At least some part of Being and Nothingness was written when Jean- Paul Sartre watched spellbound, as an ordinary person went about his daily routine. Nimble-footed, a little too eager to please, Sartre describes the waiter he is watching, who “walks around as if his gestures and his voice were mechanisms”. It is apparent he is playing something, the mesmerised Sartre concludes, “We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.”
Zee TV’s newest reality offering Connected Hum Tum claims on its website to focus on “what being a woman in 2013 is all about”. Deconstructing womanhood might be a difficult task in any year, perhaps most so in 2013, which began with a conversation about rape and sexuality. Yet, series director Paromita Vohra bravely sallies forth to places Indian television (and, in particular, Zee) has never been before. The show’s format is simple — six “real” (read non-celebrity) women in Mumbai document their lives with a handheld camera, while Abhay Deol breaks down all the complexity of their lives into simplified men-versus-women formulae. Vohra’s foray into mainstream television is particularly exciting because of the sumptuous characters she has chosen to lend her camera to: there is the twice-divorced grandmother who sashays about in her kitchen singing romantic songs, the struggler from Meerut trying hard not to sweat through her make-up in Mumbai, the bustling homemaker-orthodontist- belly dancer, the fidgety new bride, the cocky radio jockey who “don’t need a man” and the queer girl who hopes her girlfriend will eventually agree not to blur her face for the camera.
Yet, what makes the show truly fascinating, like Sartre’s waiter, is not the situations of these women, but how they play at being themselves for the camera. There is, of course, the presence of an invisible editor (whom we must ignore to maintain the illusion of the “real”), but the show is able to position its men as slightly inane, lovable but dispensable beings because the women with the cameras see them as such.
Apparently, watching himself on screen convinced Preeti’s slothful “pati” to become a better husband. But he was always endearing, even when he asked her to get out of bed after a tiring day and make him ‘ice cream milk’, because she agrees to play the role of the loving, forgiving wife, staring into the distance moodily when her husband and son fall asleep.
In another sequence, Madhavi’s ex-husband of 14 years decides to “drop in” for the first time since their divorce, and then sulks like a child when the society watchman asks him what his business is. Yet, his continuing sense of ownership of her is “cute”, because Madhavi teases him about it with barely-concealed glee, instead of throwing a fit (“Haan, the watchman is very strict. He doesn’t let just any strange men in,” she says). There are other discoveries too — motherhood is not constantly fulfilling, it often means being the only adult left at home with no one to talk to. And that, even though independent women are fantastic, it is heartbreaking to watch a bride making all the arrangements for her own wedding, simply because it is her second shaadi and she doesn’t want to be “a bother”.
In her book Remote Control: Indian Television in the New Millenium, Shoma Munshi says that the success of reality formats is predicated on their subjects’ ability to perform in a way that mirrors our real life role-playing. Even with Deol’s oversimplifications, the show is entering grey spaces where the characters/storytellers have begun to acknowledge problems that cannot be solved with a reality TV-style catharsis. The only difference between Vohra’s “real” women on screen and real women off it is that we get to pick our own background score.