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Race, nationalism and big money

I don?t think Celebrity Big Brother is a huge racist outrage. It?s a cynical reality show where people are paid money to be abused, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2007 00:17 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

By one of those strange coincidences, I was in London during the first week of January. Almost on impulse, I switched on the TV set in my hotel room to discover that I was watching the very first episode of this series of Celebrity Big Brother.

I find the whole concept of Big Brother bizarre. Why, I keep asking myself, would otherwise sensible people agree to be locked up in a house with foul-mouthed maniacs, where their every move is recorded by hidden TV cameras and where the producers plot and scheme to manufacture conflict?

No idea. But yes, they do. The entire generation of Indian feminists who were turned on by the wit and wisdom of The Female Eunuch may understand why Germaine Greer agreed to live in the Big Brother house but I certainly don’t.

This time too I watched in astonishment as Ken Russell, whose 1970s films (Women In Love, The Music Lovers, Tommy etc) I had so enjoyed, danced into the house, warbling Singing in the rain for the benefit of the live telecast. Singer Leo Sayer (remember When I need you or I can’t stop loving you?), another 1970s favourite, also rushed in enthusiastically.

The rest of the housemates comprised what the Indian press has gleefully taken to describing as white trash: a gay singer from a teen band, a disgraced beauty queen (she slept with the judge and now sleeps with football players), a columnist for the popular press, a small-time American TV star of yesteryear etc etc.

Imagine my surprise then, when our very own Shilpa Shetty wandered in, full of giggly good humour. Why has this girl agreed to live in this madhouse, I wondered. She can’t be that desperate: surely there are enough dance contests for her to judge back in India?

My guess then was that Shilpa had been tempted by the money (Rs 3.5 crore, according to one account) and by the chance to become a household name in England. Obviously, some agent had told her that this was her ticket to the big time.

As anybody who is familiar with the Big Brother format will tell you, the producers conspire to turn the house into a hellhole. The ratings come from nudity, drunkenness and sex (“As the show is live, we cannot predict what will happen,” they announce hopefully), along with heavy doses of conflict. Each series includes at least a couple of dysfunctional maniacs who are placed there to splutter obscenities and to bully other housemates.

The participants know all this. They are made to sign contracts which explicitly state that these are the conditions of participation. And they are paid enough to make it all worthwhile. (One of Shilpa’s housemates, Jade Goody, has made millions of pounds by appearing on reality shows — including the original Big Brother — where her sole function is to introduce conflict and the f-word into the proceedings. Not bad going for a talentless scrubber.)

Given this background, I was not surprised when Jade Goody and a few others turned on Shilpa. With her Bollywood star status, her natural air of celebrity and her goofy good-naturedness, she was the obvious target.

More to the point, I’m not sure that anybody else was surprised. Shilpa is the perfect victim for this kind of a show. And presumably, the same people who told her to sign on the dotted line and to accept the crores, had warned her about this.

So do I feel bad for her? Of course I do. It’s never fun to see somebody you like being bullied by a pair of abusive scrubbers.

But my concern has its limits. She knew what she was getting into. And I’m sure she will cry all the way to the bank. (Do you think I’m being unkind? Well, consider this: Ken Russell walked out in the first week. So did Leo Sayer. So have many others. If Shilpa is still hanging in there, it’s because she wants to.)

Nor am I terribly convinced by all the politically-correct protests. Of course, racism is bad. And of course the UK is a deeply racist society despite all the gaffe about a caring, sharing, multi-cultural nation. Anybody who has lived in Britain will tell you that when all else has failed, they will not hesitate to use your race as a weapon against you.

But are they targeting Shilpa only because she is brown? I’m not so sure. If they hate anybody who’s not white, then why does Jermaine Jackson not have it so bad? (He’s one of the four members of the Jackson Five whose names you’ve forgotten. And unlike his brother Michael, he’s still black.) My guess is they hate her because they’ve been paid to create conflict. And race and ethnicity are their chosen weapons.

More interesting to me is the way in which we’ve reacted. The response of the political establishment, for instance, strikes me as being completely over the top. Should the Foreign Minister of India comment on a trashy British reality show? Should the Finance Minister bother? Do we need to take the Information and Broadcasting Minister’s concerns seriously on the very day when he did his bit for freedom of expression by gratuitously banning a television channel? Should poor, awkward, charmless Gordon Brown, making his first trip to India, be judged by his attitude to Celebrity Big Brother?

Why have the politicians overdone it?

The short answer is: because they sense, with their acute feel for the public mood, that this is a big issue with the Indian middle class.

And why do we care so much? Let’s not pretend it’s because we are concerned with racism in England. They can burn down entire blocks of flats in the East End of London without a single educated Indian giving a damn about all the poor displaced Bengalis. They can beat up hapless Gujarati children in Leicester and it won’t even make it to the Indian papers. Compared to the kind of racism that Asians in Britain sometimes have to face, the Big Brother abuse is kid stuff.

The real reason we are so shocked is because Shilpa Shetty is not a British Asian. She is one of us. And each time her housemates call her names, the slurs tap into the collective insecurities and resentments of English-speaking India.

Each abuse brings back memories of having to stand in immigration queues at Heathrow or JFK, never quite sure of how the official behind the desk will behave; of applying for visas and having to prove that we’re not going to abandon our lives in India to become waiters in some Southall curry shop.

It reminds us of the awkwardness we feel each time we meet a Brit or an American and they tell us that they can’t understand what we are saying because our accent is too strange; of the abuse the young people who work in our call centres have to face when Americans realise that they have been connected to Gurgaon or Bangalore.

And at some subliminal level, memories of the Raj have been burnt into our DNA. We remember the era of Whites-only clubs, of having to defer to some British half-wit even though we speak his language so much more fluently than he ever will, and of sadly recognising that no matter how well we do, the white man will always think that he is better simply because he is white and we are not.

Over the last decade, we have told ourselves that that era is now over. India is the flavour of the new century. The world is beating a path to our door. Bollywood is being hailed as a global cultural phenomenon. Our IT skills are the envy of every other country. Indian companies are taking over the great firms of Europe and America. No longer do we need to be embarrassed to be Indian.

And then suddenly, we see one of our better known actresses, a girl with no ill will towards anyone, being humiliated by white trash, being told that she should go back to the slums, being made fun of for eating with her hands and being called 'the Indian' by people who refuse to even learn her name.

Is it any wonder that our blood boils? Are you surprised that educated Indians are angry and outraged? When we take up for Shilpa, we are responding to centuries of humiliation and hurt. We are serving notice that the old days are gone and done with. This is the new India. And we don’t take this kind of crap any longer.

So funnily enough, I’m on both sides of this debate. I don’t think Celebrity Big Brother is a huge racist outrage. It’s a cynical reality show where people are paid large sums of money to be abused. But equally, I think our reaction to the way in which Shilpa has been treated tells us something about the new India. The Indian reaction is not about race. It’s about nationalism, about our coming of age as a country; about a new pride in ourselves.

Within a month, the Big Brother controversy will be forgotten. But I’m glad it happened. It told us something about ourselves. And more important, it told the world that the new India will not allow itself to be messed with.

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First Published: Jan 20, 2007 23:18 IST