A television soap opera that shows a 10-year-old boy married to a 19-year-old woman has outraged Indian viewers who want to ban the “bizarre show” for glorifying child marriage, even as its lead star defends the show, calling it “progressive”.
The show Pehredar Piya Ki (Husband’s Guard) was launched last month on Sony Entertainment Television — a popular Hindi general entertainment channel in India — and is aired every weeknight.
By Thursday, a Change.org petition urging information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani to ban the show had garnered nearly 50,000 signatures just 48 hours after its launch.
The petitioner, Mansi Jain, questioned the influence the soap would have on viewers and said it showed the child perform marriage rituals such as putting vermilion on the older actor playing his wife.
In her petition, Jain, states: “It [the show] is to be devoured by the entire nation. Imagine the kind of influence it will steadily and perpetually infuse in the viewers’ mindset. We want a ban on the serial. We do not want our kids to be influenced by such TV serials. Join us in signing the petition to ban this serial.”
Asha Bajpai, professor of law at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said: “This soap is encouraging, glorifying and promoting child marriages and will negatively affect the entire society,” “And what about the 10-year-old boy playing the husband’s role? What kind of values are we inculcating in him at this young, impressionable age?”
The legal age for marriage in India is 18 for women and 21 for men. But child marriage, although illegal, remains widespread in parts of the country.
Along with Niger, Guinea, South Sudan, Chad and Burkina Faso, India has one the world’s highest rates of child marriage, despite moves to toughen penalties against the crime.
The Child Marriage Prohibition Act imposes a $1,500 (Dh5,509) fine and two years in prison for parents caught marrying off their underage children.
India has been cracking down on child marriages and campaigners said such shows could dent progress.
The show’s actors have defended the story on social media, saying the soap is purely entertainment and does not promote child marriage.
Sony Entertainment Television officials remained unavailable for comment. On its website, however, Sony boasts a record of riveting drama, “With our prudent story telling, we continue to rule the roost with stories that are relevant, engaging and entertaining.”
The current track of show has the newly married couple having a wedding night and even enjoying a honeymoon. While this may sound cringeworthy and regressive to many, actress Tejaswi Prakash does not see anything wrong with the storyline.
The actress said: “I think it’s really progressive. But again, a lot of people believe in judging a book by its cover ... They love being judgemental and people have nothing better to do than judging somebody else’s work. Then OK, what can I do?”
In the show, the 25-year-old actress is paired opposite the much younger Afaan Khan.
The talk in the industry is that with the Sony Entertainment Television’s new show, the content on small screen has hit a new low. What does Tejaswi have to say?
“I don’t think so,” says the actress, who added: “I feel it’s just a story and fiction. It’s just a story that we are telling people. So how can you judge any story? You like it OK, you don’t like it, so, you don’t like it. We are not professors, we are not trying to teach you anything.”
Prakash also drew a comparison between the show to the most popular American fantasy drama Game of Thrones, created by David Benioff and DB Weiss.
“It also happened in Game Of Thrones ... People love Game Of Thrones, and if same thing happens in Pehredaar Piya Ki, then it’s an issue,” she added.
But is all the criticism courted by the show affecting the actress?
“No, I’m an actor. I just get my script, go on the set and I perform. Honestly, I’m not on a lot of social sites to be aware of any such comments ... I am only active on Instagram. Nobody calls and says anything to me. It’s probably the creatives ... They should talk to the creatives about the criticism,” said Prakash, who was also seen in Swaragini.
She also doesn’t find it awkward that a TV show is showcasing the odd pair in a wedding night and honeymoon sequence.
Tejaswi said: “No, it’s not what a normal wedding night and honeymoon is like. Obviously, me and Ratan are not married to have babies. It’s different. Once people watch it and then they find it yucky or anything, then I would be fine and understand.
“There is nothing wrong that we have shown.”
The show’s storyline is essentially about a nine-year-old’s parents getting killed in a planned blast, and the child’s father asking Divya (played by Prakash) to marry his baby boy to protect him from the people who are trying to kill him.
Prakash added: “I think the audience will be able to connect and I think they are being able to connect only because of the strong character who is able to decisions at the age of 18 and save his [Ratan’s] life for her own happiness ... Also, we have shown the fact that she has taken the decision [to marry him] and it even shows how much freedom she has got from her own family to able to make a decision like that.”
Prakash feels that “there’s lot of strength we are showing for a girl that age”.