Britain may have invented the soap opera but nowhere has the format been promoted more vigorously than in Latin America. For decades, telenovelas have been produced in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and elsewhere, and viewed by hundreds of millions daily from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. Their reach extends to the US and (on a more limited basis) to state-controlled TV in Cuba. Wherever you are in most of the Americas, you can keep up with developments in your favourite soap.
Most telenovelas deal with a rarefied upper class, which owns expansive town houses or idyllic haciendas with gauchos and impressive herds of cattle – more Dallas than Coronation Street. The characters jet between Caracas and Miami as if they were taking a taxi into town, though the action is almost entirely confined to interior shots. They live in luxurious houses with numerous sitting rooms, usually connected by short flights of stairs to facilitate dramatic entrances and exits, but no bathrooms or kitchens. Darker skinned Latin American ‘Indians’ usually appear only as servants or as secret lovers. The adverts, too, are populated exclusively by white people.
But one of the dramas currently gripping the continent violates practically all of the established norms. India: A Love Story, made in Brazil and originally broadcast over the first six months of last year (it won the 2009 International Emmy Award for Best Telenovela), still deals with a rarefied upper class, but features as many dark-skinned people as light-skinned. And it steers clear of any connection with Miami, dividing its action instead between Brazil and India.
A high-caste Hindu woman (in Latin America, all people from India are known as Hindues, regardless of their religion), working in a call centre, falls in love with a Dalit man. Her family forbid any further contact with her lover, she disobeys them, and things get complicated when they arrange a marriage to a much more suitable businessman. But his business has regular links with Brazil, where – of course – he has fallen in love with a glamorous Brazilian woman.
India as depicted in India: A Love Story has little bearing on reality (the poor masses barely figure, even in outside shots of markets) but this hardly matters, since neither does the telenovela’s version of Brazil. More important is that here we have a programme based on the links between two of the world’s biggest developing countries, which occupies an hour of primetime TV every weekday evening. Irrespective of the machinations of Chávez or Lula – or perhaps very distantly influenced by them – the Latino masses are learning about the new world order. Most of the shots may still be called by the Americans who live north of the Rio Grande, but they are a power in decline. In its recognition of this realignment, at least, the telenovela has its feet firmly on the ground.