Bigg Boss and Salman Khan aren’t the problem, the contestants are: 5 examples of the format done right
Bigg Boss, as hosted by Salman Khan, will enter its twelfth season on Sunday, establishing it as the country’s favourite guilty pleasure/hate watch. The concept of Big Brother however, observed from a distance, isn’t as low-brow as Bigg Boss - with all its Dolly Bindras and KRKs - has made it out to be.
We’re living in a post-Edward Snowden world, when government surveillance is a very real, and very terrifying thing - but God forbid Bigg Boss does anything more intelligent than pitting ex-lovers against each other.
Cultural, religious, socio-economic integration - Bigg Boss has somehow managed to avoid being cerebral despite a premise that positively demands it. Big Brother, in its original form, began as a sociological experiment to bring people from different walks of life under the same roof, basically throw away the key, and see what happens.
But like the spiritual creatures that we are, to us Big Boss is more like God. And he controls everything, including who he lets in and out of his domain. Only two kinds of people enter the show: Those who want to be someone, and those who used to be someone. Both are visibly desperate. Short of selling their bodies, they are willing to sing, dance even humiliate themselves for their supper. Such is the attraction of the Bollywood dream. They even turn their backs on large lumps of cash because even a glimmer of the alternative, the life they all dream of, is enough. Where else will you see this?
The only person who even marginally comes close to wielding the godlike power of Bigg Boss is host Salman Khan. The intensity of fear, not respect, but fear that he inspires is a sight to behold. The elephant in the room being that every contestant dreams of one day joining show business, and they all turn to Salman ‘bhai’ for help. He is the fairy godmother of their dreams and he is the genie that can grant them all their wishes
And these contestants, ironically, are the biggest reason for the show’s controversial reputation. But that’s not the fault of the show. They need the eyeballs. For that, they cast their show like a circus. And the essence of the programme suffers for it. Because Bigg Boss is hardly a circus. Instead, it’s like a game of chess. And they’ve sat monkeys down to play it.
There are, however, better examples of the Big Brother format - shows and movies that have correctly and intelligently harvested these ideas. Here are five.
If you’ve ever wondered how a show like Bigg Boss is produced, look no further than UnReal. Set behind-the-scenes of a dating reality show, UnReal tells a story that is even more scandalous and pulpy than the very Bigg Boss-like drivel they’re shooting. The psychological manipulation of the contestants; the power dynamics in front of, and behind the camera; and the hunger to rise to the top - these are all Bigg Boss staples, explored with frightening insight.
It’ll take a special kind of apathy for a person to read this premise and still not be interested in immediately bingeing Dead Set, but here goes: A new season of Big Brother is about to start. One by one the new contestants are introduced - they fit snugly into their categories. There’s a posh girl, a young man of Pakistani descent, an ASBO... You get the idea. But soon after the show begins - and we, the audience, enter the house with them - a zombie outbreak happens on the outside. Suddenly, the Big Brother house is the safest place in the UK, perhaps even the world.
Dead Set comes from the genius mind of Charlie Brooker, a name you should probably memorise, because we’ll be returning to it in a bit.
The Truman Show
To this day, it might be the best performance Jim Carrey has ever given. The film’s central idea - that we are a part of a large scale show, directed by an elderly white man, and no decision taken by us matters - raises interesting ideas about predestination and free will.
The Adjustment Bureau
But if predestination and free will and the existence of God are ideas that keep you awake, look no further than this sci-fi gem. Matt Damon plays a politician who, after a chance meeting with a girl, veers off the course - called ‘the Plan’ - set for him by someone known as ‘the Chairman’. Everyone is a part of a plan, and no one is allowed to deviate from it. But Damon breaks away, and sets into motion a chain of events that were never meant to happen, causing a rift in the ‘plans’ of everyone he comes into contact with.
Black Mirror: White Rabbit
While you should, if you haven’t already, watch every episode of Charlie Brooker’s masterpiece show (preferably multiple times), you should especially watch The White Bear - the second episode of the second season. Brooker’s world view is dismal. And this episode is a scathing takedown of our worst tendencies as human beings - we’re shameless voyeurs, we take pleasure in the misfortune of others, and we lack empathy. It’s a rather morbid way to end this week’s piece, but there you have it.