After working for Aunty S for nearly twenty-two years, Mary suddenly left. She didn’t quit or say she wasn’t coming back. She simply took two weeks off that turned into two months and is now approaching one year. The interesting thing about all this is the fact that she calls and speaks to Aunty S nearly everyday. It always leaves me wondering if she always intended on quitting or never wanted to in the first place.
When she didn’t come back in a month’s time, Aunty S asked her if she should start searching for someone else and Mary said yes. So began the search and entry of a string of crazy, middle-aged women as replacements, each of them with their own quirks – one prayed too much, another didn’t want to clean, one was afraid of the dark and the list never ends. No one lasted for more than fifteen days or a month, max. Then came Rani; she has no real quirks but, she did come with a demand – a TV was a must. Aunty S decided that that was a fair demand and the box in the living room was repaired.
The first day I came back to the PG after Rani’s arrival, I was caught off guard. The space was the same and yet so different. I couldn’t lay my finger on what it was – was it the new curtains? The carpet? The new tablecloth? Perhaps it was the new cups on the table. It seemed like everything was new and yet simultaneously remained the same-old, same-old. Then at 1 pm, the television set came to life and I knew what it was. As soon as the clock struck 1, the TV would wake up with a white light explosion, followed by a blue screen, accompanied by a familiar yet unfamiliar muffled bomb-like sound. It was alive. It wasn’t that I was astonished to see a box TV working after a good ten-eleven years, it was the fact that the TV seemed to breathe a new sense of life into the house.
Still working in the house was Mary’s sister S who cleaned the second floor and washed the clothes. After Mary had gone, S would just come in for two hours or so, leaving as soon as she could. But Rani had changed that. Given that she had in a way replaced her sister, the two of them should have been the unlikeliest of friends but Rani is impossible to dislike and Sun TV further cemented their bond.
The Tamil language channel plays series after series interspersed with the afternoon movie and 6 pm news, drawing all the women in the house to the box. Aunty S, who generally has little to no interest in watching TV (barring a Royal Challengers Bangalore match), is pulled to the box only when Thalaiva is on the screen. Every day from 2 pm to 4:30 pm, an old era movie plays and every woman in the house sits down to watch. S, who previously used to leave by 2 pm, now lingers on till 5 or 6 in the evening, completely lost in the world of outlandish drama and egregious action scenes.
During these few hours in the afternoon, the regular movement and buzz in the house seizes. All eyes are glued to the screen, following what I believe is the usual plot of damsel in distress followed by the saving of the day by a cavalier hero — usually a heavily pancaked version of Rajnikanth. None of the movies I’ve joined in on have ended without a special effects filled fight scene. Everyone loves it; they are completely enthralled and captivated each day by the new story that unfolds. The variety is probably what they love most — the unpredictable and unexpected plots show up for them everyday without fail, for them to lose themselves in.
The head of operations is, of course, Rani. The TV is hers and she is the TV’s. It’s like an extension of her being, a possible or alternate life that she lives through the screen. Until a few years ago she was married to an abusive, alcoholic husband who went on to die of cancer but boy did he make sure he gave her enough hell to last her way beyond his passing. Still, she prevails, always smiling and laughing at the top of her voice, unfiltered and unashamed. I can bet you right now that sometimes her laughter overpowers the noise of traffic on Richmond Road. One of the nuns who lives next door to us recently remarked, “Before the house was filled with fights and arguments. Now, all we hear is Rani’s laughter.”
I, a non-speaker (of Tamil), try hard to follow the happenings on the screen but with everything constantly changing and plots so drawn out and entangled, I find it hard. The one thing that remains consistent through the action is the Sun TV logo on the bottom right corner of the screen; it’s as if these women have at some point pledged an unwavering loyalty to this group in return for a daily dose of substandard television. A little research will show you that maybe they inadvertently have.
Kalanithi Maran, billionaire and television mogul of southern India is the chairman and founder of Sun Group, of which Sun TV is a large part. You may be familiar with the name Maran from the 2G spectrum scam or you may not know him at all. His name is not as synonymous with Sun TV as Ekta Kapoor’s is with Star. Kalanithi is a shadow looming through Tamil cinema. He is there, present, dominant, yet not so quickly visible. But, let not this unpresent-presence fool you, Kalanithi is powerful and he comes from a powerful family.
He is the son of a former Member of Parliament and Union Minister and brother of a current Member of Parliament. But those aren’t even the most powerful in the family. Kalanithi happens to be the grandnephew of M. Karunanidhi, ten-time president of the DMK and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for over two decades and cousin of the sitting CM of Tamil Nadu M.K Stalin. His family has long since dominated and controlled the worlds of both politics and cinema, one feeding off the other. Using his political upper hand, Kalanithi has established a complete monopoly over cable distribution in the state of Tamil Nadu with 47% of viewers tuned in to Sun TV at any given point.
I, for one, cannot understand how this captivity over such a large audience has been accomplished; shady politics surely can’t mask shoddy television. If you thought that Hindi soaps were over dramatic and pretty plotless, I would be forced to introduce you to Sun TV’s soaps. A dinner-time regular for us is the 8 pm show ‘Vanathai Pola’. One can miss days worth of episodes only to join back right where you thought you left off. This is how Rani, who doesn’t have the luxury to pause a show while working, is able to keep up with her shows.
She perfectly times serving Aunty S her dinner, and the dog’s last walk of the day with the ad breaks of the show. Sometimes, she even times them with the long drawn out fights or sobbing scenes. Rani knows exactly when Thulasi, the female protagonist of Vanathai Pola will burst into tears (which according to me is every five minutes). Thulasi’s stream of tears never ends, it’s like she has single-handedly decided to solve the earth’s water shortage. Her character frustrates me but Rani loves her. She has explained to me many times how it’s about an unbreakable brother-sister bond, with Chinrasu, Thulasi’s brother always coming to her aid and fighting her battles. But as fate or plot twists would have it she falls in love with his one and only nemesis. So, the show follows Thulasi’s constant dilemma of whether to marry the man she loves or a man of her brother’s choosing.
“Why Sun TV, Rani?” is a question I have harassed poor Rani with since day one. She gives me different answers every time. She claims to not love the series as much, but her face while watching the show is enough to prove otherwise. She likes to tell me that the only reason she’s always watching the channel is because it’s the only one that works. The rest of the channels are either English channels, or they play the news, and she couldn’t be bothered with those. When I point out her loyalty to the shows, she defends them by saying that if you only focus on one episode at a time, they’re each brilliant. I let her be, how can I make her feel bad or guilty about something that’s evidently giving her so much joy.
Plus, the drivel has captivated me too. As soon as all of us (Aunty S, Rani, the other girls in the PG and I) sit down for dinner, we’re immediately and automatically drawn to the screen. It’s a part of all our lives now and I must admit that it’s grown on me. Sun TV news, in particular, has gotten my attention. It is better in every way. Everything important is covered in a simple, easy to understand format in half an hour, explained efficiently with stock images and voiceovers. Even when I don’t understand it, I understand it. They even show the most trending tiktoks of the day. If that isn’t supreme news; what is?
The movies and serials offer them, Rani especially, an escape. Neither Rani nor S are afraid to admit that Sun TV is a way for them to experience a type of life they will never have. They have each fought hard battles to thrive in this world. Rani, in particular, with her abusive alcoholic husband, has never had a macho man by her side to fight for her when she needed it. These movies are a keyhole for her into that world, the one she would’ve liked to be part of. The security net she would love to have. I don’t know the exact number of times she’s watched and rewatched these movies but it has to be plenty, because she knows the lyrics of every song, and is able to narrate the dialogue of every film I’ve watched with her; happily she sings along while cleaning or feeding the dog.
After months of observing these women, and now having been away for another month, I can say that Sun TV has taken on the role of an engine — it fuels the house and all the activities undertaken within. It brings everyone together, providing us an easy common ground.
We have all learned the ads by heart, chiming in for MTR’s ‘buy one get one free’ ad for gulab jamuns (that Rani swears she’ll make for us one day), or being treated to Sunday biryani after looking at a basmati rice ad over and over again. Rani now remarks about how we were eating substandard biryani with regular rice in the past. That will simply not be done anymore.
Sun TV has changed us and not just in terms of choosing between normal rice and basmati rice. When Aunty S called Mary back with her family before Christmas to help make kulkuls and rose cookies, it was Sun TV that brought everyone together, boosting productivity and keeping arguments at bay. A house full of women, usually expected to be each others worst enemies, now sit down in front of the TV bonded forever by films from 1997.