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Celebrity Big Brother

by Neha Misra

It could have been the outline to any a low budget Bollywood movie…. A saga of momentous proportion

It had laughter and bonding, conflicts and frustrations and a ‘family’ in turmoil. Backstabbing, cultural slurs, allegations of racism and fighting on an epic level and even some dubbed dodgy song and dance routine before the final showdown between the heroine and the villainess. Except none of this was fiction it was all true and played out to an international audience of millions on a reality programme made by Endemol and broadcast from the U.K.

For a week in early January 2007, Celebrity Big Brother has transfixed the public and press both national and international. So infused has the programme recent events become in our conscious, that little explanation is needed to know what exactly is Celebrity Big Brother. Even if you can claim not to be among the 5 million in the UK alone, who have been watching it, you couldn’t escape it. It was literally everywhere; everyone had an opinion on the celebrity participants, known as the housemates. MP’s raised questions to Prime Minister Tony Blair, in Parliament, BBC 24 trailed the story every five minutes, newspapers from the New York to New Delhi Times headlined with it and even The World Service despite all the world events, covered it for three days.

Who knew that something as trivial as this reality programme could stir up such volatile and extreme emotions in the public domain?

A Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty was pitted in gladiatorial style against working class icon, Jade Goody. Unlike Shilpa, Jade had ironically become famous as a result of appearing on the non-celebrity version of the show a few years prior. At the time, she was bullied and vilified by the press and said to be the most hated person in the UK after Osman Bin Laden. Nevertheless this under educated, inarticulate working class woman won the British public over with her naivety and seemingly innocent ignorance. The public could not get enough of her and her family’s antics and soon with the help of her own TV shows, she had amassed a fortune said to worth around £8 million. Thus the makers of Big Brother resubmitted ‘this working class girl done good’ into the house to live alongside the other contestants, as a bonafide celebrity in her own right. To live 24/7 under the watchful eye of hundreds of cameras, broadcasting their every move.

The producers, of the programme somewhat hubristically claimed that the objective of the programme was a social experiment to see how people from all sorts of backgrounds get on with no outside distractions or stimulus of any kind. But in reality everyone knew that it really was the last bastion for the ‘D-list’ celebrity to resurrect his or her careers.

With dwindling viewing figures this year’s CBB looked set to be a dull flop. Until suddenly in the second week, amongst some of the women, alliances began to be built and territories began to be fought over. Slowly Jade with her boyfriend and two other female contestants, a disqualified Miss UK Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’ Meera, an ex pop singer began the bulling of the dignified middle class Shilpa Shetty. So like witnesses to a horrific car crash, the viewers suddenly got to see the whole depressing scenario played out before their very eyes. It was obvious from the onset that the girls had led lives that were worlds apart. One of Jade and her cronies’ objections to Shilpa was that she was ‘stuck up’ and behaved like a ‘princess’. They had no comprehension or understanding of her life as a movie star, with entourages and servants. Jade’s mother also a housemate, even asked Shilpa if she lived in shack when they first met. On the other hand, Shilpa found the way these working class girls, treated the other housemates who had to assume the roles of servants as one of the tasks of the competition, demeaning and insulting. So whether it was a clash of class or culture this became the public’s water cooler topic.

As a reluctant addict to Big Brother in the past few years, I realised that I was giving away far too much of my life to it. Having felt most noble with myself for ignoring the summer addition, I tuned in to this year’s CBB, with mild curiosity, confident I had the strength not to get obsessed again. Casually tuning in to the first programme, I really only wanted to see if I had even heard of any of the housemates. But of course my interest was piqued again as soon as I saw Shilpa Shetty enter the house. It is an old habit that dies hard amongst first generation Indians, instilled, by our parents, born out of rarely seeing Asian faces in mainstream programming. When you see something or someone Asian, particularly Indian and you can’t help but take note and give it a second glance. I didn’t know who Shilpa was at first but then again I am not an avid Bollywood fan; I watch one about every five years. However, I was once employed as wardrobe mistress on Gurinder Chadha’s (director of Bend it Like Beckham’s, & Bride & Prejudice), movie ‘Love in London’. A joint collaboration between a British and Indian cast and crew. It was touted as a celebration and union of our two cultures. Gurinder was supposed to work along side an esteemed Bollywood director and the movie was funded by and stared second-generation Indian stars from dynastic movie families, Sunny and Bobby Deol, with Karisma Kapor as its heroine, supported by a cast and crew from the India and the UK.

‘Love in London’ or ‘London’, as it is now known has gone down in Bollywood movie folklore. Even a few months ago, when I was at a press conference for Amithab Bachan, a publicist, far too young to have even been employed at the time, nodded her head sagely and said ‘ah London, everyone in the industry has heard of it…it was a lesson to us all’. The lesson was that such extreme cultures struggled to collaborate together harmoniously. So the fracas in the Big Brother house should have come as no surprise. While I can never say the behaviour of Jade, Danielle, Jo and Jack, who at one point even suggested that they lock Shilpa outside, calling her an F-ing C*&%t, can be justified even one iota, it was perhaps all sadly inevitable. While the producers may not have predicted events played out at this level perhaps they realised and possibly instigated the clash of class and culture all along.

I has seen it all before, such were the profound differences in the professional and personal ethics between the Indian and UK cast and crew of ‘London’ that at great financial loss, the movie eventually folded after four months of filming. The British Crew worked to strict union rules and the Indian crew didn’t. The Indian’s thought that the British were lazy and the British thought the Indians were being manipulated and exploited. The truth of course, lay somewhere in the middle.

According to my Indian movie industry sources Shilpa is not the equivalent, to Angelina Jolie, as she claimed, but much more of a mediocre B-list star who has not had a leading role for a number of years. She is known more as being glamorous and, famous for her amazing body. By Bollywood standards she is considered on the way out and at age 31 to be on the older side, looking at more maternal roles. However, unlike many of her contemporaries she does has good reputation in the industry as a nice girl, easy to work with and not at all snobbish.

When she first entered the house I was fairly indifferent to Shilpa, I could either take her or leave her but as the bullying and bating continued and became I felt increasingly racist, I struggled to find the justification for it all. Many people have said she has done much to encourage and deserve her treatment. Much has been said as to whether or not it was intentionally racist, as if ignorance was an excuse. Even my son’s English godparent born and educated in Oxford still challenged me on my opinion that it was racist bullying. I was undecided as to whether it was overtly racists until the airing of the programme where Danielle said ‘She (Shilpa) should F-ing go home’ and Jade subsequently referred to her as, ‘Shilpa F-ywalla’. For anyone born and brought up in this country and has heard these words ‘go home’, slung at them understands the implication behind them. You are not welcome in this country and this is not your home. This intimidating gang lead by Jade claimed that Shilpa considered herself to be a cut above everyone using highfalutin phrases and while I saw no obvious signs of superiority from her, perhaps subconsciously she did consider herself to be better educated. And this may have been what Shilpa’s fellow house sensed subliminally. In general the average standard of academic education is far higher in India than in England and so it is of no surprise that as a graduate her command of the English language is prolific. I also know that Indian women of her generation and background come from a more sheltered world were good manners and consideration for others is paramount and valued as the ultimate asset. Respect and curtsey is a key part, of Indian culture and ultimately that is what made Shilpa along with Jermaine Jackson stand apart from their fellow contestants. For Indians let alone movie stars, what their contemporaries and fans think, is crucial to their status and career. So any discussions of a sexual nature would be considered hugely inappropriate and crude. Obviously this jarred the likes of Jade, Jack and Danielle, who are champions of the world that thrives on vulgarity and boorishness. And if truth were told when my cousins, girlfriends and I were becoming young women in the 70s and 80s, our parents did look down on what they considered to be, the comparative loose and lewd behaviour of some of the English girls around us. I had curfews even when I returned from university and my Mother once, reprimanded me even though I was in my twenties, for saying Damn in front of her in public. All of which makes me again question Endemol’s choice of Shilpa’s entrance into the house with the likes of Jo, Jade, Danielle and Jack, or perhaps that was producers’ point in the first place.

Thus when the bullying gaggle was evicted to a baying press and public and Shilpa crowned as the ultimate triumphant, dignified and humble winner. We all got the fairy tale ending we wanted….And Ms Shetty got to return to Mumbai, in a blaze of glory, amid rumours of appearing in movies with Johnny Depp and even being asked to join the BJP.

…But in the real world when the entire furore had died down did it really make a difference to people’s perception of Indians?

I think it did though sadly I suspect not as much, as I would have liked. Since 9/11 attitudes of racism have been taken over by the ‘Muslim issue’. While it may be a vast generalisation, but many white English people, particularly those not living in cosmopolitan areas still perceive most brown faces as only being Muslim and feel extremely uncomfortable about conversations on race. For example, at my husband’s work, a major international bank, the average English person seemed embarrassed by the ruckus in CBB and self conscious of even expressing an opinion for fear of instigating some fundamentalist response. Most of the older generation could not see the racism in the girls’ statements, despite such statements as ‘Indians must be skinny because they don’t cook their food properly’.

In the end, I think the most ingenious profiteers, have been that of the Indian Tourist Board. They have enterprisingly; taken out a full-page advert, inviting Jade and her companions to visit India and sample the varied delights it has to offer.

Despite the fact that I personally, hope that Ms Goody and Co., much like the character played by Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons gets shunned and sent back into obscurity. You never know Jade may yet find herself the subject of Shilpa’s comeback Bollywood movie. The good and meek triumph over the bold and evil, the very essence of many an Indian fable.

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