ONLY THE evolved can deny the tug of voyeurism. Whether you’re a changing room peeping tom or eavesdropping on the neighbours — the lives of others, fascinate. Especially when the seams come apart.
If you have watched The Khan Sisters, you know why actor Gauahar Khan won’t be too happy speaking to a journalist. In its first episode, Gauahar receives a call from a reporter who wants to know if she is worried her clothes will split open on the ramp again.
The point of this sequence could be to drive home how pesky reporters are. But the scene performs a subtler task — re-introducing Gauahar, now a permanent member of the Zangoora crew. “On a reality show, we shoot every single thing that happens. We leave in only the bits that make a difference to the story,” says UTV’s Chief Creative Officer Indrajeet Ray. Gau – ahar once suffered a wardrobe malfunction while walking the ramp at a fashion show and went through what her sisters describe as one of the most traumatic phases ever — channels replayed the scene for weeks, reporters chasing her until she decided to quit fashion. UTV would never show the clip, but they make sure to edit in a reference, making voyeurism just a bit easier.
The Khan sisters were selected after intensive interviews. Nigaar, popular as a television vamp where her unnaturally arched eyebrow reached cult status, was uncertain, but Gauahar thought it was a great way to connect with fans. Ray believes the Khans have perfect chemistry for ‘reality’ — “they can’t live with or without each other”. Comparisons to the American show Keeping Up With the Kardashians are unwarranted, “The shows have a similar format, but their sensibilities are different,” says Ray
To put this distancing in perspective — Keeping Up… showed us the home of a consumerist, fame-hungry and sexually charged America that we never met in scripted soaps. The Kardashians were the highest paid reality television stars in the world, until Kim, famous for her sex tape and fetishised rear, staged her own wedding, causing serious damage to the show and its “credibility”.
UTV too decided to use celebrities instead of ordinary siblings so they could tap into an established fan base. In initial episodes, the sisters’ hyper awareness of being on screen made the show boring. Gautam Hegde, script-writer for soaps like Santaan and Love Ne Milla Di Jodi feels the magic of ‘reality’ lies in the moment when someone, who appears perfect on screen, takes the mask off. “How authentic this unmasking is depends on the format, but knowing how celebrities fight, what makes them cry, are part of feeling closer to them.” Contrary to the belief that shows like The Khan Sisters are only popular in urban centres, Hegde says reality TV has great currency in small towns because it tells an aspirational tale, “of everything that could be possible if one moved to a city”.
The moment of unmasking is when the sisters visit Dubai and meet the other Khans. We are now privy to the ascent of a middle-class family from a cramped home in Pune to the three high-rises in Dubai (in addition to the homes in Gurgaon and Mumbai). The presence of their siblings suddenly provides the trigger for genuine, hot-blooded reactions.
The rest of the Khans are unfazed by cameras. The fierce, headscarf-wearing Zakia nearly attacks Gauahar when she discovers photographs of her bikini-clad sister have made it to Mumbai’s dailies. The eldest sister, Kausar, is as proud as Zakia is caustic. Asad, overwhelmed by his outspoken sisters, oscillates between defending Gauahar and cowering in front of Zakia. Ekta Kapoor would be hard-pressed to find a richer cast.
“These things should happen behind closed doors,” Gauahar admits. Does washing dirty linen make her regret putting them on screen? “People love us for being ‘real’. They ask if we’ve made up after a fight. People call my siblings Asad bhai and Kausar aapa,” she laughs. Nigaar agrees, “People know in real life, anyone can have a bad day.”
Asad’s wife, the other hijab-wearer on the show, is the opposite of Zakia. While Zakia matches her designer clothes and workout apparel with fancy scarves, man ipulating her family like a matriarch, Shabnam, a round, smiling figure, appears in the background; the one time she speaks up is to say Asad favours Gauahar over Nigaar. It was not a conscious decision to select a Muslim family, but Ray agrees it has added a nuance otherwise missing from the clones on TV whose last names we never notice.
IN LATER conversations, we learn Zakia was the first to move to Mum – bai, followed by Kausar. By the time Gauahar and Nigaar moved out, the two elder sisters had fallen in love, got married and moved to Dubai. Zakia is currently looking for a match for Nigaar — “What is most attractive about a man is his money. Nigaar wants to wait for the right man to appear at her door, but all you will get that way is the milkman,” she deadpans to the camera. Hidden in the melodrama are also glimpses of real affection, rivalries and the protective bond that distinguish the real.
In the Dubai episodes, the Khans managed to be something the Kardashians were not — relatable. Audiences watched Kim and her family’s outrageous exchanges (Kim’s stepfather asks if she’d like help with her workout and Khloe asks impishly, “Could you help us with our Kegel exercises?”) The same smut-loving masses turned off the tube once they could not ignore the scripted patterns of Kim’s tumultuous life.
Back in Mumbai, the show has wandered into familiar inanity — highlights have been Gauahar’s temporary lip enhancement, meeting an ex-flame and Nigaar’s date with another suitor. Sorely missing are those women yet to develop a Truman complex from always being on screen. It remains to be seen if the more interesting members will return; but one doubts whether there is any other way we will be keeping up with the Khans.
Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.