By Jugal Mody
“The Internet is a great place to make friends; a better place for faceless predators. Have you been #Webbed yet?”
MTV Webbed is a brand new “drama series” that showcases the lives of those who have been “webbed” (according to MTV, being ‘webbed’ means being a victim of identity theft, pornography and other crimes on the Internet).
So I watched the first two episodes dutifully. Episode 1 opens with a girl on a vlog, dropping cue card after cue card, as you can read a suicide note in the making. Then TV actor Pratyusha Banerjee (Anandi from Balika Vadhu) takes us into the story of an innocent small-town girl who got webbed. The story starts with the recreation of a happy middle-class family and how two daughters find it cool to be on the internet — but because of their limited access, they only have school friends on their social networks. The dad has promised one of the daughters an internet connection for their home if she scores more than 90% in her tenth standard boards. The daughter does, and she gets a WiFi connection installed as a gift.
Soon, she starts chatting with strangers and falls in love with a certain Rahul_13 (who, unbeknownst to her, is actually the guy who runs the cybercafé which the girl frequented before she got Internet at home). Rahul_13 asks her to get a webcam, which she buys from the guy at the cybercafé. Then he makes the excuse of not having a cam and asks her to strip for him. She says she is uncomfortable, but he threatens to dump her after calling her good-for-nothing, and ‘behenji’. She gives in, just once. When, after a few days, he keeps insisting that she do it again for him and she refuses, he sends a copy of the video to her parents. They disown her, and, shamed by her actions, the entire family moves to Delhi.
Despite being ignored by everyone in the family, the girl feels she can find a new life when a junior befriends her at school. But in no time, Rahul_13 catches up with her online life in Delhi, and everyone from her new school knows of her “MMS”. Nobody wants to hang out with the MMS girl. Soon enough, she starts hanging out with the school slut, who is portrayed as this vamp-ish girl who drinks and hangs out with boys. One of the boys tries getting fresh with our protagonist, who refuses his advances, and he ends up causing a rift between the protagonist and the only sympathiser she had. Thus leading to a Dev.D-styled walk back home, and the suicide note, followed by the suicide (pills and bathtub). Pratyusha Banerjee then wraps up the episode by quickly pointing out a list of things that could’ve saved the girl from taking such a drastic step.
The second episode, narrated by singer/actor Meiyang Chang, is about a teenager from Dehradun, who has a best friend (whom she depends on for internet access), parents and an elder sister. The hottest boy in school likes her, but she isn’t interested in him, whereas her best friend is crushing on him. After establishing the necessary amounts of cuteness of the characters and the setting, the protagonist is gifted a laptop by her parents. She befriends a stranger (an Indian studying in America) on a social networking site and falls in love with him, declaring him her boyfriend on her profile. Her best friend advises her against it, the boy who is interested in her advises her against it. The protagonist shows herself to the stranger on video chat (no web-nudity); again, the guy doesn’t have a cam that works. At some point, he promises her that he will visit her in Doon, and fixes a date.
She bunks school and waits for him at a café and he doesn’t show up. The next day when she gets to school, nobody is talking to her. Her best friend calls her a despo and says she couldn’t believe the kind of things that showed up on the her profile — “I know what you did last night. How could you do that?” (Side comment: I love how the word “sex” is not used, ever. All dialogues written to carefully avoid the word, turning it into some kind of Cloverfield monster.) The girl is confused. She goes back home to check her computer after being shunned by the entire school and finds that her boyfriend (who didn’t show up) had posted explicit details of their supposed encounter. The protagonist loses it and runs away from home (and still hasn’t been found). The police are brought in, who are told of the online boyfriend. They figure out the online boyfriend’s IP address.
I am going to let you breathe before I break the suspense.
It was the best friend pretending to be this boy all along. It was her act of social revenge, the extreme consequences of which she hadn’t considered. A bubbly, good-hearted girl was wronged because of a jealous best friend. Wait, the point being, have you been #webbed yet? Yes, with the hashtag and all.
So essentially, MTV Webbed is Sony’s Crime Patrol for teenagers who live in an alternate virtual reality, where deceit is being pitched to them as murder. This type of show falls under the “Documented Drama” category, sometimes referred to by people who work in television as “Scripted Drama, Non Fiction”. I will make it easier and just call it “Scripted Reality” — mainly because such shows have gained popularity in India since two big phenomena on Indian television: Reality TV and Sannsannee-khez (Sensationalism-filled) News.
The makers of Scripted Reality shows claim to show you the harsh realities of everyday life, the kind of stories that could happen to anyone, the kind of horrors that await you in the world outside your own head, outside your comfort zone, outside the screen you are staring at. And after sitting through the first two episodes of MTV Webbed, I have concluded that this show is exactly that — victim porn. I won’t be surprised if we find a demographic that is turned on by — and gets off on — these stories. (Well played, MTV.) I do not have a problem with the show being on air or viewers doing the aforementioned — whatever gets you off and not like they won’t find their fix if they just logged on, you know. I just wish MTV would own it rather than make it about taking some stand.
The first two episodes were shot like halfway-decent student fiction films. The subjects had been handled just about as well as a student would have handled them — with the same amount of immaturity and from a tall enough moral pedestal. (Actually, I’ve seen better student films. We’ve one on The Ladies Finger right now.) Please don’t miss the found-footage style shots, making you believe that there were cameras all over the protagonists’ houses and schools and lives. And the terribly cued background score, which alternates between the kind of music you’ll hear in the happy scenes of a soap opera and suspense sequences of bad crime dramas.
The third episode (from the preview at the end of the second episode) is about a guy who strips in front of a cam (on what looks like a video-on-demand site) for “ek-se-ek aunty” (as described by his friend). The fourth is about an architect, a model/actress and leaked pictures on the web or something like that.
I know, I know, they want you to sympathise with these people and teach you a thing or two about how to behave online without losing your honour and saving your flower from strangers. But apparently, the biggest threat that the Internet, cyber abuse and harassment pose in your life is that there will be porn made of you, or that your ‘modesty’ will be outraged. The only people I sympathised with were the people whose lives were remade into these stories, and the only thing I learnt was how not to survive a cyber-abuse attack. How is this any different from the movies of the 80s and the 90s they show a girl getting raped and then either she dies on the spot or tries to kill herself or becomes pregnant?
So the conclusion? The Internet is for porn. (Yes, in my head I’m singing that song as I continue typing this.) MTV is the new Khap Panchayat. A bizarre choice for a ‘youth channel’ especially when India is on the cusp of a technology revolution. A study from June 2013, says that of the 150 million Internet users in India, 60 million (40%) are women and 24 million of them access the Internet everyday. This number is simply going to explode once Internet access via mobile phones gets easier and cheaper — we currently have almost 868 million mobile phones in use. Instead of delving into a variety of things that the web could mean as a channel of information, knowledge, unforeseen opportunities for the hungry and ambitious young people in a developing nation, the one meaning of ‘webbed’ MTV decided to choose and exploit was deceit. Gaaon basaa nahin, lootere pehle aa gaye (We’d barely become a village when the dacoits attacked us). Or in this case, gaaon basaa nahin, khap panchayat pehle bithaa di.
Congratulations, MTV, you’ve turned the Internet and social networking into Chow Mein!
Yes, cyber abuse and harassment is a serious issue. No, I am not saying I have the perfect solution to it. But there’s one thing I know for sure: cashing in on victimisation and selling voyeuristic recreations of “real life testimonies” of strangers is definitely not how you take a stand against cyber abuse. Why? Because cashing in on victimisation and selling voyeuristic peeks into strangers’ lives is what cyber abuse is actually all about!
MTV America, not the arbiter of intellect or high culture, knows better. They have started a campaign called A Thin Line, which is more about empowering the youth than fetishising victimisation.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong on the Internet: there’s unlimited entertainment ranging from documentaries and comedies to unimaginable acts captured on camera; there are companies who want to use your data to make more money; there are governments who want to save the world from you, there is an imaginary peer pressure to be cool, to have the best timeline of clever statuses, lovely images and funny home videos; there is news from all around the world; there are other people like you who are lurking around to hook you onto sympathy, and there’s the mindless hours and hours of clicking and collecting useless information while ruining your back, your eyes, your wrists, your sperm count or your ovaries.
There are a hundred ways in which your life can be affected by your actions and addictions when it comes to the Internet, social media and cellphones. Look up Internet Addiction Disorder or Problematic Internet/Computer Use. There are many ways in which you can be harassed, stalked and victimised; a bunch of those are just improvised versions of what happened in a pre-Internet era. But what you need to be warned about, according to MTV India, is your naked body being uploaded in pics and videos, or somebody spreading rumours about your sex life, or somebody pretending to be somebody else.
Moral of the story: This show is not about cyber abuse and harassment on the internet. This show is about television keeping you so webbed that you stay away from the Internet. (Fuck yeah, I’m taking “webbed” back. Cue: Spider-Man theme song.)