India's war over reality TV

Updated on
The World

BANGALORE, India — Call it a coincidence.

In November, American model and actress Pamela Anderson appeared on an Indian reality television show wearing a clingy blouse and a gossamer white sari. That same day, the government banished racy reality shows from prime time television.

Anderson’s cameo was on a show called Bigg Boss, in which — much like the famed Big Brother show — contestants are locked inside a house without any link to the outside world. On the show, Anderson danced to a Bollywood number and sunbathed by the pool. Audience ratings for the episode spiked to 4.8, the highest for any Indian reality show.

Anger among conservative Indians spiked too. In a classic showdown, reality shows continue to push the boundaries of decency and middle-class India is pushing right back.

“Anderson!” dismissed Indira Sankhla, a Bangalore housewife whose husband and two teenaged sons often watch television together while eating dinner. “What can anybody learn from these reality shows? They are full of vulgar content, bitchiness and bare skin!”

Such reality shows ought to be taken off the air entirely, she said, rather than just stricken from prime time hours. “Their bold content makes most Indians uncomfortable,” Sankhla said.

Following a torrent of similar complaints, broadcasting officials consigned Bigg Boss as well as Rakhi ka Insaaf, an Indian-ized version of Judge Judy, to the graveyard slot.

Criticism isn't limited to Bigg Boss, either. Police have filed a case against Rakhi ka Insaaf (Rakhi’s Justice) for the suicide of Laxman Singh Aharwar, one of the show's participants, a few days after he was called "impotent" by the show's host.

The National Council for Women has demanded that the government enact a law to regulate what airs on reality shows.

In Bhopal in central India, a court summoned the CEO of Colors, the Indian joint venture of U.S. media conglomerate Viacom, which airs Bigg Boss, to appear in a case over vulgar content.

Colors is believed to have paid $550,000 to Anderson for her three-day cameo on Bigg Boss. Colors did not respond to questions despite repeated emails and calls from GlobalPost.

“No country will allow such a free-for-all on prime time,” said D.S. Rawat, secretary-general of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India. “Parents are outraged, they want the government to act."

The results of a survey, conducted by the chambers of commerce group, revealed that among children ages 6 to 17 who watch more than 35 hours of television a week there is increased risk of violent, aggressive behavior.

Channels are crossing the line and showing inappropriate content in order to attract viewers and make money through advertising, said Rawat. “Parents are blaming television for ruining India’s future generation.”

Bigg Boss hasn't backed down. In recent weeks, the show has featured intimate kissing scenes, partial nudity, abusive language and even physical violence.

Another reality show revolves around children swapping families. Yet another has spycams tracking double-crossing partners on behalf of those in love.

“The gripping question is not what will happen on a particular show next week but rather, how low will it go,” said Govind Pareek, a retired army captain in Vadodara city, in the western state of Gujarat.

There is nothing "Indian" about the shows, complained Pareek. “As low as these shows go, younger people are drawn to them and the future generations of the country are being culturally ruined,” he said.

The television industry has hit back with court cases challenging the late-night slots for reality shows. Bollywood producer Pritish Nandy was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, “We are a grown-up country and we know what is good for us.”

For now, reality television, replete with foul language and adult content, has a place on Indian airwaves. Whether the government will side with conservative India and ban all salacious content remains to be seen.

“The government has to act before these shows completely destroy Indian culture,” said Pareek, who says he has never watched a reality show. And swears he never will.