Annie Paul | Jamaica’s ‘Strange Love’ for Indian drama
I don't know when I first started noticing it. Perhaps it was the time I went to clear some goods I'd shipped from India a couple of years ago at one of Kingston's ports. After navigating the much improved process of recovering your possessions from the wharf, you finally end up in a large waiting room with about 50 chairs and a TV mounted on the wall in its own personal grille.
It was lunchtime by then. Sitting in front of me occupying the front rows were 15 or so large, tough-looking men, the kind of individuals who lift up crates and literally manhandle them, along with a few wimpier-looking folks there to claim their goods. All were glued to the TV screen on which a brilliantly coloured Indian soap opera was playing. The men were watching the melodrama with the helpless concentration of snakes following a mongoose's wily darts to and fro.
Some weeks later, the Smith sisters came to visit me. When I mentioned serving some Indian sweets, up jumped Sister No. 1 accompanying me to the kitchen saying she wanted to see if they were the kind of sweets Khushi makes. Khushi? "A who dat?" I asked, upon which Sister Smith informed me that Khushi was the star of Strange Love, one of two Indian soap operas CVM TV had started showing in their lunchtime slot, Monday to Friday from 1 to 1:30 and 1:30 to 2.
"Whenever Khushi's upset, she retreats to the kitchen and starts making sweets," declared Sister Smith, as if she was talking about a bosom buddy.
"Really? Indian soaps are melodramas of the sickly sweet variety. How on earth had they taken Jamaica by storm?" I wondered. Sister Smith assured me that they were such fun that not only she but her parents the goodly Reverend Smith and her mom as well as her brother, a financial analyst in New Kingston, were all hooked to Strange Love. In fact, at her brother's workplace, office workers threw 'Khushi parties' after work and spent Saturdays binge-watching the serial, while at home the goodly reverend could be seen shouting at the Indian couple to just DO IT. Just kiss the girl, no man, her father would yell in exasperation as Khushi's admirer spent days and weeks gazing into her eyes, while the background music intensified in volume and sentimentality.
Strange Love, or Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon, as it's called in Hindi, premiered in India in 2011. Comprising 398 half-hour episodes, the drama is the love story of an arrogant business tycoon, Arnav Singh Raizada, and his middle-class secretary, Khushi Kumari Gupta. Played by actors Barun Sobti and Sanaya Irani, the series has propelled both to fame and stardom not only in India but around the world where the show is dubbed into the native language of the region it is shown in. After a few years when Barun left to pursue a career in Bollywood, the show's fans went berserk, demanding his return.
OK, fine. But what is the attraction such shows hold for Jamaicans? I mean a recording artiste named Tiana has even come out with a single named Khushi that has reportedly been blowing up local radio.
"What fascinates us is the slowness of the story, the way the lovers look at each other. The music that comes up when they think of each other. Strange Love focuses on ... feelings, how people view each other, how they love each other from their hearts, not their gonads," vouchsafed a blogger named Lady Fingers.
Meanwhile, according to Jodian Downs: "These dramas are different, as the characters still maintain their pure innocence, and for the viewers, this is extremely addicting. Imagine yourself watching the full 20 episodes of one show just to see the main characters at least get a small peck on the cheek from their love interest."
Also, continues Downs: "The level of loyalty portrayed by each female actress for their male superior is rather humorous and astonishing for the modern female." Aha! Perhaps this explains why Jamaican men are so fascinated by Strange Love. The docile Indian female is no doubt irresistibly attractive to them, considering the independence of most Jamaican women?
Interestingly, unlike Jamaica, where Indian soap operas are appreciated as a step back to a time when love was innocent, in places like Afghanistan where they are also popular, they are considered too liberal and, therefore, threatening to Afghan culture. According to a recent article, "Afghan video editors must blur all objectionable content in the scenes, such as too much bare skin, Hindu ways of worship, alcohol and anything that could offend religious sentiments."
In Jamaica, on the other hand, Indian dramas have generated much goodwill and love of Indian culture. Long may it last!
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to email@example.com or tweet @anniepaul.