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Brazil ♥ India

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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.


  1. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I don’t think Britain invented the soap opera, why do you say that? The name comes from the soap advertising that took place on US productions.

  2. John Perry says:

    You may well be right. I bow to superior knowledge of TV history.

  3. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Well, I was expecting a more interesting answer than that. Couldn’t you have invented something?

  4. John Perry says:

    I think the contrast is interesting between what in Britain we probably regard as conventional ‘soaps’, the mainstay of British TV (at least until the advent of ‘reality’ television), and the Latino culture where soaps have an even bigger role in day-to-day life. But they are of a very different kind, as the article says. I don’t know the intentions of the makers of India: A love story, but consciously or unconsciously they have broken quite a big mould in making a soap about such an unfamiliar place. Added to this, they have (consciously or unconsciously) made a political point. And to top it all, the programme is – in Nicaragua at least – highly popular.

    Jason Kennedy, who also writes for the LRB blog, commented to me that in Guatemala the government actually set out to promote a soap – about and of course made in Guatemala. This was seen as potentially putting Guatemala on the map. Regrettably (perhaps), they haven’t yet succeeded in persuading anyone to do it. But it’s another acknowledgement of the cultural importance of the telenovela or soap.

    • A.J.P. Crown says:

      Jason could make a Guatemala ♥ Taiwan soap, possibly, since he’s there now.

      Is it about an unfamiliar place or the same place? I once saw some Brazilian soaps and, as you say, they were made only with studio video shots that could have been anywhere. Late 1960s Crossroads may have been the British precedent for these shallow, claustrophobic interiors, but I’m sure there are US soaps that predate even Crossroads. I’d say the key is that they are very similar, and very popular, worldwide — sort of like the Bible.

      • pinhut says:

        It’s weird, but I had a soap-style moment tonight. I went on a date with one woman, and because of that, was in the street at midnight and bumped into another woman, just leaving work. Our eyes met, etc. And we had our first ever conversation. Couldn’t believe my luck.

    • pinhut says:

      It wasn’t actually the government, it was a clique of the metropolitan elite. I think the idea was to create female competition to be a well-known actress, as a means of generating thousands of man hours on the casting couch.

  5. alex says:

    It seems quite straightforward to me. British soaps try for more ‘realism’ or to ‘reflect society’ according to some dated Leavis/Williams/Hoggart paradigm, but end up being patronizing and dull. Latin American soaps, wildly unrealistic though they seem to be, actually provide some things society needs – aspiration, something to tickle the imagination.
    And what they aspire to is changing. Doesn’t need to be a kind of ersatz Dallas anymore. ersatz Bollywood might be more enticing, as India and China become big economic players.

    • pinhut says:

      “wildly unrealistic though they seem to be”

      Hmmm… there are women exactly like these characters in Mexico (at least). Many Latin women simply *are* wildly unrealistic, compared to my UK roots. Particularly the clothes! If anything, the telenovela clobber is rather restrained!

      But, for the poor, definitely, a thousand times yay, I’m with you, these telenovelas satisfy not any genuine aspiration (other than to not be poor, I suppose, which is for many, an impossible dream), but they do lift people out of mundane jobs and the daily grind of poverty, etc. In my experience, they’re very popular with maids (at least in Guatemala).

      (I’m doing my damndest to avoid making anything that sounds like a generalisation, go easy on me).

  6. Harry Stopes says:

    A further difference between British soaps and Telenovelas is that while British soaps run essentially forever, Latin American telenovelas have storylines that come to an end after about 6 months. Which might be why telenovelas seem to be more versatile (and more interesting?) in what they produce.

    • pinhut says:

      An absolutely key difference is also that Latin American soaps are often remade numerous times in different countries, with a new generation of performers.

  7. alex says:

    They are regularly broadcast in Eastern Europe (with subtitles), that’s where I got into them.

  8. John Perry says:

    The contrast with the gritty ‘realism’ of say East Enders is interesting in the Latin American context of countries massively divided between rich and poor. If you look at the GINI coefficients for each nation, there isn’t a single LA country which has a better score than the US,which itself has one of the world’s worse scores [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality].

    So here we have a genre (the telenovela) based on the lives of the super-rich, popular across a continent in which a tiny elite do indeed lead lives that otherwise would be unimaginable to those watching their TV sets in (often) overcrowded homes with earth floors and corrugated iron roofs. Do they imagine those governing them (and exploiting them) are accurately depicted, or do they just enjoy it as a fantasy? Perhaps I should investigate…

    • alex says:

      Maybe check out Tania Maria Romero’s dissertation on women’s emancipation and the telenovella in Nicaragua (Univ. of Texas at Austin, 2007)

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