Put a bunch of people from mostly upper-middle-class families in voluntary confinement for a limited period of time, add a tantrik who claims he can revive the dead, let a muscled man wryly rate the legs of a fellow contestant, observe the daily-slipping accents of the outsiders desperate to fit in — and you have a toxic but addictive brew for the masses.
The reason why Bigg Boss has survived ten seasons despite criticism for its sexist undertones is plain voyeurism. There's nothing common folks love more than seeing the lives of stars playing out in front of their eyes — daytime soap heartthrobs brushing their teeth with gum-sensitive toothpaste and the siren of the primetime drama mopping the bathroom floor.
It brings celebrities down to their level and opens them up to scrutiny.
The show has had many controversies in the past. Kamaal R Khan was thrown out in 2009 for lobbing a bottle of water at a contestant. A bunch of housemates tried to escape by scaling the walls. Yet, the show is also far more tailored for sensitive (read censored) Indian audiences than its British or American counterparts.
For example, Indian TV would never dream of ever enabling a situation in which contestants can get under the sheets, an incident that actually happened on Big Brother UK. Or consider Winston McKenzie's homophobic slur on Celebrity Big Brother.
The former boxer said he would "cope" with a homosexual in the house by standing with his "back against a brick wall all the time". Thankfully, Indian contestants have had better sensibilities. Although transgender contestants did complain they were mocked by others on the show.
Yet, as TRPs climbed, the makers have tried to push the people they've recruited to entertain the masses to say and do atrocious things on national TV. A contestant this season peed her pants on camera.
But in addition to the general nastiness that comes from being cooped up in a house with 15 people, the template the show is following this season has also brought out the blatant class privilege in the contestants. The house is divided among the non-celebrities, the commoners who have been given the title of malik (masters), and the established celebrities, the sevaks or servants, who will do their bidding.
Which means stars such as Gaurav Chopra and Lopamudra Raut could be 'summoned' by ringing a tiny bell. After midnight, if need be. Sounds exciting? A tall, good-looking TV star at your beck and call. This is where the imagery stops being fun. The contestants seem to forget they are on a TV show and start to throw so much weight around, using words so discriminatory that even host Salman Khan have had to take it up during his weekend chat with the inmates.
In a 'guess my secret' task, Priyanka Jagga was outraged that someone suggested her mother made bidis for a living to bring her up. Her indignation evident, she screamed at the contestant in an affected English accent — "Excuse me, my mother is a lawyer" — and threw a tantrum until others forced her to apologise. Standing amongst them was contestant Navin Prakash, whose mother did roll bidis to bring him up, trying to hide his shock at her reaction the best as he could.
Being a bidi worker's daughter would seem a fate worse than being in a goldfish bowl for an entire nation to gawk at once a day at night for an hour.
"Why are you explaining yourself? Do you have to explain yourself to your servants at home? Just give the order and be done with it."
It's unfortunate that instead of using its popularity to talk about social disparity — what else could be the point of mixing up a houseful of celebrities and non-celebrities? — the show is perpetuating and glorifying servitude as a normal way of life among the haves and the have-nots.
"Why are you explaining yourself? Do you have to explain yourself to your servants at home? Just give the order and be done with it," advised contestant Manu Punjabi. I pity the staff who have to serve these entitled and arrogant shizgoblins at home. Priyanka, on the masters' team, was upset because she had to prefix her commands with "please".
"What do you teach kids when they first begin to speak? We teach them to say thank you and please and good morning," Khan, during his chat, sternly told a sulking Priyanka. That an adult has to be reminded that people who serve you, even in a scripted TV show, are humans and have to be treated with the same courtesy that you show your peers and family is nothing short of astonishing.
But Khan's stand is hypocritical considering that the template is based on a bunch of people ordered to wait hand on foot on others on the show — endorsing a practice that is badly skewed against workers who are often not even paid minimum wage in communities outside.
That an adult has to be reminded that people who serve you, even in a scripted TV show, are humans and have to be treated with the same courtesy that you show your peers and family is nothing short of astonishing.
"I haven't done a course in handling a broom, like you have," Lopamudra snapped back at Priyanka who asked her to clean her room. It's needless to point out that the people Lopamudra, and indirectly the show, is mocking for TRPs — the folks who "specialise" in cleaning — are often the ones that do it out of crippling poverty. They work as domestic help at homes, roll bidis for a living, clean bathrooms and wait on the wealthy so that their labour can be formularised for prime-time entertainment.
There is no shame in manual labour. But there is a world of shame in victimising and mocking the people who do it.
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