominant group members, but may be enacted in the myriad of taken-for-granted actions of everyday life, as is typically the case in the many forms of everyday sexism or racism (Essed, 1991). Similarly, not all members of a powerful group are always more powerful than all members of dominated groups: power is only defined here for groups as a whole.


Discourse is a concept used by both social theorists and analysts to refer to spoken or written language use, even another type of semiotic activity (i.e. activity which produces meanings, here visual images and nonverbal communication). Critical discourse analysis (CDA)  according to van Dijk (2000), is a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context. With such rebellious research, critical discourse analysts take explicit position, and thus want to understand, expose, and ultimately resist social inequality. Critical discourse analysis according to Norman Fairclough (1987), explores the tension between the dialectical relationship of language, i.e. the social relations, social identities, systems of knowledge and belief of society and culture. Hence this analysis tries to dissect the discursive practices of a community, “its normal ways of using language or belief, affiliations, ideologies in terms of networks which are called orders of discourse” (Fairclough, 1987). The order of discourse of a social institution or social domain is constituted by all the discursive types which are used there. The point here is to highlight the relationships between different types in such a set (for example, in case of religious discourse- the practice of a particular religion portraying its distinctive traits, and that of other religious groups). Whether for instance a rigid boundary is maintained between them or whether they get easily mixed together in particular texts.


 Social and cultural changes very often manifest themselves discursively through a redrawing of boundaries within and between the orders of discourse represented in the soap operas. These boundaries, according to Fairclough (1987), are the focus of struggle and conflict in real life. Indeed orders of discourse can be seen as one domain of potential cultural hegemony, with dominant religious groups struggling to assert and maintain particular structuring within and between them. Mass media and popular culture are, according to Stuart Hall (1980), sites where struggles over meanings and power to represent are waged. Fredric Jameson (1979) shows how popular cultural forms such as films and television, here let us consider soap operas, work symbolically to establish preferred, even dominant ideological meanings. Therefore, domination or extensive coverage provided to a single religious discourse in a multi ethnic country like India will raise several questions. The question here is not raised against consistent and repetitive portrayal of a particular dominant ethnic group, if any, but the total absence of the others. Questions are also hurled against ‘the institutional power of the mass medium’ (Gitlin, 1978). According to him the preference given by the mass media to particular ideologies and the repetition of certain ‘ideational structures’ is indicative of the media’s preference for ideas and values that harmonise with elite interests. According to him when oppositional discourses do find their way in the media they are tamed, normalised and ultimately made compatible to the elite interest (here dominant religious discourse).

Gramsci’s (1971) concept of hegemony is helpful here as a theory of power and domination which emphasises power through achieving consent rather than through coercion, and the importance of cultural aspect of domination which depends upon a particular articulation of a plurality of practices. The issues with respect to a hegemony model become one of whether and how discursive practices are articulated together within the order of discourse in ways which overall sustain relations of domination.

Soap Opera as Sites for Exploration

The defining feature that makes a television programme a soap opera, according to Geraghty (1991), is that form of television that works with a continuous open narrative. India, during the late 1980s, with its entry to the global markets not only allowed a transformation of its economy but also its mediascape. As more and more people began to buy television sets, the content of the programmes broadcast also experienced a major shift. With the explosion of satellite television the western entertainment genres like soap operas and reality shows entered Indian homes.

The Indian Scene

India also has many soap operas. They started to come in the late 1980s, as more and more people began to buy television sets. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, soap operas became an integral part of Indian culture. Indian soap operas mostly concentrate on the conflict between love and arranged marriages in India, so most of them include conflicts between mother-in-laws and wives. Soap operas dramatise tension and are a source of entertainment for many viewers. The most common languages in which Indian serials are made are Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam. This variety is due to the large number of languages spoken throughout India. Many soap operas produced in India are also broadcast overseas in the UK, the USA, and some parts of Europe, South Africa, and Australia. They are often mass-produced under large production banners, with houses like Balaji Telefilms. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soap_opera).  Romance, secret relationships, extramarital affairs, and genuine love have been the main storylines of many soap operas.

Representation Politics

Stuart Hall (1997) defines representation as ‘the process by which members of a culture use language…to provide meaning’. The polysemic or multiplicity of meaning nature of television helps to provide a potential of meanings (Ang, 1985; Allen,1985) which may be realised or made into actually experienced meanings by socially situated viewers in the process of reading of these soap operas. All of these produce more or less strongly marked social differences which relate with each other in a complexity of ways that always involves the dimension of power. Since social power is unequally distributed in society and so any set of social relation necessary involves power and resistance, domination and subordination (Fiske, 1990). As gender stereotypes, more specifically stereotyped female characters portrayed in television represents mainstream ideology, reinforcing the stereotypical definitions of Indian womanhood (Laskar, 2014; 2012; Laskar & Guha, 2012). Most of the serials in the three major Hindi channels are found to be reinforcing and strengthening the gender stereotypes already present in Indian society. This discourse imagery will call into question the mediated domination of patriarchal ideologies of femininity. The female characters are mostly portrayed in the light of approval or disapproval ornamented with culturally loaded signs of desirability by men (Laskar, 2014; 2012; Laskar & Guha, 2012)..

The members of the minority groups like Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Gay and Lesbian or the persons with disability are considered to be ‘non vital’ in terms of mediascape. Hence they lack adequate portrayal compared to their proportionate existence in society or amongst the audience members. This is referred to as ‘Underrepresentation’. Even if the minimum portrayal provided to them is also demeaning or negative which again refers to ‘misrepresentation’. In most of the television soap operas or films the elderly characters are portrayed as a part of the milieu of the Indian joint family structure and without their independent identity as an individual character of emphasis. A common observation in the portrayal of the elderly character in the Indian television soap operas is that, the elderly are shown as grumpy, conservative, stubborn, and against social change. In some of the serials they are also shown as helpless, burdens over the family, dependent on the young members of the family or discarded by the children. In some of the serials the elderly women are shown as giving priority to religion, devoted to God and praying for the well-being of their families..

Trajectories of Representation Research

One of the most attempted forms of analysing representation of groups on television is by making a simple quantitative content analysis. A number of researches have been carried on issues like portrayal of women and children, violence in cartoon films, women in television, depictions and distortions in both Indian and American perspectives, and only a minimal attention paid to the portrayal of elderly in the media. The research on portrayal of elderly characters in daily soap operas is limited to the American soap operas. The Indian culture is dominated by the joint family system. The elderly play a vital role in India. In most Indian soap operas there are frequent portrayals of the elderly people who are sometimes shown as having been left alone, discarded, abandoned and sometimes abused. We can say that their portrayal is for namesake in the serial. 

Research Design

Objectives of the Study

The aim of the study is to analyse the way elderly characters are being portrayed in Indian television soap operas in order to understand the intricacies of the portrayal of minority groups in the media. The specific objectives are to find out the portrayal of the elderly character or the aged in the Indian television soap operas; to find out the frequency of appearance or presence or absence of the elderly characters; to find out the orientation of the elderly characters in the soap operas; to find out the characterisation of the elderly character.

Methodology Adopted

The methodology adopted for this study is textual analysis using character reading for which two soap operas have been selected for this study. These soap operas, that is Qubool Hai (a Hindi language soap opera aired on Zee TV), and Bodhuboron (a Bengali language soap opera aired on Star Jolsha), are studied for a period of two weeks to meet the objectives laid out for this study. Purposive sampling is selected, based on the knowledge of a population and the purpose of the study. Purposive sampling is useful when the research is based on targeted people, like the elderly characters in the select Indian daily soap operas. The two soap operas are also selected because of their popularity and their high TRP ratings. Both the serials are of different genres and about different communities. Most importantly, they have elderly characters in the serials.


The content analysis of two popular television serials after ten days of continuous study of the elderly characters in the selected soap operas visualises the way in which the elderly people, especially the elderly women, are portrayed on the television screen. From the collection of the data, three major themes are found around whom the role of the elderly characters revolves. As their roles are not that significant they are either ‘underrepresented’ or ‘misrepresented’ or ‘overrepresented’ on the television screens.

Under represented

In the serial Qubool Hai as well as Bodhuboron the frequency of the appearance of the elderly characters, observed during a period of two weeks, is very low. The phenomenon of fewer appearances of the elderly in the daily soap operas is called ‘underrepresentation’. It shows that their characters in the two different serials have a minimal role. They are seen less often and have less productive roles when they do appear on the screen. A common finding of the study is that the portrayal of the elderly characters doesn’t include any continuity. The fewer appearances of the elderly characters gives out a message that they are not important (Harwood & Anderson, 2002) characters and don’t have any important dialogues to speak. Though most of the viewers belong to the elderly groups, they are portrayed as a minority on the television screen.

Over represented

The elderly characters of the serials Qubool Hai and Bodhuboron are screened in a stereotypical manner. A widely discussed topic in our society is about aging and people’s health. Aging is sometimes linked to health issues. The television media portrays it in this way. Most of the media portrayals show the older people with ill health. The elderly are always portrayed as health conscious and lenient. The daily soap operas tend to emphasise youthfulness, beauty, class, and emotion. The soap operas cater to children, teens, adolescents, and adults but not the elderly. In this way, the existence of the elderly is portrayed as of ‘no value’ to the society, as if they do not matter to anyone’s life.  Elderly person are always visualised as pathetic and helpless figures and are dealt harshly. They are portrayed as obnoxious, immobile, with poor eyesight and hearing problems. They are rarely shown as playing a major role.  The serials also tends to portray the elderly characters as grumpy, that is, being stubborn, conservative, resistant to social changes, not updated with the traditional thoughts.


Most of the daily soap operas are set up in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Bhopal and similar other places. It is common to find the families engaged in business, running their own company or factory. In both the serials the exact nature of business was kept under wraps, but it is shown that they are making huge profits from their business, which makes them economically strong and elitists. The selected serials are about the urban elite and touch upon the various complexities of modern life. The characters belonging to the upper class or the aristocratic society have a large degree of control over the society. Hence, it can be inferred that the representation of such characters is used to show the luxurious life of elite families, as everyone wishes to lead a luxuries life. It can incite the middle classes to visualise the ambiguous charms of such a life and a longing for it. Emphasising the elite class, the serials are portrayed in big mansions.


The dynamics of the modern age and generation says that the lives of the elderly are at risk. During their sunset years, they are found moving from pillar to post in search of shelter as they are discarded by the family members and finally, they end up in old-age homes. Not only they are discarded they are seen as a family help who does all the household chores. They are affected by old age, health problems, lack of money, and mostly neglected by the younger generation. The younger generation thinks the elderly are of no use, helpless and a burden on the family. A positive portrayal of the elderly characters tries to reinforce their importance in a family and shows to the younger generation the usefulness of elderly persons in their lives. It also tells the younger generations about the importance of guidance from the elders in a family. As most of the viewers are elderly, their positive portrayal is very useful and enthusiastic.

This study reveals that elderly characters are not severely underrepresented in soap operas, especially Indian soaps, because though they are given the ‘peripheral roles’ (Harwood, 2007), they are portrayed in a significant number of roles. They are given the role of moral boosters or grumpy characters, but their characterisation brings their existence to the foreground in the two soap operas selected for the study. Again, while the elderly male characters outnumber the older female characters in the prime time television programmes of America, in India it is the reverse. The reason might be the heavy female viewership of the prime time soap operas. However, the elderly male characters are given prominent roles in the Hindi mainstream films. So, the representation is based on the preference of the target audience. Again, it is being refuted that older adults are shown more frequently in peripheral roles rather than the lead roles (Harwood & Anderson, 2002). However, when there is only a small elderly representation then it is obvious that the comparison cannot be made between their underrepresentation or over representation. But it is undeniable that they may be represented in the peripheral roles more than the other age groups in Indian soap operas.


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