A motley bunch of semi celebrities, locked away in a house for three months and closely video recorded through in-house cameras as they go about their daily chores is entertainment. A few decades back the very idea would have been considered ridiculous, but Big Boss is a roaring success. This concept was originally invented in the Netherlands and became an instant hit; subsequently versions of it were recreated in as many as 40 countries.
So what explains the popularity of this reality show, so engrossing to its watchers and yet carrying a theme that is so mundane? Surely its success must have some explanation, some phenomenon that may not be very apparent and yet has an enormous hold upon the minds of the watchers. What follows is a humble attempt to shed some light upon this issue with the obvious disclaimer that any such analysis may easily be held guilty of being over ambitious and indulging in gross generalization due to the enormous diversity in the orientations and social backgrounds of the watchers of this show.
A show themed on the breach of privacy is reflective of the times that we live in, when people are becoming less and less concerned about being watched. The fact that the name of the original show, ‘Big Brother’ comes from George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ is in itself demonstrative of this shift. This novel, published in 1949 depicts an imaginary totalitarian regime led by a tyrannical leader called the ‘Big Brother’, the dictatorship of this ruthless regime is marked by the omnipresent surveillance; every step of the ordinary citizens is watched by the government. Painted in lurid colours, this novel was meant to portray for the readers the horrific curb on the right to privacy of the individual citizens by an imagined socialist state. This novel was an instant success and it was promoted in a big way by the capitalist states as a propaganda tool to arouse mass fear psychosis against the spectre of communism.
After fifty years ‘Big Brother’ becomes the name of a reality show meant for entertainment. The same theme instead of arousing fear of being watched by a totalitarian state stirs up gossip sessions in the middle class drawing rooms. The surveillance regime that horrified the readers of George Orwell novel is already here and it has not translated into the kind of suffocating lives for the citizens as the novel depicted. We go about our daily lives aware of the fact that our activities are being recorded, not just by the state agencies but also by corporations building their databases to market their products, banks looking for customers, internet search engines seeking to comprehend our preferences, charity organizations pursuing potential donors etc etc. Our contemporary society is marked by surveillance more intensive than any totalitarian regime in the history of humankind. Almost every step of our lives requires us to reveal information about ourselves which is then recorded and archived. This is not say that people are negotiating being observed without objections, sure enough profiling by the state agencies and secret services arouses fears of being targeted and victimization but such reactions do not exhaust the range of responses to living within surveillance. Awareness of being under constant observation is also giving rise to an increase in narcissistic tendencies among people. Aware of the fact that we are being seen by more and more people, we are also feeling an increased anxiety to look good in the eyes of others. A careful cultivation of the one’s public persona then becomes a standing preoccupation. Is my face book profile picture good? What results does a Google search of my name reveal? Recently I had a very revealing experience of the new generation’s narcissism induced by social networking. An acquaintance that never shows any sort of gender sensitivity or social concern suddenly turned a militant activist during the protest against the Nirbhaya rape case this January. He participated in the protests at Raisina Marg asking his friends to click pictures of him clashing with the police and breaking the barricade. The next day these pictures were updated as his profile picture on face book, which he then followed every hour to check whether he was receiving good comments or not (which he in fact did receive). What was of particular interest in the whole affair was his obsession with his image in the virtual world; face book where he is observed by other, to the extent that his real life activities are becoming influenced by his desire to create a likeable self in the eyes of the observing eyes in the social networking.
As we saw in the foregoing, in the contemporary society people are increasingly aware of being observed, recorded and archived and consequently there is an increase in the anxiety to present an admirable persona for the sight of the observing agencies. Such a preoccupation is making people observe themselves and their peers too in terms of how their personalities appear in the public domain, in the eyes of others. Public figures, political figures, sportsmen etc. too are evaluated not just in terms of how they fare in their professions but also in terms of how their personalities fare in the gaze of the people and agencies that evaluate their personalities. It is not enough for a cricket captain to give his best in the field; he must now also learn to handle his media image. Any slipshod interview in which he appears insincere or less committed might damage his reputation. A keen performance in the field thus also ought to be complemented by a good performance in the media to convince an evaluating public that the national team is being lead by dedicated skipper. Public image thus appears to get a life of its own detached from a person’s actions in the real life.
The success of a reality show like Big Boss, with its focalization upon how individuals behave/perform in the eyes of their peers must be seen in the light of this newfound anxiety to manage one public image. The characters are evaluated and discussed by the public, compared with the each other and also with oneself. How would I have managed the situation if I was thrown in the same situation? The kernel seems to be that despite knowing full well that all the characters are bluffing and playacting to ensure their own survival and the elimination of the rest, we still take interest in how they are faking their sincerity. In other words the focus of the contemporary viewers has shifted from who is right and who is wrong; that all will be bluffing and faking is taken for granted and hence does not arouse interest. The real interest is concentrated upon how the different characters manage their guile, i.e. how efficiently they hide their ruthless pursuit of success and cold calculation and are able to maintain calm, genteel and sincere exterior selves. Management of a likable self seems that have become an end in itself detached from the real concerns about whether our conduct in ethically correct or not. Is not this a representation of what we go through in our own daily lives? At the office I need to grind to dust all my colleagues to move ahead, but at the same time I cannot let anybody know of my real intentions. Like in the Big Boss, one’s real intention (which is to eliminate everybody else) cannot be stated openly. Despite the fact that all the contestants know that the intention of all the participants is the same, to eliminate the rest, nobody would say this openly as doing so would ensure immediate expulsion of that person by the rest of the contestants who would vote him/her out. To reveal one’s true intention is to invite defeat. Even though everyone else knows about each others’ true intentions, it must remain hidden, beneath the surface/public image, for the game to continue. Is not there a parallel between this set up and of our quotidian experiences, for instance at the workplace? At office everyone intends to pull the rest down and survive to move ahead. But despite this being an open secret I cannot reveal my true intentions to my colleagues because the moment I tell them that I my real desire is to kick the asses of all of them and get a promotion, the competition is over for me. My colleagues, the boss and all the rest in the office would get together and throw me out for not having a good working spirit. And when I am thrown out of the office, what I would be punished for really is not my intention to beat the rest to get a promotion. After I am thrown out, it is possible, very likely even, that my colleague would someday meet up and say, “of course to beat others to move ahead is the real intention of all of us, but who says it openly? The guy was really stupid to have said so openly.” Because like ‘Big Boss’ in the real life too, for the game to continue, our real intentions must remain hidden, for our survival in the game, what lies inside our heads is immaterial, what really matters is how well we manage our public images. Are we not living ‘Big Boss’ lives ourselves?