Child bride show attracts viewers, critics

Avika Gor, who plays child bride Anandi in the popular but controversial show.
Dressed in fancy clothes, she applies eye liner, dabs her nose with a powder puff and the director shouts, "Silence, rolling!"

On cue, the star of the show delivers her lines. Meet Anandi, the main character of “Balika Vadhu,” an Indian television serial. Twelve-year-old Anandi is a child bride who was married off at the age of eight. She now lives with her husband and in-laws, bound by customs and traditions in their home. The daily soap is just over a year old and already one of India’s most highly rated TV shows. An estimated 74 million people watched it in July. The CEO of Colors, the channel the show airs on, says viewers love it because it’s based on reality. Rajesh Kamat said: “There is enough research on child marriage, the evils of child marriage. We’ve based our storyline on that.” Kamat added the concept the show was based on is very much real and most of the incidents depicted in the program still happen in parts of India. Even though the Indian legal age for marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, the law is often ignored. Since it’s an illegal act, it’s very hard to find a record of how many child marriages take place — but according to UNICEF, 40 percent of all child marriages in the world take place in India. Critics of “Balika Vadhu” say the premise — that child marriage takes place in India — is the only real aspect of the show. The driving force behind child marriage is poverty, says Puja Marwaha, of the children’s charity Child Rights and You. She says child brides are often illiterate, malnourished, considered a burden on their parents — and their lives bear no resemblance to the glossy images seen on TV. According to Marwaha, the serial glorifies child marriage. “To show it as harmless, is a problem.” “Poverty is not pretty so the child is not going to be wearing party frocks and looking pretty, contented and happy because that’s not what really happens. What really happens is the child is forced into adult responsibilities too early. Whether it’s the responsibility of motherhood or whether it’s linked to abuse, as is the case many times.” That, according to Marwaha, is the reality of child marriage. The people behind the show say its goal is not to glamorize child marriage — but to highlight its dark side. Kamat said: “Have we depicted it in a way that is entertaining Yes. Is the evil of child marriage highlighted Yes. Are the evils associated with it highlighted Absolutely.” In between takes on the set of the show just outside Mumbai, Avika Gor, who plays Anandi, does her part to educate the audience. “I feel very bad about what’s happening to Anandi. Child marriage is very, very, very, very, very, very, very bad.”

Some Indian lawmakers argued the show violated the Indian Constitution and demanded the show be banned. The government looked into it and gave it a clean chit, so the cameras continue to roll on the sets, and the show goes on.