by Gautam Pemmaraju
Abbas Kazmi, the defense lawyer for Ajmal Kasab, the lone Pakistani terrorist who participated and survived the Mumbai attacks of 26 November 2008, shares a double bed with Rahul Bhatt, the son of Mahesh Bhatt, renowned filmmaker and desk-thumping arbiter of public culture. A gym trainer and famous person in waiting, Rahul Bhatt came into the limelight late last year due to his friendship with David Coleman Headley, the incarcerated terror location scout and ‘double agent’. Begum Nawazish Ali, the cross-dressing Pakistani TV presenter known for catty interviews with prominent Pakistani personalities, who deftly commutes between a variety of gender roles and inhabitations, however, has a swank ‘delights room’ all to himself, herself and the several iterations thereof. Ali, having been voted the ‘Captain’ of the house, has been awarded the privileged use of this exclusive room unto which he had laid immediate claim at first sight. In defense of this territorial claim, Begum and Ali, speaking as one, offer cheeky philosophical insight by saying that since two souls reside within his one body, a little more space is required than otherwise. Seema Parihar, a reformed bandit from the (in)famous central Indian Chambal Valley, still battling numerous court cases, wafts about benignly, guileless and asynchronous, offering on occasion the chorus of a folk song, affectionate banter, and advice on the tossing and catching of pebbles skillfully. This child’s game is no scruffy proof to the provocative dystopia within which thirteen residents find themselves sharing beds, food, household tasks and South-Asian schadenfruede, a unique idiomatic expression that is common despite the geo-political boundaries that separate the sub-continental nations. Clearly this is no child’s game.
This is the fourth season of Bigg Boss, the Indian version of the global hit TV reality show, Big Brother, hosted this time around by the resurgent Bollywood star Salman Khan, heady with the success of his recent ‘super hit’ film Dabangg, a hugely successful throwback to the formulaic 80’s pan Indian film which showcases the virtues (and a few well timed wrist-slap worthy vices) of the ‘hero’ – all for love, honour, mother, nation, the collective flame of which is kept alive by copious amounts of desi ghee. Heaving bosoms, exaggerated swaggers and sharp bravado work in tandem to re-articulate the claim of the Hindi heartland over the nation at large.
Arguably, a peculiar sociological experiment is afoot or even an absurdist drama of a truly conceptual nature, the contours of which hint at strange psychological narratives, unusual fictive bonds, and disturbing yet oddly comic undercurrents. The race row generated by late Jade Goody’s slurs against Shilpa Shetty or Germaine Greer’s shocking entry and quick exit on the UK version of the show, pale in comparison to the implications and potential animations of this current Indian version, only but a week old and to last three months in totality. The ever complex Greer, in an article about the show last year, writes that Big Brother ‘taught us to sneer and jeer’ at Jade Goody and predicts that for the show, ‘the bite of reality will prove lethal’.
The provocations thus far have been mixed – intriguing as well as predictable. Early in the week, workers of the right-wing Hindu political party, the Shiv Sena, picketed the gates of the Bigg Boss house and roughed up several security guards posted there. Protesting the presence of Pakistani participants as ‘anti-national’, the party leadership vowed to shut down the show. The predictable quiescence that followed underscores the general pattern in such a shake down – a pragmatic and mutually agreeable understanding is arrived at (or is in the process) before further escalation. One can only speculate as to the nature (or value) of the compromise between the broadcaster and the Shiv Sena, but once again we are rudely reminded of how deeply entrenched such political opportunism and fatigued acquiescence is. Cultural opiates, generously advertised, are the only way around – best to go to the new mall, eat a few McAloo Tikkis, watch Salman Khan thrust his hips out at you, then shop some, and finally, come back home to watch Bigg Boss.
The Orwellian character of the show, aside from its original name, was put to the stress test by the expelled housemate, Davinder Singh, aka, Bunty, an erstwhile thief, who is credited with over 350 robberies and on whose life and thievery, the popular film Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, was based. Uncomfortable from the very start, the quiet Singh stuck mostly to himself and barely said a word causing the other residents to voice their opinion as to his incompatibility. Tellingly, here as well, as it happens in college campuses across India (if not school classrooms too), class and caste consciousness plays into kinship rituals, informing and shaping allegiances. Bunty, quietly raging away inside at the humiliation of being nominated, even though it was later revealed to be for the ‘Captain’ of the house, feeling the gaze of the many eyes of the house upon him, not to mention the millions outside, let his anger out through the choicest of Hindi expletives (of the mother-sister violation kind) flung at the invisible overlord, paced up and down in contained frustration much like a caged beast, perhaps reliving moments of his 13 year incarceration in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, dangerously warned off the few attempts by other inmates to pacify him and talk sense to him, kicked away at the entrance of the house if not to fashion a way out but to register protest, rolled out socks over a few cameras to incite his unknown Orwellian tormentor, and finally, after successfully inviting the displeasure of Bigg Boss, packed his bag and left the house. Once outside, Bunty, the alleged super-thief, hurled abuse at the cameraman following him and venomously spat at the camera for good measure.
These class and caste factors find unintended agency despite the general tolerance that is to be seen in the forced co-habitation. Manoj Tiwari, a major star in his own right, a successful and highly regarded actor of regional Bhojpuri films from Uttar Pradesh, found egregious fault at the indiscriminate serving and sharing of food from the same platter by some of the residents, contrary, to what one can safely imply, his notions of purity – jhoota, food that is tainted by touch of others, is a taboo to many, particularly upper caste Brahmins. He also craftily chose as a nickname for Seema Parihar, the title Thakurain, alluding to her caste which sets her apart from the late ‘Bandit Queen’ Phoolan Devi, who was from a backward caste. The intermingling of this disparate group of people does also have an ameliorating effect on class and caste divisions; the fictive bonds formed are through complex negotiations, guided in part by the practical imperatives of living together only to be challenged and undone by weekly eliminations.
Seema Parihar, the rehabilitated bandit, resolutely displayed no banditry whatsoever and successfully overcame the threat of elimination at the end of the first week. Having starred in a film based on her life, aptly titled Wounded, she has also in the past unsuccessfully contested for a parliamentary seat in 2007 but it seems that she has now, in the house of Bigg Boss, found a means to gloss over the taints of the past. Her fellow residents, casting aside their initial apprehension, have given in to her easy charm and her matronly, non-threatening demanour, coupled with colloquial quips unfamiliar to the world of sophistication, has found great favour amongst viewers, not to mention the unabashed admiration of the famous host, Salman Khan.
Taints, scandal and public purges are on the calling cards here at the house and Veena Malik, a Pakistani actress, is no stranger to controversy. In the recent match-fixing scandal involving Pakistani cricketers, her face dominated television screens for a few days, as she alleged widespread match fixing and betting practices. Dubbed Vishkanya or Poison-girl by fellow resident Manoj Tiwari, Malik went public with accusations of physical and psychological abuse against her former boyfriend, Mohammed Asif, an important member of the Pakistan cricket team.
The house, with a gaggle of television starlets and models apart from the aforementioned, constitutes a contemporary articulation of the nation at large. Reflecting the many realities of this concluding decade, terror attacks, Indo-Pak relations, right-wing politics, threats to free speech, sex scandals, venality, large scale corruption, glamour, entertainment, sports, caste and class divisions, religious divisions, consumerism, the great Indian ‘growth story’, triumphalism, are but a few of the ingredients of this strange, unquiet, bubbling cauldron. The motivations of individual participants (or of the show’s producers) and the obvious opportunism that is on display, is of little consequence here; it is rather the larger narrative of who we are, who we say we are, and what we want to be, that is finding articulation is this fiercely problematic dystopia.
Abbas Kazmi, now voted out of the house, declared grandly (in a vulpine manner to some) while facing elimination that the greatest thing about Bigg Boss was bringing together people of different castes, regions and countries even. Off the show, reflecting on the possible reasons for his exit, he observed that perhaps the nation has not yet forgiven him for representing Ajmal Kasab although it was his court-appointed duty, and that ‘the perpetrators of crime’ against aamchi (our) Mumbai should never be forgiven.
The ironies of a crazy-eyed Rahul Bhatt finding Seema Parihar bhayanak (grotesque), of Abbas Kazmi finding him the most sincere of the lot, of Begum Nawazish Ali’s life-saving theatricality (he confessed to a tortured past and several suicide attempts), of the Hindi heartland as the true repository of ‘Indian-ness’, and of petty, surreal squabbles over who has eaten what and how much, form but a shallow layer of perturbations. It is what lies beneath, the narrative of the nation, that is taking form and shall shape-shift through tactical engagement, whimsy, prejudice and emotive transactions, in the weeks to come. In the meantime, India is entertained.