By Divya Karthikeyan
A giggly woman in a silver top watches the camera intently and earnestly asks for a banana. It’s Tamil starlet Oviya’s first night in the Bigg Boss house and she’s already hungry. For some viewers who were live-tweeting the first episode, she was an annoying, trying-too-hard personification of Genelia D’Souza’s entire acting career. She was made fun of for her “modern clothing”, wearing “too much makeup” and looking “like a girl with nothing upstairs”. And how misogynistic, wrong and way off the mark they were.
Oviya began her career at 22, starring alongside Prithviraj in the Malayalam film Kangaroo and the Tamil romantic comedy Kalavani, which went on to become a sleeper hit. She then appeared in Kamal Haasan’s Manmadhan Ambu shortly after. In 2012, she was seen in Pandiraj’s Marina and Sundar C’s Kalakalappu.
Tamil Nadu loves its cult figures. A little too much, perhaps. And the first sign of Oviya’s swift climb to that status is what is now hailed as her signature line. In an early episode where the contestants are sitting at the dining table, Oviya protests the current house leader’s obsession with rules (“rules rules nu pesi uyira edukkatheenga”, roughly translated to “don’t keep harping on rules all the time”). From the very beginning, she isn’t afraid to speak out. And when another housemate (Ganja Karuppu) tries to tell her that she must listen to the leader, she claps back with quick retorts, zero hesitation and the famous line that’s now on a T-shirt and is also viral “anthem” — “Neenga Shut Up Pannunga”.
Oviya’s housemates believed she was too arrogant and mouthy for a young woman trying to restart her film career, especially since the recipientof that line, Karuppu, was an established comedian and actor. But what was different about her so-called insult was how carefully she phrased her line. It was respectful (neenga is the equivalent of the Hindi word aap, pannunga is the equivalent of kijiye) yet savage. Like “Hey I respect you and all, but you’re talking bullshit.” A friend on Facebook lauded this line and began using it on all the abusive, aggressive drivers she encountered while driving.
But even before that line, a headstrong, independent and happy-go-lucky Oviya started out alien to the group. It wasn’t that she made faces or screamed bloody murder. There was a certain distance she kept from the rest of the contestants that puzzled them. She was, as a result, up for elimination for not participating enough or for talking back. What made Oviya stand out was the position she took up in the house — a witness and an observer. She carried with her a perspective that shielded her from pettiness. It was refreshing to audiences — a pretty girl who was not playing drama queen, a spoilt brat or a backbiter. When Bharani, a contestant who was at the receiving end of horrible and heartless treatment from the rest of the contestants (Ganja Karuppu and Gayathri, who alleged that he had a murky past with women and that she doesn’t’t feel safe around him) for an alleged incident of harassment, attempted to jump out of the house, he earned an instant eviction. The only contestant to wish him goodbye was Oviya, and for this she had to bear the hostility of the other housemates.
She was voted into elimination by housemates three times, and was bailed out three times by the public magnificently. When they challenged her, the uglliness of the other housemates was up for everyone to see — they kept picking fights with her, ignored what she had to say and even said she was “triggering” everyone, a word that is now associated with her — but Oviya angelically sauntered across the house, danced every morning enthusiastically and flirted with a buff, chocolate boy contestant.
Aarav, the chocolate boy starlet in question, seems to have taken Oviya’s breath away. She flirted, he returned it. She proposed, he coyly agreed. She was in control, but only momentarily. After Aarav declined her love, Oviya didn’t blow up, screech or whine. She gracefully accepted that they stay friends and cleared the air. “I have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies.” Audiences cheered for her maturity, and speculated over how butt hurt the macho Aarav might have felt.
Enter a contestant named Juliana, who rose to fame from being a jallikattu protestor for shouting tag lines against the government and who blamed Oviya for ruining her ‘friendships’ with the other housemates at a time when Oviya actually listened to her, consoled her every time she cried and told her she was made of sterner stuff. Since then, the tides have turned against Oviya in the house, but she remains steadfast and forgiving. For viewers, her behaviour is goddess-like; quick to punish but equally quick to accept them back. And hence, the ‘Oviya Army’ was created. When she cries, they cry. When she dances, they tweet heart emojis. But recent episodes show her broken and teary-eyed from the hate by the contestants. But this didn’t deter her image, instead, it made her more human to the viewers. There are now countless YouTube videos in support of her (fans vow not to watch Bigg Boss if she is eliminated) and against the other contestants who made her feel bad.
The brainchild of all controversy in the house is actor and dance choreographer Gayatri Raghuram, a conniving contestant notorious for her real-life association with the BJP, and is feared by all. She has a unique penchant for spewing casteist, terrifying Tamil expletives, sometimes even translating them to English to reduce the weightage the Tamil version carried. With Juliana, Gayatri had a master-slave dynamic where Juliana would be asked to massage her neck on request, and if she didn’t or genuinely couldn’t, Gayatri would threaten to disown Juliana.
No one dare get on her bad side. Except Oviya, whose calm air about her angered Gayatri immensely.
A telling incident of Gayathri’s asserting power in the house and getting Oviya in order was when she was asked to clean the toilet. She said had already cleaned the toilet a day ago and it didn’t require cleaning immediately after. This was communicated to everyone as “Oviya refused to do any work.” Namitha, Tamil Nadu’s item girl and actor, a contestant known for her extremely tone deaf comments, called for a ban on food and toilet facilities for Oviya and tried to rally everyone behind her and against Oviya. She then proceeded to say Oviya was the way she was because cancer ran in her family (Her mother passed away from cancer a year ago). Oviya refused to obey, and while the rest of her housemates believed that was a character flaw, they were actually digging their own graves.
These other women have not received any sympathy or kindness from audiences. The misogyny and the insults are purely reserved for them. They are the trouble makers, the villis (female villains in Tamil), the heartless “yecchas” (spit), a word frequently used by Gayathri, which has now been used against her. But most of the hate is reserved for their attitude, not their face or body, for a change. But when Oviya extends an olive branch to them, they throw it away and earn the wrath of viewers, who believe they are women who want to bring other women down.
This world is real for every ‘Oviyan’ (that’s what her supporters are called). There is no chance of Oviya faking anything, receiving instructions from producers or erring majorly. Every week during elimination, when clips are played back to the contestants, Oviya’s clips have her angelic and light: she doesn’t backstab, she says it straight to their face, an admirable quality, especially when there are cameras surrounding them 24×7.
But to those deifying her, that matters little. She represents a generation that is tired of giving a f*ck about society and wondering what other people might think. She is the counter narrative to “log kya kahenge.” She represents a generation that respects maturity over age. But most importantly, she is a woman with agency. She doesn’t care what you think. In the wise words of Queen Oviya “I don’t need anyone to support me. I know I can support myself.”
She gives as good as she gets, and maybe she’s the strong woman leader for the void we’ve been trying to fill for a while now. Politics is running dry, there’s no blood thirst for protests on Marina beach, and a Rajnikanth joining politics rumour gone foul. The scene had set itself. Yes, we should be paying more attention to the Kathiramangalam oil leak and farmers instead of a reality show star. But here is finally someone worth fighting for that doesn’t require too much work.
But as veteran actor and anchor Kamal Hassan warned Oviya to not let the love get to her head, it was clear. The same audience that loves you conditionally, can hate you unconditionally. It’s a game after all, and Oviya is just a piece in it. But for now, everyone loves Oviya.