I find most reality shows revoltingly tacky. When the trend towards reality TV took off abroad over a decade ago, I was horrified. Was Britain really fascinated by a show in which dysfunctional morons were locked up in a house and urged to fight and fornicate? It was, alas, and Big Brother became a huge hit.
What kind of American went on The Jerry Springer Show and discussed his or her sex life at length, pausing only to hurl abuse at parents and spouses? The answer seemed to be: nearly every kind of American. And soon, the Springer format was imitated by every channel.
But at least, I thought to myself, there was a small consolation. India would only accept part of the reality boom. We would love big ticket quiz shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because they helped ordinary people hit the limelight (the premise of Slumdog Millionaire). And we would tune in to talent hunts because they empowered people whose talents would otherwise have been wasted.
Never did it occur to me that we would follow the trend of the rest of the world and go the whole reality hog.
But that’s exactly what we’ve done. The most-hyped reality shows of the last couple of years have all been voyeuristic and seedy. In Bigg Boss, C-grade celebrities made out and made up as a nation watched, fascinated. In Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, the appalling Rakhi Sawant chooses a husband from among several fame-hungry bozos. And in Sach Ka Saamna, unknowns appear on TV to discuss whether they have slept with women younger than their daughters. (When the better-known Vinod Kambli appears, the show turns into Sachin Ka Saamna.)
Why do people do it? My guess is that in the age of global media, India cannot be insulated from international trends.
The Moment of Truth — the show on which Sach Ka Saamna is based — is a huge success in 23 countries. Bigg Boss is a version of Big Brother, another global format. And no doubt there are lots of floozies choosing husbands on TV in other countries as well.
Plus, there’s no getting around the fact that Indians have changed. These days, people want to share. They want to come on TV and tell us their stories, discuss their sexuality, complain about their parents and ask us to participate in their tragedies.
We may laugh at them, even as they weep for the cameras. But let’s not deny that there are millions of viewers who are enthralled by their stories and who would rather watch real drama over a saas-bahu serial.
So, how do we cope with this overdose of reality?
Here’s what I think we certainly should not do: involve the politicians.
And yet, that’s exactly what the politicians are demanding. If you followed the needless uproar in Parliament over Sach Ka Saamna last week, then you will be familiar with the arguments advanced by our worthy parliamentarians.
They are shocked by the show. They think it’s against the principles of Indian culture. They want legislation to ban such shows. They want censorship of TV programmes.
At some level, I can understand their outrage. All reality TV is tacky. Moreover, which Indian politician would relish the prospect of being strapped to a lie detector? Put our politicians on Sach Ka Saamna and the lie detector would expose them with every question.
But, no matter how agitated our representatives get, censorship is not the answer. It is not the job of the government to decide what shows we watch. When we hold that remote, we are masters of our own time. And there’s no way any of us will cede that right to some politician.
Besides, what does ‘alien to Indian culture’ mean? And what’s Indian culture anyway? All culture is always in flux. If you look at the movies of the 1940s, they are dramatically different from the movies of today. Yet, both reflect Indian culture as it existed when the movies were made. Would it have made any sense to have imposed restrictions in the 1940s that ensured that cinema continued to reflect those cultural values?
At some level, all of us accept this. One of the most significant — if largely unsung — developments in the government-culture relationship over the last five years has been the transformation of the Film Censor Board under Sharmila Tagore. She has stopped the Board from functioning as the handmaiden of politicians and has allowed filmmakers to explore themes and dialogue that previous censors would have banned. As a consequence, Indian cinema is richer and more varied. And society has suffered no damage.
The problem with too much censorship is that it takes away the individual’s right to choose. The basis of democracy is that we can all choose, even if that choice is restricted to voting for Sleazy Politician A versus Sleazy Politician B. When politicians declare that we should surrender our right to choose what TV programme we want to watch to them, what they are saying is this: you are mature enough to decide who runs the country but too stupid to decide which TV show you want to watch.
Worse still, they are also saying: We are much more mature than you stupid people. Let us make the decisions.
I am no fan of reality shows. But I’m no great fan of Indian politicians either. And I am deeply suspicious of attempts to curtail free speech in the name of some political conception of Indian culture.
So I have my own solution. If I don’t like Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, I don’t watch it. If I am appalled by Sach Ka Saamna, I switch to another channel.
I vote with my remote.
And that’s all I really need to do. Nobody forces me to watch a reality show. And I don’t need some politician taking away my right to watch it or — in my case — to not watch it.
So let’s get a grip. Reality shows can be tacky. But we don’t need political interference to regulate them. We are capable of making our own decisions.
And as for India’s politicians, don’t they have bigger problems to solve?
The views expressed by the author are personal