The reality television track is playing on loop. Nishita Jha asks what we gain from the pains of constant confession
THE TELEVISION screen is split into two. One half has the face of an attractive girl from Mumbai, and the other, a shy looking boy from Bengaluru. Channel [V]’s newest show, My Big Decision (MBD), is on. An introductory stream of disjointed images of people hanging out in cafés, streets and malls is accompanied by a voiceover telling us what to think — in this age of instant gratification, young people are tempted to take foolhardy and potentially fatal decisions. Running us through past episodes, MBD lists all the helpful interventions they have previously run for their hapless 20-somethings: getting liposuction, getting on steroids, getting an abortion, getting away from home, getting married and, for this episode, getting a sex-change operation. They omit what these young people had to get first — enough votes on an online poll to get on television.
Reality, in the surreal landscape of television, is life with the unnecessary details glossed over. The musical score cues our pathos, since the boy is a girl and the girl is a boy. As Christy Raj (25, radio jockey and avid biker) and Josie Paris (24, fashion designer) meet a team of doctors, counsellors and people who have already undergone Sex Reassignment Surgeries (SRS) prior to their own , it is easy to believe that Channel [V] is the support group they always needed.
In the episodic narrative of MBD, viewers don’t find out that both Josie and Christy are already active members of the LGBT community, very well-versed in the process and the eventualities of sex reassignment. Christy, who has been campaigning for the rights of people afflicted with Gender Identity Disorder (GID) for the past nine years, actually counsels people about getting sex-change operations in Bengaluru. What [V] left out, presumably because we wouldn’t watch, could have been a compelling story. Christy and her co-workers have discussed the dark reality of alarmingly high suicide rates among those who undergo and want sex-change operations on local television channels and YouTube. MBD needed someone equipped to go through a dissection of the emotional, physical and TRP-fetching aspects of the surgery while claiming to be confused. Christy and Josie needed the money. They were paid by Channel [V] to appear on the show.
The channel’s producers (consistently unavailable for comments) found Christy and Paris through an LGBT network, and then auditioned members of the group for their fluency in Hindi, screen presence and the tear-jerk quotient of their stories. Sudhir Shetty, 28, who has produced several reality shows for MTV, says fluent or at least relatable Hindi is usually the most critical box that participants check, since the shows are primarily made for Hindi-speaking audiences in metros and suburbs.
‘Counsellors on the sets tell them that they’ll have to live with their confessions outside Sach Ka Saamna,’ says Basu
MBD shows Josie as a drug-taking party animal, a ‘condition’ brought on by the depression he suffers from gender dysmorphia. “That part was a bit strange. I did admit to getting high occasionally, but the voiceover made it sound like I had a problem,” frowns Josie. Christy is more disappointed about how MBD went on about how SRS candidates will never bear children, presenting a rigid trajectory of the way our decisions are supposed to make sense — “Isn’t there more to our lives than procreation? If I have lived an unhappy life for 25 years, what kind of mother would I make?” Hard-earned fulfillment may be too complex to be conveyed on a 20-minute capsule with ad breaks.
The gravitas of MBD’s sombre anchor, Sandhya Mridul, is modelled on the lines of the American day-time talk show format, with a studio audience, touching video diaries and an in-house counsellor to complete the round-up. “What is interesting,” says writer Deepanjana Pal, “is that on American television (talkshow) formats are usually directed at a middle-aged audience, while here the target and the subjects are all young people. Does India’s youth think like America’s middle-aged? Are our 20-somethings hurtling towards mid-life crises a few decades too soon?”
A way to restage this theatre of confession would be to situate it on social media platforms. A tendency to overshare on that sphere has often been attributed to a lack of outreach, a difficulty in accessing and engaging with elders and peer groups in meaningful ways. But if we place the conversation in a time before such minute, and minute-to-minute, public documentation of our lives, it vanishes. When did we ever discuss sex-change operations with our peers?
MBD is distinctly different from the first reality show on Indian television, Channel [V]’s talent hunt for the girl band Viva. [V] Popstars’ major innovation was the use of video diaries. The brief reels of contestants speaking directly to the camera created a meta narrative of their lives and took the show’s story beyond simply who wins. Compare this with the behemoth of confessional television, Sach Ka Saamna(SKS), based on the American show Moment of Truth. In the past, ordinary folks have admitted to corruption, embezzlement, threesomes with prostitutes and having been raped — in the presence of friends, family, a studio audience and cameras. Shocking as some of the confessions on SKS are, the treatment of the confessions themselves is surprisingly sober.
NEWER VARIATIONS don’t display the same restraint. Emotional Atyachar’s producer Shalini Singh says, “What we wanted through the show, apart from helping genuinely troubled people, was to document the raw process of growing up.” This “raw process” is exactly what MTV and Channel [V] gained popularity for, with shows like Roadies, Splitsvilla, Get Gorgeous and [V] Popstars. UTV’s entertainment channel, Bindass, pushed this theme of youth-in-conflict to the next level with their wildly popular and controversial Emotional Atyachar (EA), based on the American show Cheaters. Week after week, an unhappy partner would confess to the good-looking Angad Singh Bedi (and later former Mr India Pravesh Rana) that their lover was inattentive and possibly unfaithful. Once EA’s secret cameras invariably caught the cheating partner with the show’s appointed bait, the final confession would be played out for cameras — as the cheated interrogated the cheater about what caused them to stray. Deepanjana Pal, watching EA for the first time, notes wryly, “If the voiceover was about a serial killer, the tone would probably be much the same.”
In spite of its sedate language and refusal to shove stereotypes down our throats, SKS receives the maximum attention from moral censors. One of the reasons it might have raised our hackles, believes filmmaker Paromita Vohra, is because we are used to the emotional lives of Indians being “infantilised” in our movies and serials. “Increasingly, the only adult narratives available to us are on reality television,” she says.
Each participant on SKS has already undergone an extensive polygraph test, which prepares them for the degree of invasiveness to expect from the show. Big Synergy’s Siddhartha Basu, whose production house created SKS, says, “It is not unusual for people to walk out during their initial polygraph tests. Our counsellors on the sets remind them constantly that they will have to live with their confessions once they walk off the show. We want them to be very certain of what they are comfortable revealing about themselves.”
Another aspect of SKS that is problematic is the prize money participants stand to win for their confessions. Is the show commodifying catharsis? Basu does not think so. “In my experience, most of the people that appear on the show are not in dire need of money or fame. They are seeking absolution. You would be surprised at the lengths people can go to clear their name of a single misdeed, even if it involves making several other minor confessions.”
Basu recalls a young student leader from Patna who appeared on SKS with his parents and his wife, whom he had abducted during her wedding and married by force. In the course of 40 minutes on the show, he confessed to various crimes he had committed — arson, assault, bribes, booth capturing — no one in his family batted an eyelid. The one admission that had them all break down was that he had never cheated on his kidnapped bride. “People want sympathy and acceptance from a larger audience. It is possible to lose rationality when a confession occurs between two people who are close. But the presence of an impartial audience offers deeper relief,” says Basu.
The question that keeps resurfacing as we feel through the various formats of ‘real’ is — why do these people want to be validated, humiliated and, perhaps, vindicated on air, with an audience of millions?
FAME CERTAINLY has its part to play. Delhi-based DJ and emcee Stuti Nagpal, 25, was 18 when she appeared on her first reality show, Roadies 3. She says she hates watching reality television, but she also appeared on Bindass’ The Big Switch in 2010 and is open to more offers. Nagpal’s Facebook friends list has over 3,500 people, most of whom she does not know, but who profess regular virtual love for her and her “Roadies spirit”. An event appearance regularly fetches her five figures.
Sushant Divigkar, 23, a professional ballet dancer, is pursuing Masters in psychology, and works through semesters to occasionally indulge himself. He appeared on the latest season of The Big Switch although he didn’t fit its premise of well-todo, “spoilt brats” earning their living and learning the value of money. “I knew they just wanted me to be a tempestuous gay diva on the show and I was cool with that. I came out to my parents and friends long ago,” he says. Divigkar is open to appearing on other “lifestyle-reality shows” as well. “I wouldn’t go on Roadies because I don’t like the idea of being stripped and slapped by someone else. I could do that to myself on TV if I had to, though,” he laughs.
What Stuti and Sushant both claim as motivation are larger-than-life personalities. They both independently said that their friends had often told them, “You were meant for television.”
The creative team comes up with ‘characters’ for candidates: underdog, alpha male, schemer, comic relief
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of reality television is the ease with which regular young people transform into performing prima donnas. Siddhartha Basu believes this is what separates “scripted” reality shows from “unscripted” ones. Although EA claims that their selection process is authentic, that they duly investigate stories before permitting them to air on screen, producer Shalini Singh admits that a large number of the youngsters that appear on the show are struggling models or actors looking for a break in the ‘glamour’ industry’
Mithya Prabhgaonkar*, 24, responsible for casting shows like Bigg Boss, Maa Exchange, The Fast and the Gorgeous and Crunch, says there is a “special place in hell for the producers of reality television”. For the viewer, ‘reality’ begins to feel trite when a seemingly fresh-faced cast starts to speak in sentimental monologues and delivers pitch-perfect performances. In the past four years, she has realised that ‘struggling’ is a full-fledged career for reality television aspirants, which creates a desperation that producers are willing to maximise on. It is usual to see the same faces from one casting call to another, regardless of the show’s broadcast requirements. The one thing everyone has in common is an already prepared ‘showreel’ — a spectrum of emotions that they could produce on demand, a tragic story for their video diary and suggestions for the kind of character they could become on the show.
“Kids just out of school and college have an intense desire to be on TV that overrides any trepidations about how they might come off as people after editing. I have never met a parent who wasn’t pleased that their child was on a reality show regardless of what the guy actually did on it,” agrees producer Sudhir Shetty.
Once casting directors begin to audition people for a reality show, the creative team comes up with possible ‘characters’ for candidates to play (underdog, alpha male, schemer, comic relief ). With the show on air, the producer and director must constantly stay ahead of reality television’s ‘performers’ who try to manipulate their own characters. “A show is always the most fun to shoot in its first season. By the time a second season is on air, they have watched re-runs and know exactly how to present themselves,” says Shetty. Hundreds of hours of footage shot over an entire week or month, with multiple in-sync cameras is edited and woven in with video diaries to create every individual story. The final product, a seamless narrative, does not just document, but also colours the viewer’s perceptions of each character.
Prince Kohli, a three-time participant on Channel [V]’s dating reality show Dare2date,became aware of being spun as a ‘character’ when he was asked to meet his date in a food court. Kohli, an overweight radio programmer at the time, says he could see the comic storyline the show was going for, when in the next segment, his date took him for a run on the treadmill. “The basic idea of the show is to pit a ‘loser’ against someone cool and then get one to reject the other for the audience’s entertainment,” recalls Kohli.
ARE PUBLIC confessions, by virtue of being manipulated, edited and aired, inauthentic? Should domestic conflicts and personal strife remain in the sacrosanct space of your inner circle, mediated only by accredited professionals when necessary? Or do shows like My Big Decision and Sach Ka Saamna end up playing the crucial role of a friendly social arbiter, not just quelling angst in some inexplicable way, but also bringing into our homes the conversations we would otherwise avoid — on sexuality, greed, moral confusion?
“It is not always fair to dismiss pop culture versions of serious issues as being frivolous.Dostana did more to mainstream homosexuality than any number of panel discussions,” says filmmaker Vohra, “But the dangerous thing is that in less than a decade, television has become our stand in for democracy.” Maybe the ‘reality’ version of India isn’t that different from the ‘real’ — a world full of possibilities and progress, but also a world where you are the sum total of your 15 minutes of fame.
Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.