19 August 2009

Truth Be Told: thoughts on the TV show 'Sach ka Saamna'

Published in Tehelka, 8 Aug 2009.

A new television show brings middle class skeletons out of the closet and onto our screens.

A SLIGHTLY BALDING 60-year-old man in a creamy yellow suit sits under the spotlight. The talk show host, a television actor probably half his age, asks him, “Kya aapko ab bhi apni sapnon ki rani ka intezaar hai? (Are you still waiting for the woman of your dreams?)” Though worded Bollywood-style, such a question asked of a 60- year-old in a popular Hindi film would have been part of the comedy track. But on the night of July 17, the question was asked of a real person, and no one laughed. Not just that. As actor Yusuf Hussain, veteran of three marriages, replied in the affirmative, a hush descended on the audience. What would Jezebel, Hussain’s girlfriend of some six years, say to this? But there were no tears, no recriminations. Jezebel just smiled.

In a country where our popular fictions tend to stick to stereotypes, it is reality TV that seems to be challenging deeply-ingrained beliefs about what ordinary Indians can think, feel, do and most importantly, live with. And Sach ka Saamna is its most recent – and possibly its boldest – example. Which is why Star Plus’ new show is suddenly the subject of impassioned debate everywhere, from the living rooms into which it is beamed every weeknight to the Rajya Sabha. Sony TV’s Bigg Boss (the Indian version of Big Brother, telecast in 2006-07) tested the waters by putting on Indian screens the faux-everyday (because artificially collective) private lives of a bunch of half-forgotten/B-grade celebrities. Sach ka Saamna not only turns the spotlight on ordinary middle-class contestants – a Mumbai schoolteacher, an executive in a pen company, a small-time sexagenarian actor – but also places in the public eye more of the private lives of Indians than ever before.

Sach ka Saamna is based on the enormously successful US show The Moment of Truth, that ran on Fox for 23 episodes in 2008. Versions are being produced in 23 countries, but the show is much reviled, even in the US. The New York Times described it as extracting “confessions for cold cash”.

But as a journalist from the Star network told me, “It’s all relative. When KBC started, it was considered immoral to offer money on TV every night.” Going by the ratings, the show is a massive success here, too. Having opened with a 4.6 TVR rating (the best yet for any reality show in 2009), it notched up a first week average of 4.3 TVR. But the asking (and answering) of forthright questions addressing such taboo topics as sexual fantasies, premarital and extramarital sex, unwed motherhood and abortion has also led the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to issue the channel a show cause notice for obscenity.

“But look at the competition: Rakhi ki Swayamvar on NDTV Imagine, and Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao on Sony, where a bikini-clad actress is shown bathing every day,” says the same journalist. But perhaps that is precisely the wrong tack: to equate the faux-sexuality of item numbers and waterfall scenes that we seem both to revel in and forgive, with a show that claims to encourage an honest, open approach to real people’s lives.

But, critics ask, does the show reward honesty or promote exhibitionism? Since the telecast of the Yusuf Hussain episode, this charming old man with a passion for Urdu poetry and a predilection for white sheets (which he cheerfully admitted to having stolen from hotel rooms, because, he said, such thick, pristine bedsheets could not be found in shops!) has been both fêted and berated – via comments on sites like YouTube – for admitting to actions and desires seen as both generally immoral and particularly inappropriate to his age. These include sins of omission – not having tried genuinely to save any of his three marriages – and of commission – having had a sexual relationship with a woman younger than his daughter, having produced a child out of wedlock. It’s obvious to anyone who watched the episode that this is a man who enjoys attention. Well preserved and nattily dressed, he confesses to being uncomfortable with the anonymity of old age, because he was used to “turning heads” as a young man. To me, there seems no doubt that his being on the show is at least partly about his desire to turn heads once more. But how can one deny the courage needed to take the blame for three failed marriages – on national television?

A RELATED QUESTION is whether contestants’ relationships with spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends are strengthened or threatened by what takes place on air. The Colombian show was notoriously taken off air after a woman confessed to having hired a hitman to kill her husband, while the US version regularly featured sexual confessions “of the marriage-busting kind”. (One Lauren Cleri told an ex-boyfriend on the show he was the man she should have married, while her sweet, bespectacled husband blinked nervously). Sach ka Saamna seems definitely tamer: many questions are worded in a way that leaves them open to positive interpretations. Allwyn D’Souza from Mumbai, answering ‘Yes’ to a question about whether he wanted a different person as his wife, quickly followed-up by saying that everyone has an imaginary ideal partner. Or is it just an Indian desire to cover up instantly, even after just having ‘confessed’? Teacher Smita Mathai, having affirmed that there had been times when she wanted to kill her husband, went on to say it was because she couldn’t bear to see him suffer as an alcoholic. Perhaps the traditional Indian version of an open society, where much is condoned as long as it stays below the surface, will take its time to change.

The third question concerns audiences rather than contestants. Does the show enable us to identify with participants, or make voyeurs of us? Of course we’re being voyeuristic when we wait with bated breath to see someone we don’t know at all confess to a teenage pregnancy or a secret sexual liaison. But it seems clear enough that’s not the whole of it: we can simultaneously condemn, sympathise, identify. What are young married couples, sitting on their sofa, thinking as they watch a fresh-faced young man, recently married, admit that he often lies to his wife, saying he’s caught at work while actually hanging out with his (male) friends? Even as public figures like cricketer Vinod Kambli or television vamp Urvashi Dholakia emerge as not-so-perfect people in their private lives, surely one can identify with them and feel, as one recent columnist put it, “a little better about the mistakes I might have made”.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 31, Dated August 08, 2009

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