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Growth of reality TV has been spectacular. Why do people like it? Or participate in shows that can leave their private lives in tatters in public?, writes Malvika Nanda.

tv Updated: Feb 27, 2010 23:54 IST
Malvika Nanda

Mumbai businessman Vishal Jaiswal, 26, wanted to test his girlfriend’s fidelity. So he called UTV Bindass, a new TV channel, which has a reality show called Emotional Atyachaar. The premise of the show is simple: the channel spies on a person’s partner if asked to, and airs the results on national TV. So they began spying on his girlfriend, Resha, 20. It turned out she was totally loyal, but he wasn’t. While Jaiswal was busy flirting with one of the girls from the channel crew, little did he know the camera had turned on to him. He was exposed.

The whole sordid saga played itself out to high viewership.

It’s a far cry from the days when game shows on TV meant team quizzes. Back in the ol’ days when Doordarshan was the only channel in India, a young man by the name of Siddhartha Basu used to anchor a show called Quiz Time. It was huge: it made quizzing popular from Surat to Shillong and Srinagar to Port Blair. Then Doordarshan lost its monopoly, and the country its television innocence. Now we have Emotional Atyachaar, and of course, much else.

Reality TV, as you’ve probably noticed, is the new huge thing on television. Every entertainment channel has at least two (see box). There are 17 major reality shows at present, and more are on their way. Plus, there are news channels, some of which also compete in the same space.

The genre has its declared fans, but there are others who merely consume it as a guilty pleasure. Basu is careful to make the distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘non fiction’. He says that non-fiction shows constitute about 15 per cent of the programmes on Indian general entertainment channels and only a fraction of that could be properly described as reality shows; where documentary techniques are used or misused in entertainment shows.

The kind of ‘reality’ that’s on today spans from Emotional Atyachaar to song-and-dance talent hunts to, well, Rahul Dulhaniya le Jayenge. A show about which ‘lucky winner’ Rahul Mahajan, son of the late BJP leader Pramod, will marry.

Relationships are now the big thing in reality TV, says Heather Gupta, channel head of Bindass. “For our target audience that ranges from 18 to 24 years old, relationships hold great relevance. It will continue to be a genre of great interest for quite some time.” Prem Kamath, general manager of marketing, Channel V, agrees. “The entertainment wants of 15- to 24-year-olds are expanding. What you see on the channel is a reflection of that. If it’s dating they are interested in, we’ll try to present a different take on dating.”

And why would anyone want to cross the dirty lines of their personal relationships aired on national TV?

Jaiswal, the man who ended up getting nailed on Emotional Atyachaar, has his own take. “Whether it’s negative publicity or positive, I feel like a star in my own right. People now recognise me in malls and other hangouts. I don’t care if they laugh, I feel like a celebrity.” His girlfriend came back to him, he adds, and he now knows for sure she truly loves him.

Real appeal

The sense that this and other shows in the genre are ‘real life drama’ is a big turn-on for viewers. Avani Kapoor, 26, is a fan of the show Music ka Maha Muqabla on Star Plus. She says she likes the show because it deals with real people and not fictional characters. Her husband Shiv, 29, who long preferred news and movie channels, has also been converted by the ‘real’ aspect of it.

The show is the brainchild of Gajendra Singh, a pioneer of talent hunts on TV. Singh was the brains behind Antakshari in 1993 and SaReGaMa in 1995. He says he started spiking his shows with reality to let audiences see the real picture. A judge on one of his shows, music director Ismail Darbar, walked out of a shoot once because he thought injustice had been done to a deserving contestant. “The shoot was stalled and when it started I didn’t know how to maintain the continuity without letting the audiences in,” he says.

How real is it anyway?

Ashutosh Kaushi is one of the biggest stars of reality TV. He won MTV Roadies and Bigg Boss. “Reality kahan bachti hai camera ke saamne (Reality hardly survives in front of the camera),” he says. “People think it’s all real, but it can be fake too… how will the world know?”

Even in shows like Bigg Boss, one can’t be truly real because the medium restricts, says Kaushik.

“The celebrities, in any case, are calculative in reacting because they know the public is watching. Even in other shows, participants react and act in ways to generate attention, then how is it real?”

For example, Rahul bhaiya (Mahajan) is the lord of his show, says Kaushik, and marry he will… “but he must be keeping an eye on which girl increases the TRPs on the show, so he will definitely keep her till the end”.

Rahul bhaiya candidly says the lines between the television show and his real life have blurred. “This is real for me,” he says. “It’s a question of two lives… even my family was an integral part of the selection process of the candidates. I’ve gone ahead with my mother and my astrologer’s approval.”

Kaushik says there is also scripted reality. According to him, everything goes. Siddhartha Basu says, “If one definition of a reality show goes that it is unscripted, then there are very few which would qualify.”

He adds that within the non-fiction segment, hardcore reality shows with revelatory and interpersonal drama, can both be true or fabricated, and attract attention for all the right or wrong reasons.”

Why it works

The charm of reality TV lies in a certain hidden reflexivity, once said the world’s most celebrated philosopher and theorist of contemporary popular culture, Slavoj Zizek. In other words, we like it because we get to see people act themselves out.

Which brings us to Shah Rukh Khan. The badhsah of Bollywood has often been accused of playing himself in all his movies.

Now upscale TV channel Discovery Travel & Living has launched a show which stars SRK. Viewers will get to see his ‘real life’ as opposed to his ‘reel life’. Reality TV, we’re afraid, doesn’t get any bigger.