Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Shilpa-gate in Britain: What will Channel 4's CBB do now?

After a long time, I have a post. No excuses really except I have finally been working on the thesis.

And I have been watching Celebrity Big Brother – and yes, this is where my family starts to giggle uncontrollably – because it is RESEARCH! Let me explain – as a student of cinema, my doctorate looks at how films work. More specifically, I look at how commercial Hindi cinema works!

That means all those “first day, first show” scrambles are research. So is incessantly played Hindi film music in my house and office. And all the DVDs and cinema books! To quote a family member, my PhD thesis is a “Laloo-barabar scam!” Be that as it may, my thesis - for the record - is extremely scholarly and theoretical.

Going back to CBB - I began watching the show primarily to see how stars are constructed, and star narratives are built. With Shilpa Shetty entering the house, I had a perfect case study. After all here was an “unknown Bollywood star” as one British tabloid called her. The general British audiences did not know her (except of course the small minority of Hindi film fans, from South Asia and beyond) and she was going up against well-known names and faces from the West. It was the perfect scenario to answer a question that confounds me: do stars have something inherently different that makes them stars, or is their star status a function of media “spin.” Of course, it is most likely a combination of the two but Shetty was the perfect case to study. And what a case study this has been!

She stated her motivation – and thus indicated her screen persona for CBB – by explaining that she wanted to represent India and Indians as “glamorous, modern and intelligent.” So of course she arrived at the house looking radiant, in a pink sari, and proved herself supremely articulate. She emphasised her “Indian-ness” by teaching the firangis to chant “Om” and meditate, cooking Indian food, walks around in gorgeous kurtas and gold bangles, with stunning pashminas and jamawars flung about her shoulders – a picture of Indian cinema diva.

Then came the first clashes – with another “house-mate” named Jackiey (sic) who refused to pronounce her name, decided to call her “the Indian,” wondered whether the star lived in “a shack,” and threatened to “sweep her out of the kitchen with an Indian broom.”

When that particular housemate was voted out by the public, a trio of other British “chavs,” famous for rather dubious reasons “celebrities” decided to gang up on the actress. These “celebs” btw are: a foul-mouthed, pea-brained woman who apparently was ranked fourth on a prior Big Brother show; a former Miss Britain whose crown was revoked for a sex scandal involving one of the judges; and former popstar whose music is apparently unknown beyond British borders (ie, people famous for being famous!).

In the past few days, the three have mocked her accent (which I am grateful Shilpa Shetty has neither tried to adapt nor disguise), told her that she was “just the cook” while others in the house were friends, suggested that she “wanted to be white,” and finally suggested that food prepared by her was making them ill, and that Indians were “unhygienic” for a host of reasons including, eating our chicken raw, eating with our fingers (“who knows where the hands have been”), and that Indians were “thin and sick” because we all suffered from constant food poisoning from poorly cooked food.

Shetty has also been called a “dog”, “wanker” and a “fucking cunt,” (the last is still under discussion as Channel 4 chose to beep out the word and many viewers believe the word was the racist slur for Asians in general, ie, “Paki.”). Of course, she has retaliated, although with far more grace and attitude than I would have ever expected from her: “I am not patronising, look it up in the dictionary,” “It’s a name, not a frigging sentence,” etc. However many of the nasty digs have been out of her hearing.

Here it must be said that Shetty has neither backed down nor stooped to the level of the bullying trio. On the other hand, she has played the audience and the three bullies with the skill of a maestro. The softly spoken, articulate, sympathetic, tearful, and fragile-looking Shetty has managed to gain the audience’s sympathy. At the same time she manages to effortless rile up and counter the bullies. This must surely count as Shetty’s greatest performance yet!

Of course more of the narrative has unfolded beyond the boundaries of the text. From the “unknown” Bollywood star to the centre of “race row,” Shetty has managed to acquire a massive sympathetic following in Britain in days (so how is a star made again?) Press has pitched in to support her, and reaction against the racist remarks lobbed at her and her bullying have flooded Ofscom (the media watchdog body) and Channel 4. Net forums seem to be grouping to pressure the show’s main sponsor, Carphone Warehouse into pulling its support. An opportunist Keith Vaz has taken up the issue in the parliament. What a “masterful” star narrative in making! What a pleasure to watch the process (won’t bore you with the technical details of this one).

Within two weeks, Shetty has moved to occupy a volatile intersection of class, race and gender. Her mastery of English and manners (not to mention the “fabulous” lifestyle) has managed to startle and annoy the bullying trio. Her ability to attract masculine support and attention within (and outside) the house is forms the crux of sexual jealousy (bell hooks, you are SOOOO right! So much for Western "sisterhood" bs!). Finally, the race factor burst the floodgates of anger and outrage against her treatment. Channel 4’s refusal to acknowledge the racist bullying and an attempt to “spin” the abuse as having been incited by Shetty herself has worsened the situation. At the close of business (5 pm GMT) on Tuesday, media watchers had clocked 7,600 complaints lodged at Ofcom while another few thousand had been lodged directly with Channel 4.

Shetty – ironically has become the rallying point for the South Asian diaspora in Britain. While terrorism and religious fundamentalism have divided the South Asian communities in Britain on mostly national lines (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) over the past years, the current incident has hit viewers across the board, raising personal memories of racial abuse. Moreover, Shetty is not an unknown quantity among the diaspora – she has been a well-known, and often well-loved figure of Hindi cinema for many years and her ill-treatment by CBB housemates has been taken far more personally by viewers than imagined. Perhaps, Channel 4 had underestimated the power of Hindi cinema?

A final factor must be noted here: the internet! Although CBB is only being broadcast in Britain and Ireland, a quick search on youtube.com for “Shilpa, CBB” throws up all the necessary footage required to be outraged on Shetty’s behalf. Same goes for the heavily edited and controlled Big Brother website on Channel 4’s homepage:
http://www.channel4.com/bigbrother/index.jsp. The coverage and forums on http://bigbrother.digitalspy.co.uk/ as well as the bbc.co.uk’s Asian network forums have also been prime movers in mobilising the protests.

So what happens next? Well, Channel 4 better find a quick way to solve the crisis they have on their hands. This afternoon, the show’s live feed was blocked and only reinstated when the bullies had been separated from Shilpa and her support group in the house. The live feed has been since censored to prevent viewers from discovering the reason for the separation (one hopes that Shilpa wasn’t physically attacked in the house – that could have ugly consequences outside).

And they better hope that no Indians with internet access – from home or other parts of the world - get in on the act. After all if Indians with net access could upstage all Hollywod stars to vote Amitabh Bachchan the “star of the millennium” on BBC’s online poll back in 2000, imagine what we could do with a few choice addresses from Ofcom and Channel 4.

Fyi in case you want to follow this one on your own: www.youtube.com (seach for Shilpa and CBB), http://www.channel4.com/bigbrother AND to protest: ofcom.co.uk, bblb@channel4.com, bbbm@channel4.com, AND here is the petition doing the rounds already: http://www.petitiononline.com/Shilpa/petition.html

I know, I know - but I am Indian yaar, and nothing better than some sabre-rattling (nonviolently of course) and rabble-rousing to get things going....


  1. I only watched the first few days of coverage and quickly got bored. I'm glad I switched off now!!

    Whilst she didn't exactly endear herself to all at the start, there's no excuse for the bullying treatment that she's suffered - and yes, it definitely has racist undertones. I've experienced the same (thankfully only on a few occasions in my life), so it's easily recognised.

    I can't believe they haven't been reprimanded for it....

  2. Your analysis is a little one-sided, Shilpa has contravened some unwritten rules of behaviour here. She is seen by some of the women in the house as being hypocritical, and not genuine.

    Myself I sense a lot of manipulative behaviour on Shilpa's part. I'd even suggest that she is playing up to the idea that she is being bullied, which really is twisting reality on it's head. I have never seen such a bossy-boots as is Shilpa.

    In fact her behaviour is more "English Colonial" than modern day women. And when will she stop the eye-lid batting and constantly flirting and "man"ipulating poor old Dirk Benedict, whom she referred to as "Duck Benedict" at one point and Jermaine Jackson. Those poor men they don't know what has hit them!!! It is so funny to watch.

    She has the men right where she wants them, but the women are well wise to her manipulation and these women will not baulk at telling Shilpa where she is really at. Can't wait for the showdown.

    My conclusion right now is that Shilpa is really playing the game and she doesn't care what she does to get to where she wants to be. I'd imagine that the constant attention-seeking behaviour and now the idea that she is being "bullied", (which is baloney) is all as Shilpa planned, the more column inches and publicity she can get the better. She is a player all right, but as several people have commented, I would not trust her as far as I could throw her.

  3. Thanks Sarbjit. I think we all take precautions when we are in the West to limit our interactions with people like the ones bullying Shilpa Shetty, thus limiting our exposure to racism and bullying. Unfortunately that is not a choice she has been given the game's organisers.

  4. Plurabella, I don't think Shilpa Shetty is helpless. But having been on the receiving end of enough racist abuse and attempts at bullying for my colour, I find the show problematic. I fought back, just as she is on the show. But it doesn't take away from the fact that she IS being bullied and that there HAVE been racist comments on the show, although mostly behind her back.

  5. So if she wins CBB then we should hand her the FilmFare award for best actress as well. What say?


  6. Thank you Sakshi for the comment. Some of the UK CBB forums are suggesting that she get an OBE instead. Now THAT would be something! ;-)

  7. Shilpa tum age badho, hum tumhare saath hain.(go ahead Shilpa, the whole of India is with you)!

  8. Thought u'd enjoy this one "being brown is being racist!" :)

    But seriously, it has given a new twist to the debate on racism and more people are beginning to fight racist behavior.

  9. Thanks Vijay. Will look up the site. Not sure if more people are fighting racism, but definitely new lines have been drawn on what is acceptable. :-)

  10. Hi, does it matter that Shilpa herself still maintains that this isn't racism. The word shouldn't be used lightly, Shilpa herself has stated that racism is extreme and what went on in the house was not extreme.

    Suppose none of that matters when she has two countries fighting over whether it was racist or not.

    I think we have not seen the REAL Shilpa yet.....time will tell.

  11. Hi Anonymous - yes, I think it does matter. A lot of us take months even years to accept that racism could happen to us. And in any case, Britain has laws that state that anyone who "sees" racism happen - even when not a direct target - can file a case.

    Don't think two countries are fighting btw. :-)