July 04, 2020
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Big Blaze At Mock Race

Shilpa's 'trauma' is the diaspora's. Past slights are now seeds for protest.

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Big Blaze At Mock Race
Big Blaze At Mock Race
Odd, how the truth can wrap itself around some chicken stock cubes. The chicken stock cubes were all she had ordered, declared our Shilpa accusingly, to the three white women who have it in for her, as she wandered into the living room of the Big Brother house. A mistake on the face of it, provocation really. She could hardly not have known that she had ordered more than just chicken stock cubes in her grocery list. As expected, Jade Goody pounced on her, spewing sewer-mouthed venom.

Viewers got an extended earful—and eyeful—of this ugliness, with suggestions that Shilpa Shetty should go back to the slums. She has been called a "dog" before, she has been accused of touching others' food with her hands ("you don't know where those hands have been"), taunted and provoked— "Shilpa wants to be white", she is "the Indian", and did she live in a house or a shack?

The nastiness on the show is all White, even if not everyone White on the show is nasty. The uglier the others get with her, the classier Shilpa looks. The nastier the clashes get, the more viewers it attracts, climbing currently by half a million or so a day. More viewers means more money for Shilpa, and puts her more in the news than she's been all her life. After this, as she must have figured out, she'll certainly pack in the viewers next time she's in a film or on TV—and be paid accordingly.

"She was paid handsomely to take part in the programme and she would certainly have known what was likely to happen—not every detail, but she would certainly have known that people might not take to her, might say a few things and so on," says Lord Bhikhu Parekh, ex-professor at Harvard and the London School of Economics, and former chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain set up by the British government. "I think one must take the rough with the smooth and one would expect her not to be too sensitive about some of the things. She volunteered for it, she must be prepared for it."

It's telling what Shilpa has not done: Big Brother has called her but she has not complained to him about racism, though she has to other inmates. And as Lord Parekh told Outlook, "If she did not like it, she was free to get out." Shilpa, apparently, has taken the take-shit-make-money option.

And yet what she has provoked, deliberately or just by letting the others watch her be herself, has shown up an ugly Britain—one that's never visible during the frequent tamashas when people in dinner jackets stand around and talk about Indo-British ties. The same dos which were sickeningly sweet to start with, and have now staled into boring cliches, brings to mind the sort of things PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown has been saying. Now the spat over chicken cubes has brought the nasty truth out of Big Brother's freezer.

Sly Big Brother. When you put a star like Shilpa Shetty in a closed house with a loud-mouthed harridan like Jade for this long, it was almost certain there would be eruptions of this kind to show viewers and bring in new ones. And the woman-to-woman viciousness (no amount of feminist flag-waving can wish that kind of stuff away) was bound to get colour-coded. When you get on someone's nerves long enough, then who you really are underneath the polite veneer begins to show—Jade was certain to claw into Shilpa, just as surely as Shilpa's sweet-as-jalebi ways would've got on any woman's nerves in fairly quick time.

The trouble has arisen with the spillover that has made Shilpa a Miss India and Jade a Miss England; Indians are now seeing parallels between their own experiences and Shilpa's, and writing to Channel 4 accordingly. They bring to their complaints views about the old—and new—racism hanging fire in Britain today.

"The remarks made to Shilpa bring back memories for first-generation Indians of what they had gone through when they first came to Britain. ..being called dogs, being dismissed for their accents," Prof Parekh says. "But partly there is also a feeling that India is on the move, it's a global player, and therefore what we'd have tolerated 20 years ago we will not today. The attitude to India and to Indians has been changing, largely in response to the fact that Indian children growing up in Britain are articulate, are high achievers, and are placed in important positions."

Shilpa's treatment on the show has fuelled Indian anger in Britain on a scale never seen before over anything on TV, or out on the street for that matter. It's like Shilpa is who they are or were; and in protesting over the abuse aimed at her, Indians are protesting really against abuse they have suffered themselves. The Indian audiences in Britain are stuck in a somewhat larger house, where too many of them have to take shit from White people who may or may not be called Jade. In response to this wave of Indian outrage, Carphone Warehouse, a leading mobile phones retailer, has even ended its 3-million pound sponsorship of the Celebrity Big Brother show "with immediate effect".

But it might be too late, a Pandora's box is now open. The programme might finally have ended up showing everyone an ugly face of Britain they needed to see, and that Britain may have wanted to hide. The show has X-rayed the cloak to show the daggers below. The letters of complaint might well have been thank-you notes. To edit out the ugly taunts aimed at Shilpa would have been to cover up what really happens out there. This is, after all a Reality TV Show, so why blame television for showing the reality?

That question has also opened up the divide between the way Indians in India and Indians in Britain view the whole Shilpa episode. India is looking at the racist face of Britain that Big Brother has shown; British Indians are angry that Channel 4 is showing it.... Shilpa is wily, but she is no guttermouth. This show is not India's problem, or any Indian's. It is Britain's. Feel sorry not for Shilpa but for those poor white Brits, because Jade and her like are legion in the country.

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