Swayamvara, the Black Mirror way
Celebrities share their views on a recently concluded controversial reality show that featured actor Arya
A reality show—Enga Veetu Maapillai—ended last week amid much furore. For the uninitiated, the show had 16 women vying with each other for the opportunity to marry actor Arya, who, in turn, was looking for a ‘prospective bride’, and was progressively eliminating them to identify the one woman just right for him. These women drew rangoli to win his admiration. They wept and narrated stories about their past relationships to win his sympathy. They were desperate in not wanting to get eliminated by a man they’d signed up to get married to, based on what they knew of him from films. They reeled off cheesy lines to please their hero, to convince him they’re the one.
This charade went on for almost two months. The actor interacted with the girls’ parents, bought jewellery and wedding clothes... But on the big day when he had to pick a woman, he said he was not ready to ‘finalise the girl’ because he felt that would ‘hurt the other women’.
This idea of a man picking a woman from a group, based on tasks—many quite sexist—is discomfiting. Rampwalks, cooking tests, song and dance routines, aerobics performances... They are all traditional activities that women—read good wives—are expected to be good in.
Buzzing with questions about the show and what it means for society, I sought an audience with Arya. He wasn’t forthcoming though: “It’s a sensitive issue, and I can’t discuss anything right now.” My efforts at reaching out to the contestants were futile too.
I contacted at least 20 celebrities, with most choosing not to comment, while some were willing to open up “off the record”. One content producer is cynical of how ‘real’ the reality show is. “There’s plenty going on behind the scenes that viewers don’t see. From the fake surprise gifts to orchestrated emotional scenes,” he says.
There were a few who didn’t mind being quoted though. One of them, filmmaker Sharada Ramanathan, is scathing of the show. “Reality shows have been one of the most damaging influences on society. We know that a good chunk of them is not real. There’s still an audience for these shows though, which speaks volumes about our voyeuristic nature.”
She wonders why a successful actor like Arya has risked his reputation by engaging in ‘something so depraved’. “How are a bunch of girls going through this—this entire process of fake courtship on television? Even if it is all stage-managed, doesn’t it humiliate them at all?” she questions.
Sharada insists that commercial considerations should have limits. “The Tamil version hasn’t raked up the TRPs as expected. One reason could be that this horrible idea is already done-to-death around the world. The small screen badly needs some fresh and original programming that is not exploitative,” she adds.
TV presenter-actor-screenwriter Yuhi Sethu believes that truth in reality television is always a controversial topic. “People are put into situations to create a story. We need to keep in mind that the ultimate objective of reality television is entertainment. At the same time, channels should act with responsibility when they’re exploring culture and tradition, and something as serious as marriages.”
He likens the show’s idea to something of a swayamvara. “In ancient India, swayamvaras were practised mostly by kings to help their daughters choose a husband from among a list of suitors. Here, this concept is turned around, and used to humiliate and objectify women,” he rues.
Actor Kasturi— a self-confessed feminist—however underplays the issue. “Audiences shouldn’t take the show too seriously,” she says.
“The basic problem is that we expect entertainment channels to act responsibly. I don’t think those women contestants will be judged for their choices when they go outside. Before you ask me if they were objectified, I’d like to clarify—more than anything else, it was Arya who was objectified because he was parading himself in strangers’ houses.”
Kasturi has no doubt that everyone (including the contestants) already knew Arya would not be marrying anyone at the end of the show. “It’s after all a show, and every such show is scripted and edited.” In fact, she says she rather liked how women were allowed to express their romantic inclinations boldly.
Suja Varunee is no stranger to reality shows, given she participated in Bigg Boss Tamil season 1. She’s more trusting of the show’s honesty. “Human emotions can’t be scripted. I was present on the sets for the finale. I’ve never seen Arya be so tense. He understood the seriousness of the issue. I feel he was honest. Couldn’t he have married someone for the sake of it, and later said he was disinterested?”
We managed to get in touch with actor Sangeetha, the show’s host. She starts by saying she understands the cynicism of audiences. “Things may look scripted when you see it from the outside, but I can assure you that none of us knew he’d take such a decision. He had signed a contract to get married to someone, after all.”
After a pause, she admits that she couldn’t really relate to the show, despite being its host. “I am a private person, and like to keep things to myself. But I guess women of this generation aren’t like that. They like to exhibit love and affection openly,” she says. “If these women felt they were objectified, they could have put their foot down. So I think they were fine with it all.”
She sympathises with Arya. “Only I know the kind of pressure he was under. He was hurt when eliminated contestants broke down in front of the camera once. He didn’t want to do the same thing again. All I want to say is, don’t judge people based on what you see on TV for an hour.”