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Pride and prejudice

While Shilpa Shetty's racist slur controversy does the rounds, racism prevalent back home comes under scanner, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2007 02:55 IST

Now, suddenly, even she says it's not racism.

So, where does that leave the spluttering rage of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the controlled indignation of the Foreign Ministry?

Have you ever seen the Government of India respond with such speed before? Remember how many days the Maharashtra government took to work up even a modicum of anger over the murder of a poor Dalit girl in Khairlanji? So, what makes Shilpa Shetty so different from Priyanka Bhotmange?

And why the alacrity to intervene in what Labour peer Lord Meghnad Desai describes as a "third-rate show watched by third-rate people"?

As mass hysteria gets dressed up in layers of political correctness, the honesty of the debate seems to have got rather conveniently cloaked as well.

First, there's the hypocrisy of the Indian response and the wonderfully deluded dimension to our outrage. Our temples have caste barriers; our homes have separate glasses for the men and women who mop our floors and clean our bathrooms; we think all men who grow beards and wear skull caps may be terrorists; we treat the North-east like a separate country comprising people we affectionately call 'chinkis'; and when it comes to finding brides for our sons, we insist that fair is lovely. Outside India, put us brown folk into one room, and we will even set aside our differences to whisper in snide bewilderment about the ringlet-haired black people whom many of us still call Negroes.

Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. In many ways, India is fighting a battle with herself to move beyond an ugly past. But the truth is still inescapable — as we assert pride in the Indian identity abroad, let's not forget the prejudice right here at home. And let's also gracefully accept that the West has done a much better job than us of creating institutional mechanisms to address complaints of discrimination.

Now, to the television show itself. Industry insiders will concede (if you catch them drunk) that there is nothing quite as contrived as reality TV. Essentially it's all about human conflict so masterfully manipulated that it looks spontaneous, instead of staged. But think about it — what is natural about locking up a disparate bunch of men and women (usually, has-been starlets or wannabe stars) in an enclosed space and allowing them no contact with the outside world?

It's a show designed for dysfunctional dynamics. And I have a sneaking suspicion even the participants are acutely aware of the need to perform. After all, the longer they get to stay on in the 'house', the more money they make. We, the television viewers, are the masters of their fate, and they can never forget that they are always on stage. It's almost like a striptease artist on display for a voyeur she can't see, but one who not just watches her all the time, but pays her bills as well.

Those of you who have caught glimpses of Bigg Boss (the Indian variant of the international show) may know what I mean. The shrill catfights, the charged flirtations in dimly-lit corners, the competitive male swaggers and the women who constantly cry — don't you find it all just cloying and claustrophobic, and worse still, horribly, unequivocally fake?

Feminist and writer Germaine Greer, who describes Shilpa Shetty's television avatar as "infuriating", goes so far as to argue that "everybody hates her because she wants them to". A former commissioning editor of Channel Four (the channel that telecasts Big Brother in Britain), Farrukh Dhondy, says that the television executives running the show are thrilled at the controversy and must feel as victorious as Napoleon himself. And the statistics bear out their cynicism: the show has gained two million additional viewers since allegations of racism surfaced and the buzz is that Shilpa Shetty has manufactured enough sympathy for herself to stay on in the 'house'.

So, does this mean I am comfortable with the abuse heaped on the actress? No, not in the least. The disparaging suggestions on the show that Indians are dirty because they eat with their fingers, the snide references to the 'slums' Shilpa should go back to and the clear jibes at her for being the odd one out are all distasteful and offensive (white trash meets B-grade Bollywood). But here's my point: this is meant to be a show driven by petty antagonisms and ego clashes, and Shilpa Shetty should have known that. Or, did she walk onto the sets with her eyes wide shut?

And here's the fascinating bit — when one of the abuses was blipped out on television, everyone thought Shilpa had been called a 'Paki'; actually she had been called a c***. But once that was revealed, no one made too much fuss about it. Why? If this is about ideology, is racism that much worse than sexism? Is being called a 'dog' (which she was) somehow more acceptable than being called an 'Indian'? Whether we like it or not, this is the sort of grossness that apparently makes reality TV both repulsive and rivetting; but it's a baseness innate to the very idea of the show.

Even if we don't agree with Farrukh Dhondy when he says that someone who has lived in the badlands of Bollywood should have a "skin as thick as a rhinoceros", the fact is Shilpa Shetty is no unsuspecting victim. She will walk away with crores of rupees and it should come as no surprise that she has hastily retracted her own allegations of racial bias.

Musicians like Birmingham-born Apache Indian (otherwise known as Steven Kapoor) warn against the trivialisation of the racism debate. He writes about leaving England for India since he could not feel at home there. He talks about how "stani" is the latest slur in town, reserved for immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and 'Hindustan'. Nobody paid him extra money for his pains.

Racism is serious business. Cheap television is simply good business.
Let's not forget that distinction.

And instead of playing Peeping Toms on some banal television show, let's turn an eye inward. Then, we may find a real reason to be angry.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7
barkha@ndtv.com