Why We Keep Watching Malayalee House and Bigg Boss

Nithin Manayath
Grist Media

Twenty two years ago, a then 13-year-old schoolmate of mine, brought a hard-core porn mag to class which ten boys grabbingly and heatedly giggled through. Five suspicious girls who felt curiously left out of all the hushed action, stole it during the break and began flicking its pages open. With each page they would all collectively close their eyes and avert their faces before coming to the next one and similarly right to the very end; after which they refused to speak to the boys in class for a whole week and the boys blamed the one who got the mag.

Reality television formats like Malayalee House that airs on Surya TV appear to produce a similar effect in many of its viewers. 

Malayalee House (MH), based on the Bigg Boss (BB) format, is mid-way through its first and perhaps only season. Only because its continuance will depend on the outcome of the legal case of copyright infringement that Endemol, a Norwegian company which owns the rights to the design, has filed in the Bombay High Court against the makers (Sun TV and Vedartha Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.).
The extra g in Big and the double e for the otherwise plain Malayali are perhaps there to achieve a phonetic realism and, while we’re at it, why not also wink at the Malayalam pun on Endemol. 
A now very recognizable format in Indian television since the first Hindi BB aired on Sony in 2006, these Big Brother UK spinoffs are synonymous with reality television programming in India.

The format is fairly simple.  Sixteen contestants (housemates) with passable celebrity status live in an isolated house with thirty-odd cameras. Each episode is a compilation of daily activity and housemates nominate two or three of their peers for eviction by audience vote every week.

Housemates are overseen by a mysterious person known as 'Bigg Boss', whose only presence in the house is through his voice, or, in the case of MH, through a set of instructions that appears as text on a television set.  

One significant addition to the Indian series, in comparison to Big Brother UK, is the introduction of a super celebrity host (Salman Khan in BB Hindi, Sudeep in BB Kannada) who is there to ostensibly arbitrate in certain instances, and provide muscle to the opening and finale.

Even if one were to ignore the astrological calculations that TRP ratings have become, the number of views on YouTube clips from the shows are reflective of their middling popularity but compelling charms. And the comments on these clips offer us a generous literature of the affective states that the shows produce. 

“All the women are prostitutes and the men skirtchasers,” says one transliterated comment by a young looking thumbnail-man on one of the MH clips. “Oh, what shame. Please remove the word Malayalee from the title,” says a woman. These comments and media reports suggest abject disgust for MH, being expressed by a certain section of dominant Malayali sociality.

It does seem unprecedented in comparison with the official regional language Bigg Boss versions like the Kannada one that released its final episode on June 30th, or the Bangla one that is underway. MH’s host, adored star of middle-class Malayalam cinema, Revathi, was reported in the media as withdrawing from the show, given the degree to which genteel Malayaliness was shuddering in shame. 

Much online criticism directed at the show relies on pointing a finger at the eroticism evidenced in these shows, and the few comments in defence work at underplaying the eroticism by chalking up the real-life achievements of the celebrities on the show. A scene from one of the many spoofs of the show provides a clue to the nature of cultural unease with the format. 

In a spoof called Thozhilali House (House of Worker Comrades) the housemates uncover a man and a woman to have been sleeping under the same blanket. Both are shocked at being discovered next to each other. The woman, who is visibly more distressed by this, accuses the man and also the show of trying to shame her.

“This is a plan, it’s all a plan,” she says, as another woman leads her away.  In many ways, the blanket episode is an apt metaphor for the show. Participants are both seemingly unaware of what it could mean, culturally, to share a house with people who are not necessarily related to you, and at the same time, shocked by the potential of what it could look like to people outside the blanket.

This mix of ignorance and awareness of artifice produces much of the dramatic tension of the show both within and outside.  This, of course, is true for all BB versions and not particular to MH. 

It’s very possible that MH is just facing the initial wave of criticism that was also directed at BB Hindi before they figured a way to control the foregrounding of erotic content and restrict viewer responses online.

One striking difference is that the Bangla or Kannada BB clips on YouTube appear to have been released only by Endemol with restricted comments, whereas there appear to be both official and unofficial clips of MH, with open comments on both.

A few clips with pronounced erotic content, such as two young actor/model housemates, Thinkal Bhal and Sandeep Menon, chatting about how many people they’ve had sex with, or another compilation of erotically charged displays of affection between participants, were also officially released. As protests against the show got shriller, they were also quickly removed by the makers. 

In all versions, the makers and participants make various attempts to diffuse this erotic potential of cohabitation.  In the Kannada version, participants immediately establish familial epithets wherever possible. While this works in the context of the Kannada BB very well with epithets like Akka/Anna, (elder sister/brother) it doesn’t seem to offer the same respite with Cheta and Chechi. 

Akka/Anna is bound to ensure that the inter-relational space between participants using these epithets stays far away from any erotic prospect. In contrast, culturally translated into Malayalam, the kinship terms have an added history of wink-nudge use in films which makes them impossible to fully divorce from the erotic.  

MH perhaps encounters cultural resistance more than the other versions also in relation to the space in which participants are filmed. The Kannada BB, in opting for the outlandish hostel-style set erected in Karjat – one that is already familiar to many viewers of BB Hindi – allows the Kannada spectator to imagine this space as separate and exceptional from the everyday idea of home. While the MH set design of an upper-caste naalukettu (inner courtyard surrounded by rooms) retains, to a degree, a dominant cultural idea of tradition and home, which makes any erotic transgression in this space more acutely felt. The symbols of tradition seem to work counter-intuitively to heighten the register of cultural transgression in this space. 

MH housemates, therefore, are making their lives a little bit more difficult by even adopting dominant-jati performances of ‘traditional’ gender roles such as lighting the evening lamp and walking through the house chanting “Deepam Deepam.”  (A sight that would terrify me as a child of six during visits to Nair homes in rural Kerala with minimal or no electric supply in the early 80s; having only seen Hindi film ghosts carry lamps through dark houses, in white sarees with their hair untied.)  In one episode, a participant denounces another by pointing out that she had been shameless enough to take the lamp even though she had started “spotting”.

Actions that are considered socially unacceptable, like doing deepam duty while ‘spotting’ or violent outbursts or skipping assigned duties, become associated with particular housemates and provide for much of the daily drag of the show.

Eros, meanwhile, is the demon held at bay, to be produced every now and then in a way that all its participants have to endure the horror of its presence amongst them.  And each housemate, with some help from the makers, tries to counter this pointed figure of eros by mobilising the daily misdemeanours of the other housemates, and proceeding to perform these conflicts with an arsenal of bhavas from cinematic melodrama.

They also simultaneously mark fellow housemates as being more morally suspect than themselves and vote them for eviction. 

The participant’s recognition of who is eroticising the show and in what manner often goes counter to what the studio has served to its spectators. Sometimes, the makers too are blind to the well-established personas that celebrities bring with them for consumption; as evidenced by the public outcry against Santosh Pandit’s elimination.  

Santosh Pandit
, a superman of small-town Kerala, has been making reasonably successful small budget digital films, on the lines of 80s and 90s Telugu/Tamil blockbuster cinema. The first of these, Krishnenum Radheyum received an unexpected release in cinemas after songs released online received a lakh and more views (together with a compendium of Malayalam insults in the comment pages).

While Kerala’s media-savvy public started by preying on clips from his films for kitschy ironic pleasures , and urban media houses saw in these films the nadir of Malayalam cinema, a growing local fan base made Pandit an eccentric yet everyday presence in Malayali celebrity culture. While it was clear that the participants and the makers saw in Pandit an unsophisticated figure who upset their sense of moral propriety, for many in the audience, he was at best a victim of a morally bankrupt elitist set of participants, and at worst, the village idiot who needed to be pitied.

So his being voted out in the fourth week created enough outrage in the watching public that MH producers dramatically admitted that they had made a huge mistake, and he was allowed re-entry in the sixth week. 

This battle against the erotic is perhaps why winners on most BB shows end up being soft and calmly assertive men or strong elder sister figures. Housemates like actor Vijay Raghavendra (also Kannada cinema’s  patron saint Annavaru Dr. Rajkumar’s nephew), the winner of the Kannada show, is established as missing his wife so much that he almost breaks down and cries whenever his wife is mentioned and actually does so when she appears as a guest; sealing his appeal as the emotional and pure Anna.

And the last three winners of BB Hindi – Shweta Tiwari, Juhi Parmar and Urvashi Dholakia – are all cast in the mode of kind and generous elder sister figures who are able to either negotiate to their advantage with younger participants, or stand up to bullying.  They do this by bringing to bear all the positive emotive registers they learnt playing lead characters in two super popular K serials, Kasauti Zindagi Ki and Kumkum.

Unkind outbursts from housemates against these elder sister figures translate into supportive audience votes, and the transgressor punished with eviction. Often housemates’ ability to speak in the official version of the regional language, without a hint of urban English accent and definitely no English, like quiz master GS Pradeep’s state newsreader diction on MH, or actress Juhi Parmar’s attempts at khariboli on BB, also holds them in good stead with viewers attuned to such language politics.  

Younger participants can also win sympathy votes if they are able to mark an older participant as being oppressive and unkind. For example, Kannada film actress Nikita Thukral, despite her halting Kannada, manages to win this game of emotional warfare against an older woman like Chandrika, an actress in her 40s (who goes through much of the show in gym wear), with her distinctive ability to break down and cry at the slightest hint of aggression from housemates. Chandrika, unfortunately, in her eye-rolling impatience with Nikita’s twee chatter, ends up being cast as the impatient kill-joy. 

As spectators, we are at once distractingly pointed towards the erotic potential of the show while the makers repeatedly dissolve this look, into various other rasas on offer. The standard television code by which this look of illicit revealing is deployed is by choosing to play the action from the position of the camera whose view of the scene of action is most distant or partially hidden ( by a pillar perhaps).

Sometimes a conjugal moment is created by erasing the presence of other participants in the scene of action, or, as in BB Hindi, by simply using night vision or zooming in on a pixellated scene accompanied by the sounds of the camera zoom.

And the dissolving of this erotic look involves repetitively evoking emotional states of anger, romantic love, disgust, compassion,  maternal/paternal/avuncular/sibling love, mistrust, jealousy, joy, etc; all extracted from the inter-relational dynamics captured and edited for screen. 

It’s pretty much like the 18th century rasa reformism of dance cultures in a contemporary setting.  The reformist look spot-lit the Tawaif or the Sadir performance and covered it with various kinds of hats to yank out a squeaky clean melodramatic version of Bhakti that is gutted of all eroticism; or at least that’s what they set out to do.

The eroticism itself, we know from experience, never really disappears, but is just secreted away, to produce on demand whenever an appeal to dharma needs to be evoked.  It is secreted into spaces like that of theatre or cinema or red light areas, and more recently, into online spaces of secreted MMS clips and YouTube videos; which are all brought to feel the force of this accusation.  

A look that the right wing constantly mobilizes to point at almost all the spaces of everyday life as being morally suspect.  A look that it can bring to bear on almost every kind of activity – from the representation of women in media, to the idea of young inter-faith cross-gender friendships, to Husain’s paintings, to pubs, to birthday parties, etc. – as all holding the potential for illicit eroticism. 

While the show mostly reinforces this way of looking at the many spaces of our life to detect and delete the virus of eros, many of the housemates caught in this bind sometimes accept it defiantly through acts of shamelessness. But even this shamelessness usually loses steam mid-way. 

Rakhi Sawant, on the first season of Bigg Boss Hindi, was perhaps the grippingly closest we came to such a defiant shamelessness. But her shamelessness too, was distorted and edited into moral tales: of bitterness in the face of gender hypocrisy at work; of being a victim of poverty and exploitation; and of a daughter who never got the maternal love that she sought and still seeks.

Kolkata-based model Iris in the Bangla Bigg Boss, faced with various censorious looks for flirting with one of the housemates, chooses to assert her love in the Yes-dammit-I-love-him register and picks fights with almost every other participant on the flimsiest of excuses. While all this makes for persuasive drama, it becomes depressingly familiar in its pitting of kama against dharma.  

The little respite that the show does offer from this oppressive liason with erotics, it does unwittingly and despite all the efforts of the makers to orient us otherwise.  The very format of reality television, explores an exceptional state of mimetic and vicarious living by its participants and spectators.

Welcoming a grotesque and scary vision of their own eros, as a means of setting in motion the dynamic of the show, also lets in something we can’t determine similarly.  A playful expression and experience of eros that slips in unexpectedly along with what the show’s supposedly well-calibrated apparatus wants.  An eros that seems to have a necessary and meaningful space in everyday life. 

One such instance in MH is when actor/comedian Narayanan Kutty asks Sindhu Joy (an ex-member of CPI(M) and erstwhile congress Chairperson of Kerala Youth Commission) if the “brassiere” on the clothes line belongs to her? She says yes, but is visibly flustered and yet very amused when he wonders aloud at how large it is. She looks at the camera, which chooses to be at some distance from the scene of the action to perhaps mark this interaction as illicit, and runs to cover her bra on the clothesline, chiding this cheta for being so ridiculous. 

But the effeminate queerness of Narayanan Kutty (in another episode he is seen teaching a young model shringara-heavy make-do bharatanatyam abhinaya and hasta mudras for a house performance) and the amused response from Sindhu together marks this exchange as definitively, playfully, and artfully erotic. 

This little scene is included in a compilation of clips titled ‘Malayali housile chila athiruvitta chumbanangal’ (some kisses that cross limits in MH). As a culture we do seem to recognize the artistry of these moments, hence the YouTube compilation of many such similar episodes.  Except that  the creator of this video too is invested in recasting his/her passionate and surely painstaking curation with a title that undermines their enthusiasm. 

Nevertheless, in that brief moment of clash between the frame set by the camera and the compilation, and what the scene lets slip of the action, we are able to see the potential of reorganizing the way in which we will think of the eroticism of everyday life. 

But these glimpses are so fleeting that in order to hold on to them, and not be driven to distress, we might have to seek recourse in a tradition that does not see kama and dharma as antithetical human endeavours.

For help we might have to turn to a figure like Gandhi. Imagine Gandhi’s ashram as a Bigg Boss set and all ashramites, including himself, its participants. The eros in this space was never denied by Gandhi, unlike the Gandhian ashrams of the present. In the many ‘bhramcharya’ experiments that he undertook with his grand niece Manu or with other ashramites like Susheela-ben, Gandhi dealt with the erotic on the same terms that he dealt with every other ethical concern.
That he was Bapu to everyone didn’t necessarily mean a lack of erotic potential.  The look he and other ashramites mobilised particularly within the ashram, and to a lesser extent outside, expected an equal treatment of eros as one would apply to the choice of food, clothes and work.

A recent cover story in Outlook recasts this open discussion of erotics that was encouraged in the ashram through deploying categories of a “secret revealed in Manu’s diary” and offers us bits and pieces of the diary as if these were hidden aspects of Gandhi’s life that were being revealed to an unknowing public. 

Such a recasting only highlights how threatened we really are by Gandhi’s radical shamelessness; one that is not pitted against being ashamed, but demands a redefinition of what ought to shame us and what ought not to. 

If we hold on to this tradition, we might just feel less anxious to leave some stinker of a comment after avidly watching each episode of Malayalee House, Bigg Boss or whatever, and perhaps even challenge ourselves to go so far as to create our own compilations of everyday reality TV erotica – and share them with titles that are just as playfully and artfully erotic.
Nithin Manayath has been a columnist for Time Out Bengaluru and writes occasionally for publications like Tehelka and The Big Indian Picture. He teaches media studies at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore.

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