The rather frightening fade of reality TV: The Way We Were by Poonam Saxena

It started out simple, with set-ups designed for drama. Then came the vitriol and online fan clubs lashing out at each other. Today, sadly, even this isn’t the worst of what hits our screens.
Dolly Bindra fainting in Shweta Tiwari’s arms: Bigg Boss’s early years, while startling then, seem positively innocent today. PREMIUM
Dolly Bindra fainting in Shweta Tiwari’s arms: Bigg Boss’s early years, while startling then, seem positively innocent today.
Updated on Oct 02, 2021 04:07 PM IST
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Bigg Boss has just launched its 15th season, and there’s some excitement among fans about the list of contestants (singer Neha Bhasin and TV actor Zeeshan Khan are among those in the house). In the wider world, it’s pretty much business as usual. It wasn’t always so. It’s difficult to fathom, today, the impact the show had when it first aired, on Sony in November 2006.

It was the first reality show on our screens that went way beyond the familiar talent contest. Here, 13 men and women, strangers to each other, would live under the same roof for 100 days, with no contact with the outside world, under 24-hour camera surveillance. It was a kind of voyeurism India had never encountered before.

A franchise of the international hit Big Brother, produced by media company Endemol and first aired in the Netherlands but most controversial in the UK, Bigg Boss Season 1 was hosted by Arshad Warsi. Participants included TV star Rakhi Sawant, models Carol Gracias and Anupama Verma, and actors Ravi Kissen, Amit Sadh, Deepak Tijori, Aryan Vaid and Rahul Roy (who won that year).

Where Big Brother was known for its sex and nudity, the Indian version relied on “romance tracks” between housemates (Aryan Vaid and Anupama Verma, for instance), the high-energy levels of some participants (Rakhi Sawant dancing and performing mimicry), and attempts to spark conflict in the group by assigning divisive tasks.

All this might seem tame in comparison to what Bigg Boss viewers have come to expect in the last few years: pitched battles online between fans of rival participants (since audience votes decide which participants are evicted), increasingly outrageous behaviour in the house (screaming matches, fist fights, personal attacks). But for viewers in 2006, just watching the tension build between strangers locked up together had a weird kind of allure.

Once housemates had nominated other housemates for eviction, public voting decided who got the axe. This was a new experience for viewers too. As Warsi said at the time, “Yeh reality shows ka baap hai! (This is the father of all reality shows).”

It was another world back then. Facebook and Twitter had barely arrived in India (both entered the market in the second half of 2006). WhatsApp was still four years away; Instagram, six.

The biggest reality show on Indian television until then had been the kind and gentlemanly Kaun Banega Crorepati (Star Plus; 2000). Indian Idol, launched on Sony in 2004 and based on an international format created by Fremantlemedia, was the first time viewers got a say. TV audiences voted for their favourite singers, got deeply involved in contestants’ backstories, argued over who was best and who was most deserving. But even there, hope drove the proceedings.

Ravinder Ravi, a house painter from Ludhiana, for example, made it past better singers and into the final five because his story touched a chord among viewers. He had lost his parents at 10. He didn’t make much money. He had to borrow the bus fare, he said, to make it to Delhi for the initial auditions.

This seems curiously sweet and innocent in today’s world, where everything is “reality TV”: accidents, street fights, political drama, horrifying violence. It would be hard for even the most carefully scripted show to keep up with the seemingly ordinary people willing to share their worst deeds and most intimate details online.

And so Bigg Boss and Indian Idol continue, but much of their audience has turned away.

It is the online world that is now the car-crash-in-slow-motion. It has even invaded the reality TV space and made it more extreme. Take the hugely popular Japanese reality show Terrace House. Here, six young strangers shared a home. They were not imprisoned; they could go about their normal lives. They were largely polite and caring to each other, and could leave any time they wanted. Last year, one of the housemates faced intense bullying on social media, and died by suicide. The show was cancelled.

In a world where online and offline are so intricately intertwined that they can no longer be separated, the repercussions can be terrifying. This was not the case once upon a time, but that time is lost forever.

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    Poonam Saxena is the national weekend editor of the Hindustan Times. She writes on cinema, television, culture and books

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Wednesday, December 01, 2021