Among the many witticisms that Rajinikanth has uttered in Baasha, or even in all his films, one that stands out (for purposes of this story) is where he as auto driver Manickam tells his ladylove Nagma that “Indians love to talk a lot”. Milking this — because I can — I’m going to go further and say that if Indians love to talk a lot, then Tamils love to argue. And they love to pass judgement?
Wanna argue about it? Just take a look at the number of debates and talk shows we have running on Tamil channels — it may be 2017, but organising mock-courts on ‘social’ issues is the Tamil nation’s favourite pastime. It’s been that way for a while. Growing up, my many Deepavalis, Pongals, Ramzans and Good Fridays were punctuated with pattimandrams (debates) held by the popular Tamil scholar Solomon Pappaiah or the well-known Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam orator Dindigul Leoni, both of whom wreaked havoc on my plans to catch new movies playing on other channels, because my family was hooked. Even as they debated, argued and swayed opinion on popular topics, a new breed of (melo)dramatic talk shows have gained ground. And quite dangerously so.
I’m talking about katta panchayats (illegal arbitrations), the Tamil version of the kangaroo courts. These are the worst of the “reality” talks shows — a violent sub-genre that propagate the dangerous idea that you can get justice through mediation on TV. In these shows, hosts — they’re usually women, perhaps playing on the sentimentality and the ‘women are good listeners’ angle — ‘settle’ cases of child abuse, dowry, domestic abuse, child marriage, family problems and marital relationships.
One such show is Solvathellam Unmai (Everything I Say is True), on Zee Tamil, hosted by director Lakshmi Ramakrishnan. In a recent episode, a woman and her rapist came face-to-face. The rapist was the woman’s mother’s boyfriend who moved in with them after her father moved out. Despite complaining to her mother, the abuse continued and the woman became pregnant; she was also asked by the rapist to marry him, but in an ironic allowance of freedom, was said she could be with anyone else she wanted. After a conversation with the show’s producer, reports The News Minute, the woman allegedly fled her home, which is when the producers decided to bring her to the show.
In the show, Ramakrishnan both played judge and jury, being visibly upset when the woman spoke of abuse, and snarkily shamed the mother for having an illicit relationship with her daughter’s rapist and for not taking any action against him, while letting him stay with them. Even as the woman pleaded that she didn’t want to go back home with her mother, the producers put the mother and the daughter together in a hotel room.
According to The News Minute report, Ramakrishnan allegedly said that the family has allowed the woman to be exploited. Wasn’t that what the structure of the show was doing — not to mention the logistics of how the show was produced, hotel room et al? Exploiting the woman’s life for a piece of the TRP ratings in the name of ‘justice’?
It’s not the first time something of this tone and scale has happened on Ramakrishnan’s show. In 2016, Ramakrishnan had on her show, Nagappan, who was accused of sexually abusing his sister-in-law’s 13-year-old and 10-year-old daughters. After being revealed as a paedophile on the show, Nagappan killed himself and Ramakrishnan came under scrutiny and outrage, online. Defending herself, Ramakrishnan said that the focus should be on the two minor girls — “We need to worry about the woman and children, not Mr Nagappan. He is a man and he chose to do it. Whereas the woman and children were exploited and placed in this situation. Children are everybody’s responsibility,” this report quotes her as saying.
Ramakrishnan isn’t alone when it comes to playing kangaroo court. She has a partner in actor and politician Khushbu, who hosted a show called Nijangal (Realities) on Sun TV. Before both Ramakrishnan and Khushbu, it was popular TV anchor Nirmala Periyasamy, who was the first host of Solvathellam Unmai and for a while, the producers also tried Sudha Chandran as a stand-in host.
In Nijangal’s short run (it aired from October 2016 to March 2017), it too orchestrated heavy melodrama. Both shows are undoubtedly scripted: there’s trashy keyboard music that sounds like clapping thunder, played every time something is revealed with histrionic close-ups of the participants — especially the victim and the accused — and we’re either shown a freeze-frame of the host or an action shot.
Like this scene from last year where Khushbu held a man by the collar, while another participant slapped the guy, who was on the show for supposedly torturing his wife. Twenty-eight minutes into the forty-four-minute-long video is when the ‘action’ starts: one side gets riled up and begins to seethe and suddenly a woman darts forward and slaps her husband, and for a second Khushbu sits still and does nothing, acting only after we’ve all had time to consume that moment. The scene further heats up and both sides begin to exchange abuses — all the while Khushbu is just scratching the back of her head — only to be restrained by the host, after both parties have had its share of abuse hurling and name calling.
We hear terrifying instances of vigilante and mob justice in India and think that we’re far removed from these situations, to comfort ourselves. It’s destabilising to think that the very same things come to us night after night on television, through these shows that we’re only happy to watch — where’s the difference?
One of the first Tamil shows to capture this Jerry Springer trend was Kathai Alla Nijam, in 2002, which was hosted by yesteryear actor Lakshmi. Kathai Alla Nijam might’ve seemed tame in comparison, but it dealt with equally kooky themes (in one episode, Lakshmi investigates into her karma and past life; in another, she counsels young men and their parents on the dangers of bike racing) ran into its own share of troubles as well.
Just 11 days after the show started, the Juvenile Welfare Board in Chennai sent a letter to Vijay TV, accusing the show of having “shallow episodes” and being “insensitive” in handling of social issues. There are, of course, episodes that do have the ‘happily ever after’ outcome. For example, young Derry, who ran way from home when he was seven after his mother self-immolated in front of him, was reunited with his siblings.
Nevertheless, all the shows follow a pattern: they’re confrontational with their participants just to evoke an overly emotional reaction. If the man/woman tips over the edge, it’s welcome and we’re shown the reactions twice, if not more.
After these shows, most the people in it (unsurprisingly) don’t wish to file complaints with the police, which makes confessions on these shows useless — just fodder for good reality TV. Which is exactly what makes them popular: it gives the viewers a voyeuristic pleasure of looking into other people’s lives, while simultaneously reminding them that nothing can go wrong in their middle-class ones. If hosts love to play agony aunt, us, the viewers, love to play creepy uncle interested in what’s going on in everyone’s lives.
Which is why it’s usually the lower middle class and the poor (daily wage earners, small shop owners, domestic workers) who are wrangled onto the shows. Helpfully nurturing middle-class beliefs that poor people’s lives are broken and that their issues like domestic violence, dowry and sexual abuse need fixing. Because, you know, People Like Us don’t have the same problems and if we do, can handle them on their own. In a 2013 interview to The Hindu, Ramakrishnan says revealingly that she is appalled at some of her guests’ apathy and that we cannot dismiss “such folks as belonging to a stratum we don’t relate to. We could have such cases amidst the sophisticated lot too. Only that these people are willing to speak out.”
For this willingness, the hosts routinely talk down to their guests, with their eyes rolling. Or they indulge in heavy-handed sarcasm, questioning everything that their guests did, making them second-guess themselves. Ramakrishnan’s most-used phrase “Yaema Ippadi Panreengale Maa” (Why do you do this?), often uttered in exasperation at her guests, even found its way in memes, in the Tamil film Darling, and as a Sivakarthikeyan song, all thanks to another TV show that parodied it.
While they’re definitely not as dramatic as kangaroo courts shows and neither do they try to “solve” people’s problems, they do try to pass off constructive commentary as the collective solution to all of our societal problems and injustices. Neeya Naana’s tagline even goes “a talk show where two polarised groups of society are brought together on a common platform to share their views and see a different perspective on socially-relevant topics”. Like the recent Neeya Naana episode on dowry — not the “traditional kind”, but where women made their own demands from their parents — that got a lot of people’s collective goat. One wanted a diamond necklace, another wanted her parents to save up more than 50 sovereigns of gold, while all woman wanted was a helicopter for her wedding. Social media erupted enthusiastically at this opportunity to call the women selfish and greedy. The episode served as reminder that patriarchy was well and truly alive — the women were just rebuked for being “greedy”, instead of analysing why men and women are engaged in ways of gouging their own and each other’s families during weddings.
As long as the shows continue to deploy their irresistible formula of voyeurism, moralising and violence they show no sign of going anywhere soon. Who’s going to stop watching? Neeya? Naana?