By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, June 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian soap opera that is shattering social taboos - from domestic violence and acid attacks to menstruation and child marriage - has become one of the most watched series in the world, attracting over 400 million viewers, the producer said.
Scripted to challenge deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and gender discrimination, "Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon" or "I, a woman, can achieve anything" follows the story of a young woman doctor who quits her job in the city to work in her village.
Through the protagonist Sneha Mathur, viewers encounter common, but rarely challenged social practices and taboos such as sex-selective abortions and menstruation - all based on real life cases from across largely conservative India.
In one episode, Mathur's sister is forced into late abortion of a female foetus and dies during the procedure, while in another episode another sister has acid thrown on her after she joins a mixed-sex football team.
The series also looks at teen sexuality to help adolescents to better understand the changes their bodies are undergoing and dispels social taboos that dictate that menstruation is dirty and that masturbation is unnatural.
The soap opera has completed two seasons of over 170 episodes, since it was launched in 2014 -- and Indian television broadcaster Doordarshan says its viewership has now exceeded 400 million across 50 countries.
The brainchild behind the series, Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the charity Population Foundation of India, says the popularity of the series has been overwhelming, but even more astounding is the stories of change it has inspired.
"There have been so many stories from villages across India of how attitudes changed as a result of watching the programme," Muttreja told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"For example, there is a bunch of villages where men decided to stop beating their wives, and a girl who after watching the series decided to fight her village in order to go to college."
Surveys conducted with over 3,200 village men and women before and after the first season of the soap opera showed increased awareness of gender discrimination and family planning, indicating attitudes were changing, she said.
For example, 31 percent more women found it unacceptable for their husbands to beat them on suspicion of unfaithfulness, 14 percent more women said it was not important to continue bearing children until they had a son, and 29 percent more men believed early marriage leads to loss of opportunity.
The series, which is partly funded by the British foreign aid, has been translated into 14 languages and is also broadcast on 240 radio channels and over the internet -- and filming is now underway for its third season.
Muttreja attributes its success to a range of factors including in-depth and painstaking research, high quality filming and production, cultural sensitivity in addressing issues and strong characters that make effective role models.
"It has to be entertaining. It has to be high quality," she said. "But it's not just about having a good product, people have to be ready for change and in India today, I think people are open to that change."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)