(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)
As the lights dimmed and he headed back to his ‘make-up’ room, he looked back once again to the stage to see the last remnants of his dignity. He had just done a scripted-to-look-impromptu dance with a former leading lady who appeared on his show to promote her comeback movie. He used to be the biggest superstar in the country and now he has to suffer a thousand indignities everyday being a circus monkey for people he wouldn’t even have looked at when he was at the peak of his career. People who only are allowed to appear on his show because he needs them. His first teevee show gave the channel enough ratings to keep them on the top for a decade. Now, to attract a decent audience, he needs to use people with sad stories to sell as a crutch. His father was right: if you want people to stop caring about you, grow old.
One of the most popular tropes on twitter among people who don’t have anything funny or original to say is to make a ‘joke’ about someone in the news being a contestant on Bigg Boss. This sort of came true last week when commode enthusiast and alleged cartoonist Aseem Trivedi became a contestant on that show. Because the best way to fight injustice is to participate in a show famous for playing psychotic mind games with its contestants and is moderated by a man whose career is dedicated to making bullying seem kitschy-cool! Trivedi made so much noise about being in jail and when he was freed he voluntarily entered a large compound in which he, along with other inmates, has to follow a rigid set of rules – which if broken invite their own set of penalties, receive food rations barely enough for sustenance, and can only exit when asked to do so by a presiding authority. Well played! Seems like all our modern messiahs want to do is become famous enough to get on teevee.
Of course, in India, the shortest route to fame - other than leading a vague protest against the government’s policies - is to become a contestant on a reality show. We love the people on reality shows! Sure, we forget about them the minute the current season of the show ends, but electing a proper Indian Idol is more important than electing a proper government.
And we have a whole spate of reality shows to choose from! You have your regular talent shows, in which people who didn’t succeed in their actual chosen profession select people who are going to fail in theirs. Nowadays, most of these shows have turned into a contest to determine who is more poor and desperate. Will you vote for the grocery vendor from a village without electricity situated deep inside the Himalayan mountains whose parents have to trek 200 kilometres just to catch a glimpse of their only offspring on teevee or would you vote for the orphan from the streets of the badlands of UP who survived famine, caste war, family feuds, dacoit recruitment officers and Anu Malik’s poetry to reach the finale. Why wouldn’t you help them achieve their lifelong dream of winning a show that didn’t exist until a month ago, you monster? Some shows also feature celebrities – and by celebrities I mean anyone who might have appeared in a movie or television show or had their photo appear in the newspaper that one time – dancing and singing away, shamelessly asking their ‘fans’ to vote for them. Perhaps the only thing more pathetic than contestants on reality shows assuming that they have fans is people on twitter assuming that those who follow them actually give a crap about which first world problem prevented them from sharing their bon mots with the rest of the world. Even the scripted banter on these shows is more banal and cliché ridden than Ravi Shashtri’s commentary.
Then there are a zillion ‘crime shows’ which portray crude dramatizations of real-life incidents while the anchor pops in after every scene to give a very serious monologue requiring very serious background music. Judging by the ratings of these shows, it seems India really loves watching ‘people like us’ suffer fatal consequences for bad decisions.
The worst of the lot are those interchangeable ‘youth-centric’ shows. Their basic conceit is to humiliate everyone involved in the show on national television. A whole generation has been brought up watching these shows, confusing notoriety with fame. Possessing a real talent has been replaced by possessing an ability to bully, cajole, outwit or seduce. Bonus points if you get bleeped every two seconds.
Perhaps that is going to be this generation’s teevee legacy: a bunch of illiterate people shouting the f-word at each other, completely devoid of any context.