Reality bites

THE RECIPE for an idiot-box potboiler is very simple. Gather a motley group of underachieving actors, wannabe models, a relatively below-the-radar sportsperson and former wife or girlfriend of a celebrity.

By E. Shahid (Infotainment)

Published: Sat 28 Dec 2013, 11:41 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:12 PM

Mix them up with a snooty DJ, a politician’s spoiled brat, an ageing socialite divorcee and you have the perfect reality show for a prime time slot. That is exactly what Bigg Boss — the Indian version of Big Brother, which was originally developed by Netherlands-based Endemol — has been dishing out in the subcontinent for seven years.

There is an invisible but omnipresent boss of the house, who watches contestants through dozens of cameras and gives instructions as and when needed. He enforces rules of the game and makes weekly evictions based on votes cast by the public through phone lines. The entire circus is encapsulated in an hour-long episode, dished out every evening, with slick cuts highlighting the rift. If you get hooked on to it, there is a 24x7 live feed available online. Two weekly episodes, anchored by a mega filmstar, and accompanied with movie promotions, sum up events inside the house. The 15-week-long season’s grand finale coincides with the end of the year.

Inside the house, contestants try to outdo each other in performing tasks assigned to them. Ego clashes, backbiting and frequent fights make things spicy. Love affairs bloom too, sometimes genuine, but mostly fake. Relationships are forged to get ahead in the show. The longer you stay the more money you make. More importantly, the more eyeballs you catch, the better your career prospects become in the ‘afterlife’. Some failed actors join the show only to resurrect their careers. A contestant this season has been unabashedly doing unsolicited auditions from inside the house hoping to bag a plum role on his return to the hinterland.

Sometimes a contestant’s past is raked up to create drama. Sometimes an ex-boyfriend is sent in to create a chasm. This year an evicted contestant registered a police complaint against another ‘inmate’ for his ‘violent behaviour’ and the accused had to be ‘fakely evicted’ from the house to appear before the police. He made it back to the house, vowed not to speak on the matter, and was voted out again. The man, infamous for his bad temper, now says he has learnt a lesson in anger management.

A wedding was solemnised inside the house last season. Its authenticity was challenged and it did not last very long. We have not heard about it since then. Out of sight is out of mind. Subtle and explicit product endorsements at every stage bring in the big money. Almost everyone agrees that contestants over-react and scheme against each other to attract eyeballs. If someone is howling or ‘fainting’ out of exhaustion, he/she is reminded: “Don’t take so much of footage.” At the end of the day, where there are eyeballs there are the so-called television rating points.

But if the whole thing is so ridiculous, then why do we watch it at all? First of all, even if we don’t watch it, we cannot ignore it, considering the buzz and the constant publicity that such shows are given. Moreover, no matter how idiotic it may be, it is still a reflection of life. Our world is made up of the kind of people we watch in these programs. We have all been thrust into a space, randomly picked from different walks of life, and we react to circumstances we encounter. Whatever each one of us has achieved in life, there is always someone to look up to and someone else to ridicule. We are either guided by heredity or the environment.

It is also true that upstart television stars have become middle-class heroes for no reason. They are not quite the classy performers one would find in an average theatre company. But the less discerning public looks up to them anyway. The entry of such people into households via television gives them the opportunity to become judgmental about them. By the time the season ends, the audience is left corrupted, deluded into believing that its opinion matters, whether they can vote out a candidate or not.

Conflict breeds drama and more and more entertainment programmes these days thrive on raking up disputes. Here is the pinch of salt though — we have enough drama in our lives and if some get repackaged as entertainment, then we might as well enjoy them.

If we feign friendship to get ahead in life, why should we hate the same on reality television? If we cling on to anything to make money, why shouldn’t someone else do the same?

E. Shahid is a freelance journalist based in Abu Dhabi

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