All for fame on reality shows

All for fame on reality shows

Parents are willing to spend money to prepare their children for reality shows
In the middle of a high-pitched power struggle in the ruling Congress party last week, there was a group of passi­ve politics watchers. The barbs were on state party chief Ramesh Chennithala who was trying to land a powerful ministerial portfolio braving dissent from a rival faction and a seemingly non-committal Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The youngest in the group – who would later proclaim his ideological allegiance to Julian Assange – mooted a solution to the impasse. Let the two leaders face off on television in a US Presidential-style debate and let’s put it to vote; Text CHA for Chandy, CHE for Chennithala. “Let’s be democratic,” he reasoned.

His tone was unmistakably sardonic but the “solution” he proposed couldn’t have been more in tune with a generation increasingly warming up to the easy drama of reality television. Kerala is home to a host of music reality shows across TV networks that consistently hit headlines for things musical and otherwise; for their underdog winners, rude judges, allegations of tampered verdicts and more frequently, for the variants of accented Malayalam that the shows’ anchors speak.

The surge of this orchestrated reality is no longer limited to music talent shows. Now, husbands let themselves be judged on kitchen chores. Young girls maintain the smile, admirably well, as strangers tell them what’s wrong with their stoles and sometimes, their attitude. Celebrities gang up to vote fellow contestants out of a house where the snarkiest provide the best entertainment.

All on camera. Reality TV has redefined boundaries of discretion and personal space on television in other parts of the country but the Kerala situation calls for a more detailed take because the change has been strikingly rapid in the state; a change that baffles sociologists and media watchers.

Sreenath T I, a State Government employee in Thiruvananthapuram, attri­butes the change largely to the lure of quick fame and the almost indispensable need to be “visible”. “For some of these contestants, to have their personalities, attitudes and even private moments judged on primetime television is a small price to pay for what they get in return – they are on TV! It’s a change that has to be tracked along with the influence of corporate-driven mass media that sway important decisions at homes,” he said. 

Polarised opinions

Sreenath acknowledges that despite harsh criticism against some of these shows, they manage to get good viewer ratings because they connect with their target audience. The polarised opinions that such shows generate on social media also show that critics who highlight the flip side are often dubbed prudish and accused of moral policing. Veruthe alla Bharya (a show that pits couples against each other in task-based and personality tests), Comedy Stars (a humour-based contest with amateur comedians) and Midukki (a show that proclaims to be in search of smart and contemporary wom­en) have topped popularity charts among Kerala’s non-musical reality shows.

Dr Elizabeth Mathew, head of Sociology Department at the Loyola College of Social Sciences, feels the rush for visibility and fame has started to define the ambi­tions of many modern-day families in Ker­ala. “It’s getting to a situation where they feel that a TV appearance is a status boost. The amount of money some of the families spend on training their children to make them fit for these shows is exorbitant. It’s quite apparent that they don’t mind going through all this to get what they aspire to get in return,” she told Deccan Herald. 

Dr Mathew feels that the  modern-day parent who wants his son or daughter to be a “celebrity” – rather than the more “conventional” doctor or engineer – is a pointer to the times we live in. Times when TV news reportage drifts into dramatic excesses and violent rioters take time off to give bytes to TV channels. The lines are getting blurred and it’s not just the shows. 

  Talent shows put contestants through gruelling competition before they are crowned winners and possibly propelled into a professional career.  Anita Pillai, a Kochi-based high school teacher, says visibility – even with modest talent and average performances in the show – could be the big prize. “If this is only about talent and grooming, there are excellent musicians, personality developers and counsellors who can do it for you; why be on TV and risk public ­rejection? We’ve had some fine talents coming out of these shows but they are also manufacturing a new breed of cele­brities with questionable talent who run on fame attained through visibility,” she said.

Extra bit of fame

According to Pillai, expecting greater discretion from impressionable teens is not pragmatic in an age where even the famous rush for that extra bit of fame. Pointing to Malayali House, a new show designed on the lines of Celebrity Big Boss, she raises concern on the example such shows set. Sreenath feels that the emergence of a new social value system endorsed by a “depoliticised” generation is another cause for alarm. The typical small-town junction in Kerala is fast adding a slot to its assortment of flexi-boards.

Along with a banner advertising the neighbourhood temple festival, you are likely to catch a local youngster contesting in one of the reality shows. His board is also likely to have the SMS format to vote him to the next level of the show. There are rousing, heart-warming stories; of talented mimicry artistes making it big and strugglers winning big millions on quiz shows. But according to some of sociologists, the trick will be in keeping balance and sanity while dealing with that fickle thing called fame. That, they say, would be their true test of mettle.

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