Indian soap opera transfixes Afghanistan

Chances are, he or she will be settled down in front of the television for a daily fix of an Indian soap opera. And they won't want to be disturbed.
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The series "The mother-in-law was a daughter-in-law once too", or "Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" in its original Hindi, has transfixed the country.

Men, women, young and old -- anyone, it seems, with access to a television -- is enthralled by the family drama. It centres on Tulsi, a young bride from a poor family who married because of love and is persecuted by her evil mother-in-law.

For the first time, Afghans have been able to see a long-running family drama that explores so many of the issues they encounter in their own lives, said television commentator Farzana Samimi.

"It shows problems that are so common in Afghan families in terms of the relationship of brides in the family, especially with the mother-in-law," said Samimi, who presents a programme on women's issues on Tolo TV, which broadcasts the series.

Afghanistan is still a deeply conservative Islamic society where family problems are invariably kept hidden behind a veil of privacy.

The series gets people thinking about such problems, Samimi said. "It enlightens the minds of people in the family, not only of brides or mothers-in-laws, but others too."

The cultural context of the Indian soap opera was also very easy for Afghans to relate to, she said.

"People are interested because our culture is so close to India, their way of daily life, the hierarchical system in the family," she said.

Whatever the reason, the soap opera is Afghanistan's most popular ever television programme and fans refuse to miss an episode.

"AN ADDICTION"

Generator shops in Kabul have reported heavy sales since the series caught on because so many people want to ensure the city's frequent power cuts don't interrupt their viewing.

Many fans who can't afford a generator have rigged up their televisions to car batteries to beat the black-outs.

Tolo TV, the most popular channel to appear since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, says it is amazed by the success of the series. It declines to say how much it paid to broadcast it.

"It's our biggest series. We're surprised to see so many people interested in watching it so keenly," said Saad Mohseni, a Tolo director.

Tolo began running the soap opera, dubbed into Afghanistan's Dari language, this year. It began in India several years ago and is still running, so Tolo has lots more episodes to run.

Every day, the TV station gets calls from people asking for the episodes to be extended and complaining about the interruptions for advertisements, said another Tolo official, Ahmad Tawab Niazi.

Some fans have begged Tolo to change the broadcast time because it coincides with congregational prayers at mosques, he said.

Some postpone their prayers.

"Let's pray later, I can't miss Tulsi," a man murmured to his friend recently in a restaurant in the western city of Herat.

The show was about to begin on a television in the restaurant.

"It's like an addiction," the man told Reuters.

Mohseni said he had heard stories of a wedding banquet being interrupted so the guests could huddle around the television for half an hour.

Some are taking advantage of the obsession.

Robbers in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif stripped a vehicle of its wheels and mirrors recently, confident they had a mid-evening window of half an hour when they wouldn't be caught.

"Thanks Tulsi," one of the robbers scrawled in paint on the side of the car.


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