As if conducting a Swayamwar-that-wasn’t on national TV was not enough, Rakhi Sawant, easily the country’s most annoying item girl, is now playing judge and solving the common man’s problems on a reality show. Two weeks on air and Rakhi Ka Insaaf on Imagine TV, where Rakhi doles out her ‘brand’ of ‘justice’, ran into legal trouble — the ones taking offence said it made a mockery of the judicial system.
Meanwhile, Season 4 of Bigg Boss on Colors, which has the dubious honour of having the most number of criminals and oddballs ever together on the small screen, is surpassing its own standards with the petty fights, idiotic chatter and inane observations that its contestants are known for.
Why, then, are we glued? And, more important, if we are what we watch, what is a steady diet of reality TV telling us about what we are on our way to becoming?
But there is an argument out there that lowbrow reality shows are not as soul destroying for the viewer as we’re likely to think.
There is little doubt that reality TV’s detractors are right in pronouncing it as boorish and dumb. Its characters are either delusional dysfunctionals like Bunty Chor, unashamed exhibitionists like Rakhi Sawant and Dolly Bindra and by and large small-time TV stars or society outcasts desperate to grab their two bits in the limelight.
Small-time actor Bindra, who entered Bigg Boss last week, is so loud and crass that it’s led to comparisons being made between her and the late Jade Goody, an ‘iconic’ figure in the world of reality TV.
So why haven’t we yet said enough is enough? For one, they hold up a mirror to ourselves. They do away with our cloaks of political correctness and expose our hypocrisies. If Jade Goody’s treatment of Shilpa Shetty in the Big Brother house in 2007 led to a worldwide debate about racism in Britain, Indian viewers are watching for themselves as issues of class and gender raise their heads in the Bigg Boss House. “A lot of people relate to these shows depending on their emotional structure, current phase in life etc. All of us know the reality of our own lives, and along comes a show like Emotional Atyachar (EA) or Bigg Boss and you feel I’m not the only one who has it bad,” says Isha Singh, clinical psychologist with the Max Hospital. Mumbai-based psychiatrist Anjali Chhabria adds that with shows like EA, people feel they are not the only ones suspecting their spouse. “It reassures people when they look at lives as murky if not murkier than theirs.” This is not to say that the makers of reality TV are angels out to engineer public good. Sources say that the teams working on reality TV shows consist of psychologists whose basic job it is to find the craziest, most explosive personality types out there so as to put them together in a bid to have audiences glued.
But it does lead to situations that we would be shy of discussing on other more civilised platforms. Says Anu Goel, a Delhi-based relationship counsellor: “Watching people from diverse backgrounds under one roof makes viewers aware of what’s going on in society, how people are really and also the triggers that can set off discord among people.” She says she has people coming in to her relating to shows like EA. “They say the show has made them more aware of their relationship, they want to be careful and not get cheated,” says Goel.
In a country where there continues to be stigma attached to seeking counselling, this could at least opening things up. “They are showing the reality of today’s times, people can’t hide behind the barrier that ‘we are Indians and we don’t do all this’,” adds Chhabria.
Reality TV continues to have a good run on Indian screens — while Bigg Boss’ first season in 2006 had TRPs of 1.96, the current season opened with 3.6 in the first week. As the contestants have gotten more and more abusive, emotionally dysfunctional and downright disgusting over the years, the genre has gained ground, despite being panned across the board for marking a new low in voyeurism. Also currently on air is EA on Bindass — the show in which partners ‘test’ the other’s loyalty — where a recent episode notched up a first with a gay man having a sting job done on his partner. And now MTV Roadies in its eighth season this year is set to begin auditions from next week.
Besides personal relationships, they also throw up issues of gender and class, the sort of stuff we’re known to naturally not be good at discussing. In this season itself, Seema Parihar, the Chambal dacoit turned Samajwadi Party politician has said she feels left out because she doesn’t speak English like the others. And Pakistani actress Veena Malik has accused a fellow inmate of sexism and a disrespectful attitude towards women.
Singh says the shows bring these issues to the forefront. “All of us are more aware today with all the media exposure. When things are shown so crudely to you, you tend to think about them more,” she says. Raghu Ram, executive producer of the MTV reality series Roadies, says: “Our hypocrisy is inherent in our DNA. Reality shows rip that facade of hypocrisy but people find it hard to accept the reality. It already exists in our society, people don’t suddenly act racist/sexist, they are brought up like that.”
Singh says that the notion of celebrity worship tends to get diluted as well. In an environment where celebrity news and images are PR controlled to make them look like they live ‘perfect’ lives and making viewers aspire to that unrealistic ideal, reality TV takes the sheen off celebrity, making them human. “The ‘celebrities’ on Bigg Boss come with a certain media image. Once they start behaving the way they do inside the house, it shatters the myth. It gives a reality check to those in society who aspire to be like them,” she says. They may feel disappointed, as the celebs aren’t the perfect people they thought they were, but they also feel relieved that their lives are as imperfect as any other. Argument for and against reality TV
In fact, there are some reality show stars who have become household names simply for this reason. Their flaws make them not just endearing, but sometimes, worthy of emulation. Arjun Bhagat, a producer for the reality show Crime Patrol, says “Rakhi Sawant has made a mark by making her outspokenness work for her. The constant emotional angling about her humble background makes reality TV unique to the Indian context simply because a large part of India doesn’t come from economically privileged backgrounds. Sawant has cashed in on the Hindi-speaking bit on which mainstream entertainment works. So closer home, despite her overtly sexual image, she almost becomes a ‘role model’.”
Actor Shilpa Shetty’s face-off with the late Jade Goody on Celebrity Big Brother 2007 sparked off a worldwide racism row.
Newly weds then, Tanaaz and Bakhtiyar Irani fought and made up on Bigg Boss 3, putting domestic squabbles ‘out there’.
Rakhi Sawant, known for being double-faced, is now doling out justice on national television. Irony, anyone?