See who's looking

See who's looking

Voyeuristic indian

As a people, we have always been nosy and voyeuristic. In joint families, it was not unusual to find everyone reading a postcard meant for a member of the family. The notion of private space in the western sense — an inviolable sense of individual privacy — has always been lacking in Indian society. We poke our noses in other people’s business without even being aware of it. It’s part of the natural course of things.

We want to know why our neighbours haven’t had any kids even after five years of marriage, or when they are buying a new Santro. The Indian family is always measuring its own status at other’s weddings: How much did they spend? How much can we spend? Our gaze is always focused on the external, on the world outside. As a mother tells her contestant son in the Star Plus show ‘Perfect Bride’, “If girl x (who, incidentally, is the fairest girl on the show) was someone else’s daughter-in-law and if I was introduced to her at a party, I would feel very bad.” She goes on to explain, “Bhai ye to bilkul natural hai. This is human nature. Think of how bad everybody else would feel if we introduced her as our daughter-in-law.”

Five o’clock voyeurism

In Allahabad where I grew up and attended school, five o’clock voyeurism was a daily ritual. Come evening, we would meet at a friend’s house, drink some Pepsis and set off on motorcycles to Civil Lines, the local downtown. There wasn’t much on the agenda aside from prowling the streets, looking out for pretty faces, and in most cases not doing anything more than vrooming past the girls — in cycle rickshaws or riding scooters — at great speed, weaving in and out of the traffic ahead in order to impress, then disappearing into one of the side-streets in a cloud of exhaust fumes. I suppose that was my first lesson in voyeurism.

The second one came in college during ragging sessions. Ragging can get sexual depending on where you find yourself. The hostels of engineering and medical colleges have long had the reputation of stripping first-year students, forcibly exposing them to pornographic films and literature. Ragging, though, is not always sexual in nature. It might involve situations where a group of seniors might sit back and enjoy the pain and humiliation of juniors. This too is voyeuristic behaviour.

Sexual voyeurism is common in our society. In the 80s, when it came to pictures of naked women, there wasn’t much to choose from apart from Debonair. I was lucky in this respect. A friend of my father’s, the poet Adil Jussawalla, used to be its editor. A copy of the good mag arrived every month in the post. This got me enormous street-cred in school. Once a month, a large gang of pimply boys would turn up at my apartment. My father would open the door. “Namastey uncle.” We sat in the living room, holding glasses of Rooh Afza, until my parents had stopped moving around the house. “Kahan hai? Show, show.” I would hand over the new issue with ceremony and solemnity. It would be passed around accompanied by loud, excited whispering. Once, my mother walked out of the kitchen to get something from the fridge which was kept in the living room. Everyone played passing the parcel until someone had the tact to simply sit on the magazine and smile. “Thank you aunty, the Rooh Afza was very nice.”

Apart from Debonair, Allahabad had its very own porn magazine called Fantasy. While not as classy as Debonair, it still gave us the big picture. Fantasy had a tendency to vanish from the newsstand every once in a while. This usually followed a protest march taken out by some women’s group.

The Internet blew it all away. The doors to the world of western pornography had finally been thrown wide open. The Indian was faced, for the first time, by a bewildering array of fetishes. There was mind-boggling choice; all you needed was an Internet connection and a computer.

But walking down the supermarket aisle doesn’t come naturally to us. We needed to learn. Just like there were attendants in Big Bazaar and Vishal Megamart to help the bewildered first-time consumer, the porn industry had its own foot soldiers on the ground. In Dehra Dun, for example, all the Internet cafes were stuffed into one ugly building. They were always full, especially in the afternoons. The clients were usually auto rickshaw drivers who didn’t own computers but had heard of the wonderful women who never said no.

Enterprising schoolboys stepped in to help out, earn some pocket money. They were the ones with a sprinkling of English and basic computing skills, enough to negotiate the Internet. For a small fee, they would guide the illiterate autowallahs through wonderland.

Gradually, responding to demand, Indian porn sites began to pop up on a regular basis. Most of them used off-shore servers to avoid censorship hassles but the content was totally desi. Most videos on sale dealt with frisky maids and sisters-in-law. Since sex in India rarely travels outside of domestic confines, perhaps it comes as no surprise that most Indians’ fantasies too revolve around the domestic sphere. Savitha Bhabhi was the cleverest of these sites, using simple animation to titillate and entertain. It touched a common chord and appealed to people across age, class and language barriers, a big achievement in a society as layered as ours.

Television reality shows are a natural extension of our instinctual voyeurism. Because we, like Americans, are compulsively voyeuristic, it didn’t take us long before we began living our lives on TV. Reality shows have been big in Britain too but only of a certain kind. ‘The Weakest Link’ and ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ were successes because they didn’t demand people to live out their private lives on TV. ‘Springer UK’, the British avatar of Jerry Springer’s popular American show which involved people making outrageous confessions on national TV and beating each other up, was a resounding flop in Britain; ‘Big Brother’ too was taken off air for lack of viewership. The Brits, it seems, are not willing to let go of their natural reserve that easily.

Out in the open

But Indians, since we have never had any reserve to begin with, have taken to reality television like ducks to water. And if there’s one city in the country which can be called the reality capital (in terms of providing the highest number of contestants to these shows), it will have to be that flagship of Punjabi pushiness (not reserve): Chandigarh.
The shows can broadly be divided into two categories — those that take us to the heart of domestic spaces like ‘Rakhi Ka Swayamwar’, ‘Perfect Bride’ and to some extent, ‘Sach Ka Samna’. These are an extension of our old habit of reading the private letters of other family members.

Then there are those which appeal to younger school and college-going audiences, and deal with their world: Bikes, romance, ragging, bullying, muscles, dating. Shows like ‘Bindass Dadagiri’ take the voyeurism already pre-existent in the hostel room and put it on national TV. Their show theme from last year went, “College ka first day!” Raghu, the host of ‘MTV Roadies’, puts on a tough-to-impress college senior act. The contestants call him ‘sir’. Others like ‘Splitsvilla’ have girls and boys negotiating the ups and downs of love and lust, while ‘Dare to Date’ features mismatched couples trying to convince each other of their relative merits (Punjabi boy likes hanging out in his pind and driving a tractor/ Punjabi girl likes being driven around in a BMW and taken to nightclubs).

While talking of parallels with America, it is worth keeping in mind that Indian reality shows have unleashed a very different voyeuristic beast in our society. Reality television in America, and largely in the West, often attracts the worst kind of white trash as contestants. It’s mostly about making a fast buck and gaining cheap fame.

In India though, the participants are educated and middle-class. They have their own businesses, are doctors, engineers, accountants, sales assistants, beauticians and managers. Youth reality television like ‘Roadies’ routinely features kids drawn from a vast and upwardly mobile canvas. These boys come not from trailer-park vans but from posh public schools like the Doon School.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of trash participating in our shows. There is a fair representation of celebrity wannabes and have-beens who are also looking for some money and cheap fame. But a large bulk is drawn from a countrywide middleclass (even though Chandigarh leads in numbers, it is certainly not the only city).

In shows like ‘Rakhi ka Swayamwar’ and ‘Perfect Bride’, families show off their wealth, customs and ‘good values’ on the national stage. In shows like ‘Splitsvilla’ and ‘Roadies’, teens try and prove how cool and liberated and tough they are. Millions of television viewers in small towns and big cities are consuming these shows not just as trashy entertainment but also as real-life indicators of where they themselves stand in a rapidly changing society.

What is traditional? How liberal is liberal? Should I listen to my mother or should I listen to the girl I fancy? Should I marry a dark-skinned girl of my own choice or a fair-skinned one of my mother’s liking? Is it okay if my daughter-in-law eats meat while I don’t?
In a country of India’s size, change has been a constant factor. This change is bigger and more palpable now than any other time in our history. Reality television is stepping in to fill an instructive role that can no longer be performed by religion (which is anyway prescriptive) and sterile movie scripts which entertain but stop short of holding a mirror to contemporary society. Shows like ‘Splitsvilla’ are throwing up new realistic role models for the youth (not a new Kapoor or Khan but a confused guy like you and me) who provide an invaluable and practical survival kit for thousands of young Indians trying to walk a new tightrope.

Shows like ‘Sach Ka Samna’, despite what the critics say, are blowing the lid off Indian middle class hypocrisy. The contestants answer taboo questions about their personal lives — like a yoga teacher admitting to having had sexual relations with men — in front of their sari-clad mothers and nervous elder brothers. Individually, through these shows, these contestants are redrawing lines about what is socially acceptable and what is not.
Given our size, diversity and sheer numbers, it is natural for an Indian to be curious about her fellow Indians. Reality television only fulfills this curiosity and might just be performing a public service by putting things in the open and thereby reducing our paranoia about our neighbours and fellowmen. Think of any contemporary Indian type and he or she’s on reality television: The brash Delhi boy, the hip girl from Bombay, the fast-talking girl from Chandigarh, the traditional Gupta family from Rishikesh, the rustic all-weather Jat.

It’s also encouraging kids to produce their own reality programming. Technology being what it is, it is becoming easier for us to launch our own shows, from our very own mega-cellphones, often with disastrous social consequences. The other day, at a Delhi restaurant called Gunpowder, I was introduced to a Hindi teacher from a fancy local school. She told me the story of a student of hers who ended up dragging the school into a big controversy.

On a recent trip, he took pictures of himself naked (she used the innocent sounding phrase ‘nangu pangu’) with a poster of Katrina Kaif. As if that wasn’t enough, he made other students strip and pose with the same poster. The MMS clips were then circulated to friends. The kid in question, the under-age Katrina fan, is only in standard five. It is difficult to fault him though. Voyeuristically speaking, he has come of age very early in what was and remains the world’s most voyeuristic nation. It can only be a sign of maturity.

(The writer is the author of ‘Eunuch Park’. He is presently working on a  non-fiction book on young India called ‘The Butterfly Generation’)