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Bollywood Brother – the days in which Britain was out-Britished?

by Safi Rowland
7 May 2007 • Comments (2) • Print
Posted: Celebrity Big Brother [1] | Commons

Reality TV is now a well-established point of interest for cultural and social theorists, consternation for ‘traditionalists’ over the loss of ‘higher forms’ of entertainment, and gossip for the audiences. Its role for projecting the real issues of the day is readily debatable, but none more so when the volunteers are picked from the small sphere of celebrity lifestyles with their own agendas to serve the agenda of production companies such as Endemol. In the melee of media feeding media after Celebrity Big Brother, racism has once again been a hot talking point. Racism of the masses rather than racism of the politicians and the fundamentalists. I refused to watch Celebrity Big Brother initially being of the opinion that seeing celebrities on a 24:7 basis, who have signed up for environmental manipulation in a manner not unlike the guinea pigs in the Egg adverts, was not really entertainment. To me, such overt puppetry and acting reveals little of a political unconsciousness but the relative skills of each low-lister to work their way towards a more sturdy wage packet. The idea that norms are more recognisable when a given community is thrown into a state of anomie is only viable when the community has established a momentum of its own, gone through cycles of growth and decline. Something that not even a run of Big Brother can achieve in its pseudo-longitudinal format. But nevertheless, I ended up following an unprecedented amount of others who tuned in to the show to see what the media hype was all about.

I recently completed a dissertation on how celebrities might use their ethnicity to market themselves within a growing local/global context. The idea was that each celebrity is now pitched as a product to two markets, the national and the global, and that they must retain popularity as a local success story whilst appealing to the ever growing global masses. The balance is a fine one and adheres to different criteria according to the genre of media; music being potentially the most complex of all with the idea of authenticity and identity bound firmly in the local. The study also considered the Hollywood system, a system in which stars are established more as a point of aspiration over accessibility. Their giddy heights of uniqueness are then reconfirmed by the plethora of status-building programmes such as MTV: Cribs and THS.

Shilpa Shetty would seem, at first glance, to come from that same level of cultural esteem in Bollywood. By name and structure, the system similarly establishes stars who are perceived almost as cultural royalty and as significantly an elite, inaccessible minority. I would therefore have expected her to be created on similar facets as the age old Hollywood system as defined classically by Richard Dyer. It was therefore fascinating that she was placed into the Big Brother house as a promotional platform in the UK, as the programme works on an entirely antithetical dynamic, that of making personas accessible. It is the house in which celebrities are criticised for being ‘fake’ or ‘acting in role’ in front of the very cameras which established them as familiar faces to us in the first place. It was therefore a situation which ran counter to Shilpa Shetty’s star persona and was always going to be problematic.

The little that I did see of her confirmed her as Shilpa Shetty the Bollywood actress. Relatively immaculate at all times, handling herself with poise, her persona was built more on her acting successes and financial acumen rather than her innate Indian-ness. She was therefore revolving her image around the more traditional markers of glamour, traditional femininity and decorum. However, in the ensuing episodes and coverage, she was brought to bear the weight of race and current racial issues, to the point where she placed herself as representative of Bollywood and India.

Certainly Shetty is one of the more positive representations of Asian ethnicity that Britain has been privy to for a while. Boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are still classically being fought in the political arena over what constitutes ‘Britishness’ and how to inculcate the youth of this nation with its values to ward against the ‘outsiders inside’ threat of terrorism. Shetty with her lilting accent and Indian fashion was a safe depiction of the more colonial India, the one that could exist side by side, with similar attributions but on a more exotic and beautiful level.

Of serious interest to me then was her interview with Richard and Judy once Endemol had rushed through the end of the series. In their introduction which would directly undermine all claims that hers was a ‘victory for anti-racism’, Shetty was defined as perhaps embodying the traditional English virtues more than the other English members of the household: the household which included key British faces of pop, gay and football culture. But this discourse was mistaken. To bring her into the nationalist discourse was not what it was about, nor would it have been the intention of her publicist. “More British than the British” was nothing short of a shameful extension of the ‘noble savage’ discourse of an imperialist nation acknowledging the success of one of ‘our’ colonies. Not an acknowledgment of her own Indian heritage, nor the industry in which she operates but an attempt to sideline the ‘us’ with the more complimentary version of ‘reality’. As her own website confirms, she was acting within her own ethnic brand not as an advocate of traditional British values: “India is full of very tolerant and cultured people and everyone is welcome.” [1]

Incongruities of the household to create controversy is the formula upon which the BB programme revolves. This time its potential battlegrounds could have been gender or class or ethnicity. As it was, the ensuing furore covered all bases but the Asian problematic was the most compelling in a society which has now banned religious clothing in schools, if it can be deemed a security threat, and where we are still trying to place blame for the two most Baudrillardian spectacular terrorist attacks of recent times.

The Endemol reality was unrecognisable to those in the household, who when confronted with the edited lifestyle which we were shown, reacted with confusion and horror, including Shilpa Shetty herself. As a reality show, this series had to bow to the real reactions of the general public by entirely reformulating the eviction process. But as the promotional platform for the celebrities, it paid its way confirming all brands: “Shilpa will now be doing a balancing act between Bollywood and the West. ‘Big Brother’ hasn’t changed her. Instead, its (sic) taught her, how important it is to be dignified in any situation.”[2]

Shilpa is now the local and the global Bollywood star as was planned. Movie stars still reign over television stars, the cultural divide of low and high still exists and all returns to the same hierarchy as before. Bhagwager, her spokesperson, as well as Bollywood figures have noted the renaissance of her career which Endemol appear to have sponsored[3] knowing that she would potentially have to handle such derisive comments on an international stage. Have we genuinely got to a point where even racism can be a marketing tool for the astute star who craves that status of ‘diva’?


Born to a Malaysian mother and Welsh father and raised in The Gambia and Bangladesh, I guess I was always going to be fascinated in globalisation and media. Texts (the reading, writing and analysis of) have always been a passion of mine hence my current career of English teacher.
All posts by: Safi Rowland | Email | Website

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2 Responses »

  1. Well well, the world is full of surprises!

    “Have we genuinely got to a point where even racism can be a marketing tool for the astute star who craves that status of ‘diva’?”

    I agree – we have!

  2. What are the chances of me coming across this?!
    What a challenging read!
    I agree with you and Dominic very much, studying media has opened my eyes to things that I had no idea about before.
    Good work Saf!

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