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TV soap operas have been captivating Thai audiences since the television medium was young, and their popularity continues to grow

Published: 22/05/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Realtime

Leafing through the Thai newspapers, it's interesting to see that almost two pages have been dedicated to Buang Hong, Sao Har, Saphai Klai Puen Thieng, Luk Mai Plien See and other novels turned into soap operas currently on air.

Producer Varayuth Milinthajinda with his entourage

They certainly attract readers, and TV fans can pick up the paper every day, skipping politics, business and other hard news merely to update on the latest episodes of their favourite lakhon (soap operas).

Those who can't wait to know whether the rich and arrogant phra ek (leading actor) will eventually get to live happily ever after with the poor and pitiful nang ek (leading actress), or how the nasty stepmother and spoiled daughter will face their karma may pay 20 baht to get a copy of the whole story as well as posters of their fave TV stars to deck the bedroom wall.

Even though Thai soaps follow tedious plots and are regarded as lakhon nam nao, they get families together in front of the TV, office girls chatting about last night's twist of the story, and durian vendors so detesting the tua itcha (the character who's jealous of the nang ek) that they're ready to throw their spiky fruit at the actress playing the role. In the digital age, Mia Luang's Nudee had webboard posters denouncing her for flirting with Dr Aniruth, so it's clear that soaps have a staggering influence on society.

"Lakhon can even reduce the amount of traffic in Bangkok. There were a lot fewer cars on the streets when people were at home watching the end of Sawan Bieng," noted Anon Poungtubtim, editor-at-large of Volume, one of Thailand's popular magazines.

"Thais, from commoners to aristocrats, may be hooked on lakhon because, no matter how nam nao, they are fun to watch, whether they're rags-to-riches sagas or forlorn love stories."

The Sawan Bieng phenomenon last year inspired the Volume team to work on a soap opera concept to mark the magazine's fourth anniversary. Compared to the magazine's previous themes (actors, models, people in the fashion industry), Anon believes that soaps relate to a larger number of Thais, and this anniversary issue should prove to be another hot-selling collectible.

Exact producer Takonkiat Viravan and his actors on the Volume cover.

"In the past, there was a booming movie business and a frenzy for silver screen actors," said Anon. "Today, simply switching on a TV has made soaps more accessible than movies. The increasing number of soap opera producers and the multitude of small screen actors show that it's a thriving industry.

"This anniversary issue pays tribute to the soap opera scene, providing an insight into its history and updating on who's who in the industry. All in all, we want to make it a useful reference for soap fans," said Anon.

So, what was the first TV drama ever that got our grandparents glued to the black and white box?

The country's first television channel, Channel 4 Bang Khun Phrom, opened in 1955. It assigned former actress Pojanee Prongmanee to produce Suriyanee Mai Yorm Taeng Ngan (Suriyanee Doesn't Want to Get Married), starring MR Thanadsri Svasti, Choti Samosorn and Nuallaor Thongnueadee.

It was warmly welcomed by the audience, and with more and more local brand Tanin TV sets available in Thai households, stage plays started to fade out along with the performing troupes while more and more soap opera companies were born. Consequently, Channel 4 broadcast soaps by various production houses with viewers getting to watch stories like Khun Suek, Ban Sai Thong, Kot Haeng Karma, and Karaked.

"In the early days of Thai drama, actors had someone telling them the script and viewers could hear it all, so you would know what the bashful female lead has to say before she finishes a sentence," said Anon.

Producer Jitlada Didsayananth and her actors and actresses.

After Channel 4 (now Modernine TV), came Channel 5, Channel 7, and Channel 3 to offer viewers more entertainment options. So, Volume's May 2009 issue looks back to soap operas of each channel and era as well as the stars of yesteryear.

For example, Channel 3 was conceived in 1970 and two years later it aired its first soap opera, Patravadi Meechuthon's Fai Phai starring the producer herself with Somphob Benjathikul. Today, the channel is notable for its quality lakhon featuring superstars such as Kane-Teeradech, Ann Thongprasom, Aum-Atichart and Aff-Taksaorn.

"Viewers know the acting stars well but they may not know who's behind the success of a soap opera," said Sukhon Srimarattanakul, also an editor-at-large of Volume as well as a well-known makeup artist.

"We managed to feature 19 lakhon teams in this special issue. Putting the spotlight on producers, interviews tell us how they ventured into this fascinating industry, with many of them transforming from actor to producer."

The magazine's fourth anniversary covers come in 10 versions, featuring producers and their top actors. Inside, readers can find out who's who with shots of the 19 producers surrounded by their entourage of actors - the bigger the entourage, the bigger the company. Altogether, more than 100 TV stars put on their best pose for group photos with their labels in the magazine, which appears on May 25.

Actors can either be under the TV channel or a soap opera company. For instance, Exact has Pong-Nawat, Mos-Patipan, Aom-Piyada and Bee- Namthip as leading stars. Exact's top-notch producer, Takonkiat Viravan, introduced a cast of new actors in Kaew Lom Petch, a post-news soap on Channel 5 that became a hit. Thus a producer can equally be a star-maker, and Kaew Lom Petch's cast Son Songpaisarn, View-Wannaros, and Aerin Yuktatat have made it big time in showbiz.

With a modern take on lakhon-making, Takonkiat is notable for lakhon tob-joob (slap-and-kiss drama) as well as sit-coms, including Nat Kub Nat and Bang Rak Soi 9 aired on Channel 9 as well as Pen Tor on Channel 3.

"Each camp is famous for certain types of soap operas, from Sarm Sean's folk tales to Who and Who's spectacular period dramas. Then we have companies that specialise in teen soaps, action soaps and moral soaps, all with styles of making lakhon to keep their fans watching," added Sukhon.

He points to Varayuth Milinthajinda as a brilliant producer, who never disappoints his fans with high-investment soap operas, beautiful costumes, magnificent sets, special effects and in some stories, overseas filming.

"I love doing romantic period stories," said Varayuth in an interview with Volume. "It takes a lot of research and looking into details to take viewers back to see the past as it really was. A good producer must also read novels thoroughly and get to the heart of the story in order to make the characters jump out of the book and come to life on the screen."

With over 100 productions, Varayuth's most famous works include Pritsana, See Paendin, Nai Fun and he is currently doing a remake of Chaloey Sak.

Throughout the history of Thai soap operas, classics come around and around again. Sukhon and his team chose top 10 stories as themes for fashion shoots, with clothing modelled by fresh faces showing the potential to become rising stars. The list includes Ban Sai Thong, Mon Rak Luk Thung, Poo Gong Yod Rak, Taviphob to name a few, and there's information about how many times the stories have been made into soap operas.

"You watched them when you were a kid; now, you may be watching another version with children of your own," he said.

Legendary lakhon come back in a modernised version with a new set of actors. The costumes, the sets and the soundtrack all change to keep up with the times.

"Even though we know what the story is all about, it's still fun to watch. No matter how many remakes, they always get a high rating," said Sukhon, who's longing to see another version of Ban Sai Thong.

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