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Viewer Or Voyeur?

By Amrita Nandy-Joshi

24 November, 2006

“Are you tired of watching fake emotions, exaggerated drama, contrived storylines and typical plots in your daily soaps?” Through this subverted acknowledgement of the quality of its shows, the website of a television channel (kudos to the channel for such stark self-reflection and reflexivity), introduces its new ‘reality’ game show, Big Boss. Instead of the ‘fake’, it now promises the ‘real’—real jealousy, real fights, real pain and real scandals. The plan is to take viewers skin-close to 13 ‘celebrities’ who live under one roof and are left to fend for themselves. With no means of communication with the outside world or any entertainment, they are made to perform mundane chores such as cook, clean etc., as cameras record their actions for daily broadcast. Amidst all the skirmishes and name-calling that such close interaction provokes, viewers get to judge and vote for or against celebrities, to choose a winner who walks out with rupees 50 lakhs. Welcome to Indian Schadenfreude telly, where, as per the channel’s webpage, “The celebrities have to entertain themselves for 100 days whilst the public take pleasure in their pains”.

The so-called ‘celebrities’, on the other hand, comprise an assortment of volatile have-beens and page-3 wannabes, all with enough chutzpah to bare their coarse personalities. Desperate to save their sagging reputations, the celebrities have latched themselves on to the show in the hope that its shooting TRPs might boost their respective careers. For a successful show, they yawn, brush their teeth, bare their skins, scratch their bottoms, display their idiosyncracies and share their crass conversations in front of the camera. The setting and situations in the house are designed to induce clashes, jealousy, prejudice and insecurity. The intention is to create controversy and offer plenty of eavesdropping and jaw-dropping moments, as if it was all a celebration of nastiness. Celebrity culture is itself a turn-off. Now, their exhibitionism under the powerful glare of public gaze makes it repugnant.

The camera has become privy to a seed-bed of base human emotions – intrigue, manipulation, embarrassment, depravity and so on – to quench the viewer’s thirst for such action. Is it not the same appetite that drives us towards gossip, be it the neighbour’s dying marriage or a noisy gathering on the road? The camera’s roving gaze is tuned to stop at every juicy morsel that could make the viewer relish it bit-by-bit, by the mouthful (or, screenful?). Moreover, the inclusion and use of a transgender individual to stir-up that extra titillation is certainly distasteful. It sensationalises and dilutes the gravity of issues that sexual minorities have –time and again – attempted to highlight. Herein lies the hypocrisy of the middle classes—we approve cheap sexual innuendos as progressive minds, pour scorn at those ‘puritans’ who disagree, while view individuals with different sexual orientations as perverts. (The debate triggered by Dr. Ramadoss, the current union health minister, by proposing an on-screen ban on smoking too was met by similar simplistic positions. There were essentially two camps—the avant-garde liberals who vehemently opposed the ban or the mocked-at primitive tribe who viewed smoking cinestars as bad role models for youngsters). In fact, the current fight for a repeal of Section 377 is aimed at the decriminalization of homosexuality. Such frivolous programmes can further stigmatize an already marginalised community of people who have every right to live with dignity.

The other debatable aspect is the ‘reality’ of such entertainment? Critics of reality shows have often stated that the reality portrayed is the result of a well-devised brief, many modifications and constant monitoring by the producers. The point, therefore, to be noted is that such reality shows are merely unscripted, not unedited! This Indian version of the U.K. and U.S. Big Brother series is anyway stated to be a safer bet, with lesser sex and violence. The censors would not have allowed an Indian Temptation Island, albeit it seems that the producers too are using as much canvas as is allowed, working right at the edge of their boundaries. Reality – without make-up, unedited and uncensored – is not too easy to stomach. For if that was the case, why do we not smack our lips at the coverage of suicidal Vidharba farmers? Why does that reality not attract advertising revenue or SMS voting? It is clearly not reality but wanton debauchery that makes reality shows sellable.

By allowing the viewer to revel in their prejudices, to encourage them to make snap judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, while offering them sleazy scoops reeks of an obsession for profits nurtured by private and ‘free’ media conglomerates. That argument that revenues drive market forces and therefore, also shape popular culture, public taste, consumption patterns has just got more glaring evidence Contemporary culture, with its loud demand for freedom and individuality has muffled other voices. Its strong gaze too might be turning us into confident voyeurs who sneer at their closet counterparts. Remember, it is considered cool and daring to wear your attitude on your sleeve. Yet, making money out of offering a peep into others’ privacy cannot be justified as creative or real entertainment. However, since morality is now a dirty word and public morality even more so, we are transfixed on to our TV screens as our jaded taste-buds know only the gluttony that feeds on degraded entertainment. Judging a bunch of publicity-seekers and casting votes for them is done with quick enthusiasm by the TV-viewing classes, but casting political votes invites only apathy and indifference. Such is the state of us consumers of high-gloss and high-drama that in our false consciousness we allow marketers to lead us on with their little fingers. Let’s critically question our sources of pleasure and maybe let the camera be just that—a camera and not a keyhole.

By Amrita Nandy-Joshi writes on women’s issues for the ‘Oxford Women in Politics’ and is an alumna of the University of Oxford, U.K.


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