Orwellian dystopias can barely equal the reality hunger of television buffs

Orwellian dystopias can barely equal the reality hunger of television buffs

By VINEET GILL | | 24 October, 2015
Reality TV begins to lose its sting and bite once the initial shock subsides and the audiences grow more insensate towards the routine gags of subjecting people to a social experiment, writes Vineet Gill, who struggles to make sense of Bigg Boss.
An artist’s job is to warn us against investing too much hope in the future and to be constantly on guard against all sanguine good cheer. This is something two of our greatest poets of clear-eyed cynicism — who sang about our social, political and personal dystopias — did rather well. I am, of course, talking about George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, and their respective visions of a doomed human future as recorded in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Both these works, although mediocre by novelistic standards (I find it painful to re-read them), occupy a central place in the modern consciousness: their ideas, their lexicons are always with us, even if we’re scarcely aware where the concepts and words are coming from.

But when Big Brother, the television series and ur-reality show, was first aired in the Netherlands (of all places!) in 1999, no dues were paid to the George Orwell estate or his publishers. No credits or tributes or acknowledgments. At the turn of the 20th century — Orwell’s century, as some would say — we were internalising his ideas, but entirely without their ironic import. The original Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four, an unseen but omniscient dictator and overlord, is shorn as an entity of his political overtones in the age of the TV, having become merely a strict ringmaster of sorts who can often be firm but is always fair.

In the Indian version of the show, now in its ninth season, we’ve done away with Orwellian doublespeak (an excellent example of which is the term “Big Brother” itself, signifying familial connect but representative of absolute evil). Bigg Boss is more to the point, more matter of fact. Transitioning from being a godhead figure to an iron-fist ringmaster, the Indian Bigg Boss comes across as not much more than a paltry little paymaster — an employer, a boss, who assigns tasks and doles out punishments or rewards; always niggling, always interfering with the narrative. It’s instructive to find that in the British version of the show, Big Brother never himself speaks — the entity is actually a non-entity, all the time looking, and judging, but never really there — quite like the stalker, the arch pervert and veteran voyeur. Quite like the audiences of this show.

It is said of the writer Bernard Malamud that when he attended parties in New York, he preferred sitting in a quiet corner, sometimes with his dark glasses on, commanding a clear view of the rest of the room, while closely and silently observing everything. Watching Bigg Boss, the only way to ward off shame and embarrassment of being termed a voyeur is to pretend that you’re someone like Malamud — an artist studying his subjects; an observer rather than a voyeur.

 “This is art,” I will tell my family members, if ever they decide to confront me about the discipline with which I’ve started watching Bigg Boss. Not the show, though, I’d clarify. This, me watching the show, is a form of art, for it makes me decidedly an artist.

But the popularity ratings of the show have more or less ebbed internationally. In Russia for instance, the series, aired in 2005, concluded merely after its first season, with no subsequent editions likely to follow.  (That Big Brother was aired in Russia at all — the country’s post-war political situation was Orwell’s template for Nineteen Eighty-Four — is itself something to marvel at.) In Britain and America, the excitement and controversy this show had stoked up in its initial years — “Should reality TV be banned?” was among the many online polls that did the rounds at the time — proved ephemeral.

Over here, too, Bigg Boss was pushed back from the primetime slot to the watershed zone of 10.30 p.m., much to the dismay of the artist-viewer. I recently received an impassioned note by a petitioner on the popular campaigning portal www.change.org: an appeal to reschedule Bigg Boss to the 9 p.m. slot, since the change in the timings has left “major fans of the show disappointed”. “We all know,” the petitioner says, “this reality show is been [sic] watched by every age group member [sic] but this time the change of timing [sic] of the show brought [sic] a [sic]DOUBLE TROUBLE for its fans mainly.”

It’s instructive to find that in the British version of the show, Big Brother never himself speaks — the entity is actually a non-entity, all the time looking, and judging, but never really there: quite like the stalker, the arch pervert and veteran voyeur. Quite like the audiences. 

Primetime forfeiture is one indication that a TV programme is losing the popular vote. The other is when the creators of a show appear to be trying too hard for attention. Those who don’t watch Bigg Boss — and why not, if I may ask? — would be perplexed by the term, “Double Trouble” used in the petition above (which, I would urge all and sundry to sign without any further ado). “Double Trouble” is a Bigg Boss gimmick and a factor that lends thematic unity to the current season. As far as social experiments go, this one takes the cake. With this, the makers of the show seem to be asking, what’s better than throwing in a bunch of people in an isolated house they can’t leave for three months? Answer: Throwing in a bunch of people and then fastening every couple of them with a rope. Fastening randomly-chosen couples with ropes.

The evil genius of such a move can’t possibly be doubted, although I would have preferred them tied at the neck, like cattle, rather than at the waist as they actually are. Be that as it may, it’s still humiliating enough for the contestants to be living their lives, over the next few weeks, in tandem. When any one of the couple goes to the loo, the other stands obediently outside, with the umbilical connection still in place. New standards are set in Bigg Boss: Double Trouble of privacy breach, standards that make Orwell’s Big Brother seem somewhat benevolent. The principle at work here is that human beings in a collective behave like rats (another Orwellian image); and the closer you pack them, the more conflicts are likely to arise.

That is the first principle of all reality TV, depending upon the natural interplay of things and the personal dynamics of the contestants within a setting (in this case, the Bigg Boss house that always resembles a brightly-lit makeup room). The second principle takes more directly a moral angle, for it involves outrightly degrading the contestants; and it involves me — the viewer, the artist, the shameless connoisseur of Schadenfruede.  

When do we — the creators and viewers of reality TV — cross the line of basic decency? When did we cross the line? And how far can we push the envelope? I am reminded of news channels each time the term reality TV comes up. Over here, we find “real” reality, as opposed to manufactured, primetime reality. Recently, for instance, on some news channel, a story broke about a cylinder blast that killed several youngesters at a restaurant in Mumbai. The channel was playing a CCTV footage of the incident: boys and girls sitting across from each other, some of them smiling, some with their elbows resting on the table; the floors, the plates, the metal-backed chairs. Even without sound, I could hear the life within that room. The soundtrack was actually talking about the number of people who had died in the blast: the list of the dead included eight names. I counted the faces I now saw in the frame and they were exactly eight in number. This ghastly reality show unfolded before my eyes, the script to which I already knew. But in the end, I am grateful that I changed the channel before, as it were, reality struck. I am grateful to something in me that made me do it, something in me that abhors and dreads reality.

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