Long-distance Relationship

Brazilian soap operas continue their love affair with South Asia

Actor Caio Blat plays Buddhist monk Sonam Gyatso in Joia Rara, a Brazilian soap opera set partially in Nepal. {{name}}
01 March, 2014

AT 6PM ON A MONDAY IN LATE JANUARY, Monica Riani, a public relations consultant, settled down to watch her current favourite television soap opera in her apartment, a few hundred metres from Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Across Brazil, in what is almost a national ritual, millions of others were also tuning in to the evening telenovelas—or simply, novelas,as the soap operas are locally known—that dominate the primetime slots between 6pm and 10pm from Monday to Saturday. A view of the snow-capped Himalayas flickered across Riani’s screen, and a Brazilian lama at a monastery in Nepal prepared to hand in his robes so he could return home, some 15,000 kilometres away, to be with his beloved. In Riani’s living room, the electric fan turned at maximum speed. The temperature on the streets outside hovered around 40 degrees Celsius.

Riani was watching Joia Rara (Rare Jewel), a novela that centres on a tale of forbidden love set in Nepal and Brazil between 1934 and 1945. The show is produced and aired by the Brazilian media giant Rede Globo, which reaches over 90 percent of the Brazilian population and claims an average daily global audience of 100 million. Globo’s domination owes much to the popularity of its novelas, and the company constantly produces and airs new projects. Joia Rara, which launched last September, was filmed primarily in Globo’s Brazilian studios, but parts of it were shot over 20 days on location in Nepal.

Joia is the latest in a line of Globo novelas set partly in locations that are exotic to most Brazilians—O Clone (2001) took viewers to Morocco, Salve Jorge (2012) to Turkey, and Amor a Vida (2013) to Peru. Perhaps the most significant novela in this line was the Emmy-award winning 2009 blockbuster Caminho das Indias (India—A Love Story), which reached a staggering average viewership of 52 million and fuelled a spike in Brazilian interest in India. Between 2009 and 2012, the annual number of Brazilian tourists arriving in India increased steadily from 13,964 to 18,440. Joia, with a more modest but still respectable average viewership of 26 million, is now turning eyes towards Nepal.

Lucas Viriato, a young poet and writer from Rio de Janeiro who has travelled widely in South Asia and published two books on the region, told me that novelas have an undeniable bearing on Brazilian interests and perceptions. “Brazilians talk about novela characters as if they were their family,” he said. “At the heart of Brazilian culture is an interest in the ‘other.’” He added that Brazilians are interested in everything that is foreign, and explained that South Asia is an obvious target for that interest “because of the sheer force of the culture that comes from the East.”

But the depictions of the region in Caminho and Joia do not hew strictly to reality. In Caminho, for instance, even quotidian scenes set in India feature actors dressed in clothes that most Indians would reserve for wedding receptions. And in Joia, Brazilians routinely travel in and out of Nepal in the 1930s and 1940s even though foreign tourists were not allowed to enter the country before the 1950s.

“We wanted to blend reality and fiction,” Thelma Guedes, who co-wrote the script for Joia, told me in January. The novela’s setting, she said, was not meant to be exactly like Nepal, but rather “a magical place, a sort of Shangri-La.” Viriato understood the logic of that choice, and told me that “a telenovela has to be cliché or Brazilians won’t want it.” Globo’s novelas are especially sensitive to popular demands as they are routinely subjected to public opinion surveys, and can even be re-scripted to better fit expectations.

Clichés certainly abound in Joia, and in the perceptions of those involved in making it. Guedes told me she originally conceptualised the project as an account of the life of the Buddha, and that her aim was “to generate an interest in Buddhism.” In the novela, a wealthy Brazilian man has a life-changing encounter with a Rinpoche in the Himalayas. Later, his daughter turns out to be the reincarnation of that Rinpoche, and embarks on a mission to teach others to love unconditionally. Such clichés about the region are rubbing off on viewers. Riani told me that the “spirituality,” “natural beauty” and “culture” on display in Joia had left her longing to travel to South Asia one day.

Viriato, who is now working on a book inspired by a trip to Nepal in early 2013, has acquired a less romantic view of the region. “I think there are those who are in awe [of South Asia], who think there are castles [there], and flying carpets and incense and colours and that everything is beautiful,” he said. “And there are those who only see the sewers.” But there are a few, he added, “who manage to keep their amazement while also seeing the sewers.”