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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2643

The Shilpa Opera

By Tushar Charan- Syndicate Features

Among the many common human frailties are use of abusive language in a fit of rage and if an exchange involves two persons of different nationalities or religions it can also become racist and bigoted. Deplorable as this trait may be, not many ordinary mortals can honestly claim to have eschewed them. Exchange of racist or similar other curses among Indians of different background may shock some but does not come as a surprise.

In fact, abuse of race, religion and caste is as common in India as it is in British ‘schools and pubs’, to quote a British interlocutor. To call certain Dalits by the trade supposedly germane to their caste is a penal offence in India and yet one can hear the prohibited words in quarrelsome exchanges. In England, even the Queen’s consort, no to mention lesser subjects, has been known to take a racial dig at Indians. One does not remember India seeking ‘action’ by Her Majesty’s government to pull up Prince Phillip, who did not offer any ‘apology’ either.

This preface is not being built up to suggest that the racist taunts and abuses hurled at the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on a British television reality show, Big Brother, is not worthy of any notice or comment. It most certainly is. But when a host of ministers of government of India—Pranab Mukherjee, Anand Sharma, Priyaranjan Das Munsi, Kamal Nath, to mention a few--speak on the subject and threaten some ‘action’ it becomes a different matter. In any case, these concerned ministers could perhaps begin by telling the country what sort of ‘action’ can they really take? Surely, they are not going to force a snap in diplomatic and economic ties between India and the UK.

The India visit of Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is going to take over from Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister, lost its focus on strengthening trade and commerce ties with the visiting minister being asked wherever he went about the Shilpa Shetty insults on Channel 4. ‘Banning’ Channel 4, as Das Munsi with the zeal of a born-again morality preacher would undoubtedly wish, is out of the question because the channel is not beamed at India at all. One is not sure if the incident of racial bullying on a private channel is appropriate for lodging a formal diplomatic protest.

The more Indian officials play up the deplorable racial barbs at Shilpa Shetty the more helpless—or something else-- they would look. The British government dropped a subtle hint at the beginning of the controversy that while it is strongly opposed to any racial slur, the government is not likely to take the kind of ‘action’ that the enraged ministers in India may have in mind. In fact, Chancellor Brown told an interviewer in India that the British public—white and Asians alike—had already given an appropriate answer by their overwhelming expression of indignation. The sponsor of the offending TV show was reportedly contemplating pulling out of the three million pound deal. But if ‘action’ means punishing the abusive participants in the show or banning Channel 4 then the Indian ministers, not to mention the public and fans of Shilpa Shetty, may have to be ready for disappointment.

That said there are certain aspects of the TV show that are incomprehensible to the uninitiated. O.k. the participants, perhaps deliberately chosen to be mutually incompatible so that the show becomes lively, are caged in a house and their daily life is filmed by ‘hidden’ cameras day and night. (Pray, what is a ‘hidden’ camera when you know that it is very much there?) The British viewers get to see what might be called the juicy bits in a late evening programme that probably lasts an hour or less.

It is obvious that the participants are very aware that whatever they say or do is likely to be shown on TV screens. Now, using four letter words or racial taunts might be a common everyday occurrence in many families, most people with such frailties do take the precaution of being somewhat restraint when they know that they are on camera. The presenters of the show need not tell the participants what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not. Most people, even the dumbest ones, know it by instinct. If they don’t the TV channels are not averse to removing portions that may cause offence to a large audience.

Anyone who questions this needs to read a statement attributed to a spokesman of Channel 4 that may sound like defending the ‘nonchalant’ attitude of the TV channel but actually does accept that it takes recourse to some ‘censoring’ if it is necessary. ‘The social interactions and dynamics of the group are one of the key parts. Viewers have a right to see these portrayed accurately. However, this is balanced with our duty not to broadcast material that may cause unjustified offence.’ If the spokesman has been correctly reported, the onus of showing or not showing the offensive bits rested with Channel 4, which is an independent body. It is hard to see how the government in Britain can be held accountable for its programmes.

As stated earlier, the language used to berate Shilpa Shetty is unacceptable and the furore that it has raised in India as well as the UK should serve as a lesson for producers of sensational TV programmes. But some TV analysts have a different take on the whole controversy. To them the whole thing appears to be some kind of a publicity stunt that had seen an overnight jump of nearly one million viewers of Big Brother. It would seem that almost the entire South Asian community had become glued to the programme which, after all, was meant to be ‘sensational, entertaining and voyeuristic’, as one critic reportedly said.

Shilpa Shetty may have undergone some mental agony after being subjected to a treatment that must be totally unfamiliar to a Bollywood ‘princess’, but in the end she could look for two unexpected and perhaps very welcome gains. She was going to earn plenty of money from the show and her sagging career in Bollywood could look up. That is irrespective of whether or not the government of India takes any ‘action’ to mitigate her, or rather her fans’, agony.

- Syndicate Features -

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