Asianet’s Santhwanam And The Idealization Of Patriarchy

Asianet currently has a new formula for prime time serials. Gone are the days when timid heroines wailed and whined their way to happily ever after. Today’s heroines are stronger than them, no doubt influenced by the young women of this era. The audience has evolved and so have our stories. Which is why a serial like Santhwanam is a bold attempt.

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Santhwanam is one of the most-watched serials in Kerala and is an adaptation of the Tamil show Pandian Stores. Santhwanam is unashamedly traditional. Unlike its contemporaries, it does not pretend to have a women empowerment theme. Rather it is very comfortable in showing homely wives, working husbands and patriarchal heredity at home. But do you know why it is not necessarily a bad thing? Because, unlike most other serials, the same overused concepts of domestic abuse, adultery and child nabbing are absent. 

Santhwanam’s Fresh Take On Family Drama And Politics

A big joint family that stands together against all odds, a home where all inmates get an equal chance at happiness. It is the story of Santhwanam Veedu, complete with an ailing mother, three big brothers, their wives and a pampered little brother. It guest stars a near-psychotic father of one of the wives in the family named Thampi and two family relatives who have no better job than gossiping. The main problems that plague the family include day to day financial problems, the revenge Thampi has against them and the grit in the marriage between the two younger brothers. 

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Santhwanam has all the trappings of old-timey entertainment. Women obey men without question. They rarely question the limits on their freedom. Even if their parents are sick, they have to take their husband’s permission to go take care of them. There isn’t a single working woman in the show so far, and the serial occasionally spouts words of wisdom like adakkam and odukham. The antagonists are so typical and unreasonably evil that it is almost comic. All of it gives the feeling that the serial Santhwanam is in fact a romantic, old Malayalam movie.

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Santhwanam Is Different Because Of Its Story

Even though it hasn’t deviated much from the traditional family set up like most serials, what sets Santhwanam apart is its story. It is not a story about a married woman’s misery, where women are in serious need of some empowerment, that singles out a woman as an alien in her husband’s home. It rarely shows unhealthy drama.

Santhwanam talks about love between couples, the problems an average family may face and more importantly, how they overcome it. It is this promise of a happy ending for everyone that makes Santhwanam so popular. Recent episodes even show one of the wives in the show declaring that she needs a job like the men, and surprisingly, the head of the family supports her in this. In a way, the show tries to portray the idea that family and kindness is what matters in the end. Sure, Santhwanam advocates a rigid patriarchal structure in the family, but they make sure the structure runs on cooperation and kindness so that everyone is content.

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Not Just Any Good Story, Santhwanam Is A Realistic Story

Even though antagonists like Thampi Mothalali seem unreal, they are present in society. For context, Thampi Mothalali is the angered father of a young woman who eloped with one of the brothers in the show’s titular family. He tries very hard to wreak havoc on his daughter’s new family. He even tries to murder the brothers. All for revenge over his scorned honour. Are honour killings uncommon in our society? Are parents who turn their children away for who they love rare in our society? Absolutely not. Remember the Kevin murder case?


Gossip mongering old ladies aren’t that uncommon either. This brings us to the secondary antagonists of the show, the evil ammayiamma Savithri and the evil nathoon Jayanthi. However, this time they are the in-laws of the men in the story and not the women. Their purpose is to tarnish the family’s legacy and their motive is pure, unmitigated jealousy. Again, I would like to pose the same question. Are jealous relatives who interfere where they are not, supposed to be unrealistic? Most certainly not, that is where the whole ayalathe ammayi stereotype came from. 

Does Not Fail To Irritate Either

The problem with Santhwanam is that the showrunners have probably not realized that this ain’t the 20th century. The premise is so old that things the characters use like smartphones feel so out of place, almost anachronistic. The story often tends to be misogynistic. There are several instances where the men in the show remain oblivious to their wives assertions of independence.

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For example, take the case of Harikrishnan, brother #2. He often antagonizes his wife in favour of his family without giving her a chance to explain. However, it is hard to use that as a point of criticism, since the show often features Hari’s wife challenging his unfair reactions to her. This is why it is difficult to dismiss it as a run of the mill misogynistic Malayalam serial. The show is very much aware of its problems and even tries to address them occasionally. All this stands to show that Santhwanam is just trying to hold a mirror to today’s Malayali society.

The Theme Of Ideal Patriarchy

One of the major problems with Santhwanam is that its setting is a little too perfect. While the events of the story tend to be realistic, the way Santhwanam treats the system of patriarchy is idealistic. The show tries to represent a state where patriarchy behaves ideally – where it is just a system of familial hierarchy that leaves everyone in the family satisfied with their roles. In this system, everything runs perfectly and the people are all happy. The problems featured in the show rarely have any lasting consequences and are easily forgotten as minor bumps on the road. Unfortunately, that never happens in real life. In real life, patriarchy is corrosive. It is so unkind to women that it is responsible for nearly every untimely death of women in India. 

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The show completely ignores, or worse still, it laughs off the biggest problems in a patriarchal system. How many traditional weddings happen today where dowry isn’t raised as a question? Are women who live in a patriarchal family such as the Santhwanam Veedu as happy as the show portrays them to be? Should a woman’s future be deemed lost just because a man abandoned her at the altar, which was a major premise of the serial just a few months back?

Why Should We Question The Idealization Of Patriarchy?

Santhwanam glorifies patriarchy while hiding its flaws. An ideal patriarchy like in the Santhwanam family sure seems happy. It looks comfortable and secure, just like every other fantasy. Comparing an ideal patriarchy to other systems that exist in society is like comparing an ideal democracy with a real monarchy. It sounds correct that democracy upholds people’s rights whereas a monarchy operates on disproportionate power and rights. However, it is also correct to say that a monarchy with a good king, like Mahabali, is going to be remembered for way longer than a corrupt democracy that is blind to its less fortunate citizens. An ideal patriarchy does not exist and like all other tyrannical systems, real patriarchy thrives on oppression and disproportionate power.

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I am very sure that many people who watch this show advise their daughters to be more like the good wives in the show. Most parents advise their children to make sure they have happy lives. I am sure the mothers who quote the Santhwanam wives as role models want them to have satisfying, happy lives like them. But they conveniently ignore how little women are given a chance to be happy in patriarchy. No young person should be advised to submit to a remorseless and rigorous system like that.

Caged birds don’t really sing songs of joy. If they sing at all, they only sing in lament. You can pretend all you want that it is a heavenly melody, it is still a lament nonetheless.

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