January 2012
#Prisons , 225 Views
House Arrest

Text: Ferzina Banaji

Peeling away the prison layers of reality television show Bigg Boss.
QUESTION: what does a 67 year old alleged serial killer of Indian and Vietnamese parentage, imprisoned in a Nepali jail, have in common with an Indian reality TV show of Dutch origin? ANSWER: a 23 year old woman.

Charles Sobhraj – the notorious, shape shifting convicted murderer of jailbreak fame in India in the 1980s, whose name haunted countless childhood threats from my mother to finish the vegetables on my plate or else – was recently back in the news because Nihita Biswas, his pretty wife (she claims they were wed in secret) had participated in season five of Bigg Boss, the Indianised version of Endemol’s hugely successful reality TV franchise, Big Brother. Switch on to Colors any weeknight at 10.30 and you could be watching a show set in a locked house rather like a prison, with “housemates” rather like inmates, one of whom (Biswas) was there to “be frank” about her jailbird husband. The show is hosted by Bollywood bigwigs Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt, who have both had much-publicised scrapes with the law and have spent time in prison. In case you missed it, the prison motif looms large. But what does the show’s success tell us about how we, as viewers, engage with the notion of imprisonment? And how does Biswas, tagged the “cry baby” of the show, play on what we imagine we know of her infamous husband?

Entry to the house. Courtesy of COLORS, Viacom 18.

A moment such as this comes but rarely in the analyses of cultural phenomena, when a media format built around the notions of surveillance, imprisonment and the performative, coalesce so exquisitely around an individual who embodies such a relationship in the extreme. Biswas’ short-lived profile on the Bigg Bosswebsite was limited to her occupation – she’s a lawyer and a brief rundown of her alleged marriage to Sobhraj in the Kathmandu prison where the latter is currently held. Biswas’ mother is, in fact, one of Sobhraj’s Nepalese lawyers. But if the traditional sense of prison is that of a space of confinement for those who have broken the law, Big Brother and especially Bigg Boss tease apart the connection between the purpose and form of the prison, making it simultaneously a space of openness with viewers in the millions.

Bigg Boss, like the original Big Brother show, is a hybrid performance genre that incorporates elements of documentary, soap operas and gaming among others. Its title is believed to be from George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a scifi masterpiece set in the dystopian world of a society held in check by the sinister Party, a population rigidly controlled and under the constant surveillance of the Party’s leader, Big Brother both in public (posters loom over the landscape with the reminder, “Big Brother is watching you”) and in private through primitive television devices. Orwell’s is the kind of book that is best read when one is an undergraduate full of righteous indignation about evil establishments trying to control your every move, your every thought, which translate neatly into a moment of happy youthful discovery to find this narrative of suspicion so masterfully spelled out. It would seem that the show’s creators rather liked some of the boxes the Orwellian reference ticked – control, watch, television – while, one hopes, ignoring its more sinister overtones.

Biswas, second from the left, with housemates. Courtesy of COLORS, Viacom 18.

The first season of Big Brother aired in the Netherlands in 1999, was picked up the subsequent year by ten other countries and adapted for local tastes. Its advent was decried by critics and loved by audiences in equally vociferous measure. Today, it is prime time TV viewing in almost 70 countries, a worldwide phenomenon for the 21st century. Its format is simple: a group of (usually unremarkable) people are locked into a house, their every move, every utterance, recorded by cameras and microphones. The so-called housemates are forbidden contact with the outside world and all communication is monitored, or rather, limited to spoken or physical form that can be captured by recording devices since there are no pens or paper, no computers or telephones.

The Indian version, Bigg Boss, first aired in 2006 and its contestants have always been “celebrities,” although that’s a word that must be used with a large helping of caution for some of its participants. All housemates must speak Hindi, which makes for amusing viewing given that this season had an Afghan participant who was, along with two others, penalised for slipping into English. At regular intervals, the housemates are invited to nominate other housemates for eviction. Spectators are invited to vote and housemates are thus evicted until the last one standing is declared a winner. This year, Biswas was joined by the usual, vaguely famous, small-time household names with various claims to fame, including socialites, ex-VJs, models, actors, a well-known transgender activist and a female wrestler. She was also not the first jailbird-bait (to coin a new but apt term) on the show: former gangster moll Monica Bedi had trod the path before her in 2008. The line-up was received by TV critics with a yawn; none of the participants were especially exciting. This season’s house, purpose-built in Karjat, Maharashtra, is a confection of swirly lines, primary colours and futuristic furniture: a sort of liveable version of the set of CBeebies or other programming targeted at viewers under the age of six. Questions of taste aside, it certainly makes for visceral viewing. The composite show is, as a Deccan HeraldTV reviewer commented, “one hour away from the realities of our own lives.”

Photograph taken for Motherland at BIG ND Studio, in Karjat, Maharashtra on October 29, 2011

According to the show’s creators, the original idea behind it owes much to a pop-anthropological experiment, to answering the question: how do very different people behave when confined to a limited space? But quite quickly it was apparent that participants learned how to perform to please their imagined viewer/captor, thereby shifting the locus of the question: how do people change their behaviour when they know they are being watched? The peculiarity of surveillance and performance is fascinatingly explored in Michael Haneke’s haunting film Caché (2005) in which the lives of a successful Parisian couple are turned upside down when they receive videos that reveal someone has been watching and filming them. It’s a film that hinges on the idea that we cannot avoid performing when we know we are being watched, that once people are being watched and are aware of this, there is little authentic about their behaviour. Applying this paradigm to Big Brother/Bigg Boss reveals that the show has less in common with its purported Margaret Mead style of observation and documentation and more with the sinister Panopticon designed by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham designed a prison of the future, “an all-seeing” building, where a few observers could supervise many inmates. Key to the concept and to the design, however, is that the inmates are unable to tell when they are being watched or not. Their behaviour depends, therefore, on them thinking that they are under constant surveillance, rather like the housemates of Bigg Boss who play up to cameras that record their every act assuming that viewers are watching it all; although, of course, it is usually only an edited highlight that the average viewer watches.

Bentham’s Panopticon was to be a new mode of gaining power over the minds of the inmates. Big Brother/Bigg Boss updates this, however, by not seeking power over the housemates but, as with TV for profit anywhere, over its spectators. Palahniuk’s comment, quoted at the start of this article, reveals a modernised Big Brother/Boss who doesn’t merely watch but rather actively interacts and contributes to the show’s proceedings. Further, the show’s explicit invitation for spectator participation is a partial explanation for its popularity.

The extent to which spectators are built into the evolution of each season’s narrative demonstrates the new ways in which they are invited to consume visual media. A traditional visual media format, rather like traditional scholarship, tends to focus on genre, modes of production, on meta-narratives of nation or gender and so on, relegating spectators to a passive role and ignoring the fact that meaning is born in the consumption of the visual product. Commentators who refer to Big Brother/Bigg Boss as a moment of cultural zeitgeist are implicitly hailing, therefore, the advent of a new approach to understanding visual media itself via the role of the spectator, eager to participate and alter the body of the text in a hyper-mediatised world. So who is Big Brother in this visual landscape? My suggestion is that it is not only the show’s creators or editors who mediate the footage thereby manipulating spectators’ sentiments but spectators themselves who are hidden participants in the show. Each viewer is a fragmented Big Brother in the Orwellian sense, with the power to intercede and shape, and is increasingly, as the show’s online forums and social networking connections reveal, rarely anonymous or unseen.

Photograph taken for Motherland at BIG ND Studio, in Karjat, Maharashtra on October 29, 2011.

We, the viewers, are the judges, the jury and executioner. We are invited to decide what the housemates will do to pass the time, how they will interact, what they may or may not eat, how the narrative of the show will evolve. We decide who wins in a process that can only be described as the bizarre love child of democratic process (voting telephonically for our pick) and gladiatorial sport (evictions by popular choice).

We are also invited to guess at the hidden motivations of the participants, to discern what Orwell called “doublespeak,” to imagine from their behaviour an interiority that lurks behind the performative. When asked, Biswas commented that her motivation for appearing on the show was that Sobhraj “wants Indians to know more about me. I have nothing to hide.” Aside from being plain annoying to her fellow housemates, however, it’s not what Biswas had to hide but that she had so little (of Sobhraj) to reveal that made her uninteresting to spectators. Housemates must play a cautious game of revealing apparently hidden truths about themselves to the audience – via the confession room – or to their fellow participants or both, and Biswas’ failure to expose some tremendous secret about her infamous husband or their scandalous relationship perhaps doomed her chances. She was the first evictee of the season. The eventual winner aside, Indian audiences seem to prefer the more raucous, trouble-making participants over the quieter or whinier ones, which Biswas appeared to be.

The Bigg Boss studio audience. Photograph taken for Motherland at BIG ND Studio, in Karjat, Maharashtra on October 29, 2011.

Biswas’ participation in the show helped revive interest in the terrifying bogeyman of the 1980s, less than halfway through an 18 year Nepali prison term. Within the first day or two of the show, a fellow housemate asked Biswas whether she and Sobhraj had consummated their marriage. A question in poor taste, certainly, but one that nonetheless reveals an ongoing curiosity about the cipher that he remains to the general public, since the question “who is Charles Sobhraj?” is still frustratingly unanswerable. We still know little about him and Biswas’ claim that he has never been proven guilty for the crimes he was accused of remains in the realm of conjecture. Had she dramatically revealed some startling new insight, chances are she would still be on the show. Her inclusion in the line-up, as a sort of substitute for Sobhraj, suggests that Bigg Boss’ spectators and producers expected the traditional prisoner (Sobhraj, who we cannot see or judge) be enacted out through Biswas for our viewing and judging pleasure. For this reason, her most interesting clips remain those where Sobhraj is mentioned and her exit interviews were also marked by prurient questions into their relationship. She was asked, for instance, what she hoped to achieve for Sobhraj through participating in the show; her response was a peculiar prevarication: “What happens to me, happens to my husband.” With apparently no sense of irony, Biswas then commented that she would now like to return to normal life, one that presumably conflates on a daily basis the hidden, the performative, the hyper-visualised and the overt.