(This article was originally published in October 2015 before the start of Bigg Boss Season 9. The Quint is republishing this to mark the beginning of Bigg Boss Season 11.)
Come October 11, and suddenly traffic on the roads at night will begin to thin. Middle class, Hindi television watching Indian families will gravitate towards their TVs, and the tabloids will be abuzz. Bigg Boss Season 9 will be upon us, like a much desired and pompous house guest who will schedule his visits opportunely, between 10:30 and 11:30 at night. And because Atithi Devo Bhava, Bigg Boss will be welcomed home with much fanfare and celebration, for the ninth time.
Bigg Boss is inexplicably one of India’s most watched reality television shows, vying with the likes of Comedy Nights with Kapil, MTV Roadies and Dance India Dance.
Let’s put Bigg Boss and its format in context. A number of semi-famous celebrities and has-beens are locked up together in a lavish ‘house’, isolated from the rest of the world. The house is constantly monitored by surveillance cameras and everything on camera is recorded ostensibly for the entertainment of its target audience. To add to this dystopian nightmare, the ‘housemates’ are overseen by a mysterious omnipresent, omniscient Bigg Boss, who issues instructions that must be followed. In short, a bunch of people are imprisoned (out of their own volition, certainly), scrutinised and made to ‘perform.’ Contestants on Bigg Boss are akin to performing monkeys in a circus.
My question is simple: Why on EARTH are we watching this?
Of course we’re voyeurs, but then, the success of any reality television show could tell you that. We love to watch people tell us personal tales of scandal and woe. We luxuriate in the melodrama of petty fist fights, tears and name-calling.
If you’ve watched Bigg Boss, then you’ve most likely hated KRK and Puneet Issar. You may have prayed for Dolly Bindra to shut up. You might have also celebrated when Shweta Tiwari won. The point is, you cared enough to get involved.
To call it voyeurism and to leave it at that would not be fair. We’re also interested in the ‘fate’ of these people, and their trajectory through the show. We’re rooting for someone, and their fate, in whatever small way, concerns us. We’re not just voyeurs, we’re also an audience that feels empathy.
We Gawk and We’re Great at It
Bigg Boss follows the original Big Brother format, which wasn’t even nearly as popular elsewhere in the world. The rest of the world got tired of the formula a long time ago, while we continue to be entertained by people who are very vocal about why they can’t stand each other.
As a country, our ability to gawk is famous. A fight on the roads? Everyone stops to look. Not to break it up, now that wouldn’t be right, would it? We’re spectators, we’ll spectate. A woman walks by? Of course. An accident on the road? We’ll crowd around the victim and stare. Is it any wonder that we watch Bigg Boss?
However, it isn’t entirely fair to write contemptuously about our inability to respect peoples’ space. Privacy is truly a first world privilege. We’re a country with a population of 1.2 billion. We’ve forgotten what it is like to have enough place to stand in a metro compartment without having our faces pressed into someone’s armpit. Families of four are packed like sardines in rooms meant for one. What then, do we know of privacy?
His Name is Khan
I cannot claim to understand Salman Khan’s massive fan following. The man has 14.1 million followers on Twitter. He is the second most followed Indian on Twitter, and is number 76 on Twitter’s top 100 most followed. When he took over as the host of Bigg Boss in its fourth season, TRPs went up dramatically. The season finale had the highest TRP rating the show has ever had.
Whatever the reason, the Salman Khan formula is a guaranteed success. Perhaps it’s because the public will never really dethrone the phenomenon that is Salman Khan. His movies open to packed audiences time after time. Box office numbers are astronomical. There’s an invincible aura surrounding the man who can get away with murder and inspire a generation of young men to wear uncomfortably tight Being Human t-shirts.
Salman Khan’s protégés in Bollywood can be assured of a long and prosperous career. On Bigg Boss, eviction Fridays are overseen by the man himself.
There’s no math left for me to do. The man is the tour de force behind Bigg Boss and he makes it work.
Dethroning Our Gods
If there’s anything we do effectively and without cutting any corners, it is offer worship. Our innumerable gods, cricketers, Bollywood actors and celebrities are subject to our obsequious veneration. A reality show like Bigg Boss dethrones our celebrities. Once they’ve been knocked off their pedestal, the illusion is destroyed.
In that moment, when they’re fighting, crying and generally being horrible, they are no longer celebrities, but flawed folk like you and me.
Perhaps that’s the secret. The illusion of equality. Whatever it is, come October 11, we’ll be where we’ve been the last 8 times – in front of our TVs, watching human tragedy unfold.