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British reality: coloured TV

The latest eviction vote on Big Brother is a British referendum on racism, report Vijay Dutt and Shashi Baliga.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2007 02:45 IST

Dale Bhagwagar, Shilpa Shetty's publicist, had made a prediction earlier this week - "It will be like the classic Hindi film. Truth and goodness will triumph in the end." An apologetic Jade Goody leaving the Big Brother house proved true Bhagwagar's clairvoyance.

After having seen visuals of her abusing and ridiculing the Indian "poppadom", Goody had to agree with much of the British and Indian public. "Oh my God! Maybe I am racist," confessed the embarrassed 25-year-old mother of two.

Goody's self-deprecation, however, might not be enough to assuage the wounds of a bruised national psyche. A proud Indian populace felt shocked when it found that the adjectives being heaped upon its pretty representative were caustic rather than flattering.

Much like a hundred years ago, it blamed the mindset of a still-colonial Britain; Big Brother is, after all, 'reality' TV. The one question that Jade Goody has prompted the world to ask is this - Is multi-cultural Britain still a distant dream?

A quivering stiff upper lip

In the aftermath of the Goody-Shetty saga, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, Leader of the Opposition David Cameron and London Mayor Ken Livingstone, have all felt the need to publicly condemn racism.

Chancellor Gordon Brown has found himself in an even worse predicament - on a state visit to India, Brown has had to field many more angry questions about Celebrity Big Brother and has hardly been given a chance to outline his prime-ministerial ambitions.

The British electorate, too, has been worried that the conduct of BB contestants can quite easily be mistaken for a reflection of modern Britain's manners, morals and culture. Over 95 per cent of the letters sent to newspapers express concern about the tarnishing of Britain's all-inclusive image.

This hullabaloo has led a commentator to note - "It is depressing that this country's race relations debate is now dictated by the ignorant views of a few attention seekers on a television programme."

Another community bruised

For the British Asian community, however, this instalment of BB is a lot more than your usual television programme. It has helped bring to fore a cruelty that they eternally suffer; Shilpa allegedly being called 'Paki' was perhaps the most telling instance.

The BBC Asian network claims that the BB imbroglio has been its biggest story ever. As compared to Kashmir, the rise of the right-wing British National Party, and the Pakistani nuclear bomb, Shilpa Shetty has generated a lot more audience response.

The resultant uproar has also united the disparate South Asian communities of Britain. Despite a storm of 80 mph that crushed all hopes of a staged protest, an Indian TV channel crew found two Pakistanis holding ground.

"While we believe that Britain is a respectful society, racism does exist," says Rickie Sehgal, chair of Britain's Hindu Forum. "Indians are more likely to be employed in Britain, but the number of Indians at the board level can be counted on your fingers."

With the majority of British Muslim youth already alienated, the likes of Blair and Brown would have undeniably breathed a sigh of satisfaction seeing Jade Goody leave the house. A usual BB eviction vote had turned itself into Britain's referendum on racism.

The British population seems to have unanimously declared that racism will not be tolerated. They have thus deferred yet another crack in Britain's multi-cultural façade.

Laughing to the bank

Channel 4 caved in to accusations of profiteering over the row by declaring that all earnings from the bumper vote - reportedly 50 pence per phone call - would go to charities, as demanded by Britain's biggest union, Unison.

Earlier they had reportedly wanted to give a quarter of the collection. Even so, the broadcaster and producers, Endemol, will benefit from the controversy. Ratings have almost doubled after the row.

And Channel 4 is not the only one laughing on its way to the bank. At 31, Shilpa Shetty did not seem to have many options left in Hindi films. In fact, she has just a couple on hand - Apne with Sunny Deol and Anurag Basu's Metro. She had just one movie - Shaadi Karke Phas Gaya Yaar - last year and it bombed in spite of Salman Khan.

Her last hit, Dus, was in 2005 but it was a multi-starrer. You'll have to go back to 2004 for her last performance of note, in Phir Milenge, where she played an HIV patient. She began espousing the AIDS cause after that, but really, has received the most publicity in recent times as a judge on the dance reality show Jhalak Dikhla Ja.

Shetty's publicist Bhagwagar says, "Even though her Rs 3-crore-plus fee for Celebrity Big Brother has been made much of, it is not a sum Shilpa would have too much trouble earning back here in India." Her Jhalak stint is said to have earned her a crore in all. She would charge somewhere between Rs 20 to Rs 30 lakh for a movie (admittedly not too many of them now) and Rs 15 to 20 lakh for a performance on stage or at an event (of which there are plenty).

She is also said to charge Rs 5 to Rs 6 lakh to inaugurate a store. So why would such a success subject herself to such misery? Bhagwagar explains, "She's decided to do the show to do something new, take one step ahead in life."

International offers will undeniably lead to many a new step. But Hindi filmdom is set to remain largely unmoved. Racism, alas, does not work wonders at the Indian box-office.

Email Vijay Dutt and Shashi Baliga: vdutt @aol.com; shashi .baliga@hindustantimes.com