It’s 8.30 pm on a regular weekday at my aunt’s house in Bangalore. My aunt, cousin, sister and her mother-in-law are sitting with their dinner plates in front of the television screen, in absolute attention. Vijay TV on, world off.
Since 25 June this year, Bigg Boss Tamil is the flavour of entertainment every day of the week in Tamil households. On weekends, it’s got extra special flavour. Neighbours come home to watch the show. It’s not a quiet watch either. There’s a flurry of comments exchanged in the living room that could put YouTube commenters to shame. I overhear Tamil equivalents of the occasional “how dare she”, “look at her flaunting her figure” and “ugh she’s such a b***h” and I walk away with no intention to return.
But I do return, only to find that life has snapped back to normal after its indulgence in voyeuristic sexism. Or has it? Does the consumption of outright misogyny on screen not leave traces of influence in real life?
The misogyny in Bigg Boss Hindi is not news. (Kamaal R Khan, I see you). That the show ran for 10 seasons is downright disturbing. If the response to the first season of Bigg Boss Tamil is to believed, the pattern is likely to repeat. As was announced in its last episode, the show received a total of 1 crore votes. (To the uninitiated, the show nominates housemates for elimination and the viewers vote for their favourite housemate). Each viewer can cast a maximum of 100 votes from his/her/their registered account on Bigg Boss’ website. That’s 1 crore votes reflective of an audience that’s invested in watching rampant sleaze and sexism.
In one episode, Ganja Karuppu, a comedian who’s appeared in movies like Kalavani and Subramanyapuram, is shown to be helped with make-up by model Raiza Wilson, for which he’s shamed and called a “woman” as a “playful” insult. Shaming aside, this is downright astonishing, considering most of the male housemates are actors who cannot be new to make-up. Whether an act or real shaming, their behaviour pushes the audience to feel chee-chee about men doing ladies-type things or wanting to wallow in the decadence of actor types. Another episode openly objectifies the housemate and actress Namitha. Namitha is performing a dance sequence and the camera unflatteringly zooms to her chest and stomach while constantly panning to the reaction of another contestant, actor Bharani. Our watching neighbours look visibly uncomfortable but don’t take their eyes off the screen.
You can cringe at the show, but you can’t dismiss it. It brings out everyone’s voyeurs. It knows that part of us who pretend to do 100 surya namaskars, in truth, enjoy double burgers for breakfast.
But what is a show like this doing in 2017? At a time when mainstream pop culture in India is inflected (if not immersed fully) in debates about gender and sexuality, Bigg Boss Tamil has an oddly dated feel to it. Time has stopped in the house.
The show is also discordant, coming as it does from the same channel that gave voice to women through the hit talk show Neeya Naana (which has its own flaws, but airs subjects we bury under our family beds). But while Neeya Naana brings in a debating engaged audience every weekend, Bigg Boss Tamil works on the scandal-devouring psyche, every single day, for an hour. Most importantly, it comes with the clout carried by its host — superstar and acting demigod Kamal Haasan.
Before the show started, my only light at the end of the dark dark tunnel was the hope that Kamal coming on board would edit the voice of the show; that perchance we’d get to see the contestants partaking in some different kinds of nonsense — midnight Bharatanatyam flash mobs or dramatic readings of K Balachander movies. But it was not to be.
Bigg Boss Tamil (arriving years after the Kannada and Malayalam versions) has had an immediate and stunning ripple effect. The participants maybe locked up but the madness of the Bigg Boss house has escaped across the land. The massive viewership of Bigg Boss Tamil has led to a flurry of troll pages on Facebook and Twitter, and troll channels on YouTube. Anybody dismissing these videos with an eye roll and a “whatever”, clearly is not in any family WhatsApp groups.
One such fan/troll video does its own version of introducing the contestants. Every female contestant is introduced in misogynistic fashion, disguised as a joke. In troll Bigg Boss Tamil, comedian and actress Aarthi (also known as Harathi) is not just a bully. But a fat bully. She is shown to be falling on the floor, her belly highlighted and bouncing in slow-motion. Apparently, this is supposed to be funny. Two female contestants lying in bed and talking are compared to “pigs sitting around in a dump”. The men, however, are just given generic titles. (Interestingly, the video even shames comedian Vaiyapuri for “crying like a woman”. Haha. So funny. NOT.)
The intergalactic troll world of Twitter is not far behind and just as full of tasty misogyny. One Twitter user posts a disgusting meme with two female contestants that depicts a picture of buffalo and the two contestants with a caption that translates to “Even the buffalo can be tamed… but these two can’t be.. hats off to their husbands”.
— Nisha (@Nisha_ManishaM) July 11, 2017
Another Twitter user downright size-shames the contestants with: “(sic) 3 characterless female pigs of 3 size M L XL- RT Gay3 Namita 3 characterless male pigs of 3 size M L XL Snehan, Ganja & Sakthi#BiggBossTami”
3 characterless female pigs of 3 size M L XL- RT Gay3 Namita
3 characterless male pigs of 3 size M L XL Snehan, Ganja & Sakthi#BiggBossTamil
— Peter (@peterfm76) July 11, 2017
I counted and found a minimum of four Bigg Boss Tamil troll accounts on Twitter and five troll accounts on Facebook. Judging by the number of shares, they receive massive traction. Not to mention all the YouTube accounts dedicated to provide curated commentary on the show. It would be fascinating if it wasn’t all so sexist and depressing.
Which only proves that Bigg Boss is here to stay. Deepak Dhar, the Managing Director and CEO of Endemol India (that produces all Bigg Boss shows) has said that Bigg Boss has managed to cross the regional barrier. This certainly reflects in numbers. According to Dhar, Bigg Boss [Tamil] opened to 36 million viewers on its opening show.
The question that arises is, how much are we going to encourage this disparaging culture of subtle to obvious sexism? Bigg Boss Tamil may have Kamal Haasan fronting the dialogue, but its inhabitants are in no way deviating from the sexist, objectifying history of the channel.
Where do we draw the line with entertainment? Bigg Boss Tamil is drawing crowds that are seemingly oblivious to the show’s misogyny or are enjoying it. How does its seep into our households? Tiny example? After an episode, one of the neighbours watching the show casually remarked to my pregnant (let me say that again, pregnant) sister that in a few months she’s going to end up looking like contestant Harathi.
And in all the casual WhatsApp forwards and sharing of troll memes, are we making way for a new Tamil vocabulary for everyday misogyny?
Co-published with Firstpost.