WITH CONGRESS SPOKESMAN Tehseen Poonawala entering the Bigg Boss house, it only confirms what is a common perception. That Bigg Boss contestants, for all their notoriety and misdemeanours, often pale in comparison with prime-time news panelists, whose vocabulary can stretch to include four-letter words and rude gestures. Congress spokesman Poonawala, with his disturbing ability to speak loudly and theatrically, evident in an election show for Zee News called Bhai vs Bhai (his brother Shehzad speaking for the BJP), should fit right in with contestants of Bigg Boss Season 13.
Yes, it’s that house in Goregaon where contestants are put in captivity for 15 weeks and monitored for 24 hours a day, with footage edited to fit into a daily show on Colors to stir just enough controversies, launch an adequate number of quirky characters, and repackage old and forgotten faces. Every season has its quota and the winners aren’t necessarily the most memorable—anyone recall one-hit wonder Rahul Roy of the 1990 Aashiqui, the winner of Season 1, who has gone from instant fame to instant obscurity twice in one life? In its latest avatar, it has attracted the ire of professional outrage-ists. This time round, their anger is directed against Kashmiri model Asim Riaz who dared to share a bed with Mahira Sharma in order to complete a task that is described as BFFs—Bed Friends Forever. On Twittter, the event even acquired its own hashtag, #JehadFelataBiggBoss. The BJP MLA from Ghaziabad, Nand Kishore Gujjar, wrote a letter to Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javdekar demanding that the show be taken off air, while an organisation called the Confederation of All India Traders urged him to impose a ban on grounds of vulgarity.
It is precisely this sort of action/reaction that keeps Bigg Boss on the boil, and propels the show to the top of the charts. The show began this year with 6.9 million impressions reaching out to 30 million viewers across India on launch day, making it the second best start in the category this year. According to Colors, the show has reached out to over 105 million viewers across India in the first three weeks of its airing. What’s more, Season 13 contributes to nearly 27 per cent of Colors’ average weekly viewership (average week 40-42, 2019).
What makes Bigg Boss so consistently watchable? Is it the same curiosity that makes us tune into prime-time TV news every night, only to watch anchors and experts implode with rage? As Abhinandan Sekhri of Newslaundry puts it, more than a comment on Poonawala and his mastering the circus of reality shows, his inclusion in Bigg Boss is a comment on TV news. In the past, he points out, Shweta Singh, Dibang and Saurav Sharma (from Aaj Tak, ABP News and India TV, respectively) have appeared on Bigg Boss, not as contestants but as askers of questions, a bizarre role which is as good as appearing as a contestant. “This at a time where these channels exert such strict control over where their anchors appear, including media conferences. This confirms that our news studios are trashy reality showrooms with pretensions of serious policy analysis. A transition to General Entertainment Channel (GEC) reality shows is a natural progression. Next step you’ll have anchors there as well. That’s not a flippant comment, but a serious prediction,” he adds.
It’s the same sentiment one encounters on Twitter, which has become the social media equivalent of mud-wrestling with a pig—where both get dirty and only the pig enjoys it. When the show began on Indian television in 2006, there was still some decorum in public life. Twitter had been launched but was not big in India. News on television still believed in imparting information rather than propaganda. Rakhi Sawant’s antics still made news, actor Ravi Kishan was not yet MP from Gorakhpur, and Carol Gracias’ wardrobe malfunction was considered shocking. The host was Arshad Warsi, Circuit of the hit franchise Munnabhai.
Since then the show has changed anchors, even experimenting with a far-too-philosophical Amitabh Bachchan in Season 3, finally getting Salman Khan, who is quite un-ironical in his schooling of contestants. Manisha Sharma, Head Creative Content, Hindi Mass Entertainment, Viacom18, believes an influential host whose opinion matters to both audiences and contestants is important in the Indian scenario for a show with as varied opinions, celebrities and contextualities as Bigg Boss. “It is a global format which is popular with audiences across socio-cultural backgrounds. Our focus is on entertainment and we try to stay away from politics and religion, not necessarily reflecting on society. The key hook for viewers is being able to watch celebrities undergo high-pressure situations. With such a complex background, audiences will either love it or hate it but with the right mix of cast, there is no bar for success it can’t reach.’’
Indeed, Bigg Boss has been quite ahead of the curve in depicting minorities of all kinds. Anyone remember Bobby Darling in Season 1, as he was transitioning to becoming a woman? Or the series of gay men, from designer Rohit Verma to fashion stylist Imam Siddiqui? Or every foreign wannabe wanting to be the next Katrina Kaif—from Hazel Keech in Season 7 to Mandana Karimi in Season 9? There have been enough sparks and larks to keep beauty parlour conversations and water cooler gossip afloat.
Not everyone agrees that it is fascinating. Rayasree Sen, independent writer, believes Bigg Boss is a collection of forgettable people, behaving in the vilest manner possible without a smidgen of talent, intellect or charm. “It’s a microcosm of how the lowest dregs in society behave. With each successive season of the show the producers run to any well-known celebrities to invite to participate. The current season has a bunch of unknowns other than for a few TV actors and Anu Malik’s brother. People are still fighting over who drank more tea, and shrieking at each other over why someone hid the tea leaves and someone showed a shoe to someone.’’
But the elements of voyeurism guarantee viewership. It is how Rahul Mahajan reinvented himself from badly behaved politician’s son to badly behaved reality TV star, in Season 2, even getting his own reality wedding on the short-lived NDTV Imagine. It explains how Manoj Tiwari went from fighting with Dolly Bindra over whether he could eat eggs for breakfast on Season 4 to getting enough face time to being elected MP, twice. It got Sunny Leone to transform herself from American adult star to Indian leading lady, headlining Jism 2 for Mahesh Bhatt, after squabbling over house tasks and exhibiting her pole dancing talents in Season 5. And it made Anup Jalota go from sanskari bhajan singer to a naughty old man in one kiss with his avowed disciple Jasleen Matharu in Season 12.
As Sekhri points out, if a reality show star can be the president of the US and Sean Spicer transition effortlessly from White House briefings to Dancing with the Stars, our business models follow the same path. What’s interesting is that Bigg Boss viewership is skewed towards premium audiences, which is essentially the monetisable target group.
The core of the show is extremely simple, says Abhishek Rege, the CEO of Endemol Shine, which is the licensed programmer for the Bigg Boss format. “It is a peek into the lives of people, usually celebrities, who are kept in the house with no outside contact. It gets traction and buzz when the casting is right.” He attributes the success of the show, across Colors and other Viacom networks, including music network MTV and digital network Voot, to 3Ts (Talent, Talent, Talent) and the show host Salman Khan. And he’s clear about it: contestants are chosen for the ability to entertain.
And if that is not enough, there is always the cottage industry of Salman Khan movies. From Rajat Rawail of Season 7 to Niketan Madhok of Season 6, there is always a role in a Salman Khan movie waiting at the end of the low-life tunnel.