The Frog’s Lilypad

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Is a flashy television show all that Rahul Mahajan needs to go from persona non grata to India’s most suitable boy, asks Tusha Mittal

L’amore? (left to right) Mahajan with prospective brides Nikunj (25), Harpreet (20) and winner Dimpy (21)

THE ASTROLOGER’S forehead is duly wrinkled as he breaks the news to Dimpy Ganguly — a 21-year-old model contesting on TV show Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega. “You give a lot of importance to your career, whatever you want should be achieved, no matter what,” the pandit declares. Tense drumroll. The camera zooms onto Rahul Mahajan’s frowning face. Dimpy’s eyes droop. “But I’m not a careerist in that sense,” she protests, “I’m not ambitious like that.” Another drumroll as the camera pans to the vampireesque delight on 15 other faces.

Welcome to Fategarh Palace, where appropriately chiselled women are vying for the epithet of Mrs Mahajan, in the company of leather sofas, chandeliers and elephants. The theme of the show is royalty. Rahul Mahajan, 35, we have been told, is a royal man. Now that he has proven on national television that he can keep TRP and estrogen levels soaring, many past sins have been atoned. In fact, gods, priests and other saving agents may soon become extinct. Reality TV is becoming India’s newest redeemer. The 16,700 women who applied to marry Mahajan have collectively pushed his phoenix out of its ashes.

The makers of Swayamvar, a reality show on TV channel Imagine, have sent a clear message to the nation and to Mahajan’s former brethren — the drug addicts and wifebeaters club of India — if he can clean up, so can you.

But the problem is, the phoenix hasn’t really budged — it’s only a clone propped up in neon shine. To guage the level of movement one only has to hear the clone speak. “In the audition tape you said you fell in love with me when you were five. 16 years after, your wait is over,” Rahul told finalist Dimpy Ganguly, who he garlanded in a widely watched star-studded finale on March 5.

But why would anyone be waiting for this man? Two months after his father’s death in May 2006, Mahajan almost died of a cocaine overdose. After recovery, he was arrested by the Delhi Police on charges of drug possession and consumption. The BJP refused him a ticket. Within weeks, he married an old friend, Shweta Singh. In a messy breakup, the couple filed for divorce in 2007. News reports said that Shweta was physically and verbally abused by Mahajan. Pictures of her bruised arm kept tabloids buzzing.

But these are not the only pedestrian markers that leave us suspicious of Rahul’s ‘royal’ gene. In the lead up to the finals, six contestants had to find ingenious ways to propose to him. When one curiously shy Swati Augustin refers to something she told Rahul off camera, he replies with oafish charm: “But it’s important to say these things on TV too.” After extorting a public “I love you” from her, Rahul erupts into an even more oafish laugh, shoulders reverberating to double-chin.

Why have we declared this man to be worthy of a nation’s adulation? Rahul’s first step to redemption was appearing on reality show Bigg Boss. That he has now been projected as a prize catch on Swayamvar takes on frightening proportions when you see the list of women who finally made it to the show — most seem frighteningly normal. A PhD student, an assistant HR manager, a lecturer, a fashion designer, a cricket commentator, a TV anchor — all supposed symbols of the new, modern Indian woman.

The old desire for romance has been spun so artfully into fairytale, it ceases to matter whether the prince is charming or not

Apparently, it’s the 21st century and women have new rights — they can dress in fewer clothes, profess romantic interest on national TV, discuss past relationships, woo the man, and compete for love. But these are warped theories of surface modernity that crumble as you watch the show. There is nothing progressive about Rahul Mahajan’s Swayamvar, it is almost a parody of the idea of a liberal woman. More horrific perhaps because of Rahul’s past, but no different than Rakhi Sawant’s Swayamvar — where a steaming and pasty Miss Sawant declared that her man cannot move into her house. To duly fulfil her role as a wife, she must leave her palace and move into his hopefully not-so-humble abode.

Both shows are symptomatic of a larger confusion about the idea of modernity, which assumes that progress is an outcome of appearance, location, action, and not of thought.

That is why a particular episode where the women are cooking for Rahul has a slight diversion. Much to the surprise of the anchor, our modern Indian man himself offers to cook dessert for his ladies. The cooking consists of a royally dressed chef telling his majesty how to stir the gajar ka halwa. Subsequently, after this kingly gesture, Rahul gets to pick the best dish cooked and served by the women, and one lucky lady wins a coveted date with his highness.

That Mahajan has been projected as a prize catch is frightening, mostly because the contestants seem frighteningly normal

Because we are apparently in a new era of modernity, it is kosher for Rahul Mahajan to play lip-and-cheek games with the ladies, and to sneer at that one contestant who’s uncomfortable with it. Also kosher, when one of the contestants falls to the ground while performing for him, to say, “It’s okay yaar, you seduced me.” But when the anchor asks the same contestant, “Do you have any idea how sexy you looked?” Rahul objects with sudden regal concern. “Don’t say that, she’s a bride!”

We are in a new era of modernity, but we cannot be too modern. That is why it is not kosher when Dimpy Ganguly receives a Christmas gift from her ex-boyfriend in Australia. Rahul asks her to “swear on Durga Ma that you are not in love with him,” and call her former beau live on national TV to say she has moved on to grander avenues.

Whether it is despite her past, or because of it, Dimpy has indeed won Mr Mahajan. He is still on bail, with cases of drug abuse pending in a Delhi court. Upon Mahajan’s appeal, the court has released his passport on a surety bond of Rs 5 lakh. The couple plans to fly to the Maldives for their honeymoon. It is believed that Gladrags has sent Dimpy a notice for violating her modelling contract. At home in Kolkata, after her marriage, she gushed to her family: “I drove up in a cream limousine, wearing a blue gown. At the door there was an elephant to salute me, and after I climbed a long stairway, there was Rahul waiting with flowers.” The old desire for romance scaled a million times, spun so artfully into fairytale, it ceases to matter whether the prince is charming or not.

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