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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Age of Unreal TV

The year gone past will be remembered for the efflorescence of reality television in India. Welcome to our nation of voyeurs, exhibitionists and drama queens

Now that 2009 is history, we can look back and marvel at how it was the year when reality TV took over our lives… Indeed, in the case of some worthies like Tiger Woods whose carefully created persona unraveled in the unrelenting glare of television cameras and pursuing paparazzi, it was the year when their lives became a wildly careening reality TV show scripted by a lunatic on ah, Ambien. 

Woods did not welcome the attention but he is, like last year’s major celebrity freak death Micheal Jackson, a rare creature who’s flowered in the hothouse of the genuinely accomplished. The truly talented hardly ever want to participate in the voyeurism of the genre simply because they don’t need to. Witness the carefully orchestrated outings of a Shahrukh Khan or an Aamir that coincide only with fresh film releases. 

Given the magical Indian ability to immediately recognize that indefinable something called star quality and our touching reverence for it no one will ever know if the marriages of these actors are at a Woodsian breaking point. And if truth be told, we don’t much care. They’ve achieved the level of demi god in the Hindi film firmament and no mere sexual indiscretions can make them tumble.

Those heights are what the rest of B-grade humankind with its meager gifts aspires to. It’s what the pumped-full-of-plastic Sherlyn Chopra and muttering-into-cameras Vindu of Bigg Boss Season 3 crave. It’s what that woman on Pichle Janam Ki Raaz who was ‘revealed’ to have died in the plane crash that also killed scientist Homi Bhabha wanted. It’s what the hormonal youngsters on Splitsvilla fantasise about and it’s what the babes on Akshay Kumar’s Khatron ke Khiladi Season 2 jumped off buildings for. 

It’s definitely what Rakhi Sawant desperately wanted too. Unlike the other wannabes, though, Sawant made it. She’s living proof that reality TV can transform your life, that it can transport you from your squalid origins and get you that coveted prize, your very own television show. The real success of Rakhi Ka Swayamvar lay in how it showed the young women of this essentially conservative country that it’s possible to fake things, even love with someone as impossibly named as Elesh Parujanwala, and still emerge a winner. And no, the sky won’t fall on you, your name will not be mud and the khap panchayat will not gun you down – well, at least not for your transgressions in tellyland.  

Really, until the dawn of the age of reality television there was no hope. Most people lived in obscurity luxuriating in the occasional attention of friends who ‘like’ their status updates on social networking sites. Their fantasies playing out in the dark theatres of the mind were never projected onto the shared mindspace of our culture. Reality TV has changed all that. It’s given everyone a chance to get their clich├ęd 15 minutes of fame, which can then be stretched out endlessly if they are lucky. Like old Bollywood once did, it’s recreated a common language for the great Indian urbanite that cuts across class, caste and religion. The family in the slum and the one in the well appointed haveli both cannot get enough of twisted television reality. 

What does that say about us as a nation? That, despite protestations about our moral superiority, we’re as scandal seeking as the man in Noo Yawk salivating over the curvy skeletons tumbling out of Tiger Woods’ closet. Back in the pre-reality TV era this realization would have occasioned much soul searching and chest beating. Now all it makes you do is reach for the remote. There are episodes of Splitsvilla 3 you absolutely cannot miss. 

The print version of this blogpost appeared (with a minor difference - Bigg Boss is mentioned instead of Splitsvilla 3 in the last sentence) in the January 2010 issue of Marie Claire, India


  1. I enjoyed reading this, Manj! There IS something very liberating about instant celebrity... I also think that not only do we love scandals as much as the next person, we're also very fond of our own voices. The kind of self-disclosure which reality TV requires.. we are more than willing to provide!

    I spent the morning reading about reality television for a paper I'm writing, so your post was well-timed!

  2. nice article. The Lowest Common Denominators are too hungry to be counted amongst those who have made their lives out of sputtering idiotics in the idiot box.