It was an unusually warm November night in 2004. All of us cousins were huddled up on the sofa and diwan in the drawing room, ogling at the television. Rahul Vaidya was to sing as the next contestant on Indian Idol, as one of my cousins and I kept pinching, teasing and elbowing each other. He was a mutual crush, and we were both vying for who pretends to be serenaded better by his crooning voice. As he sang Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujh Par, we both lost ourselves into the melody. Emerging a good five minutes from the reveries, cheeks flushed and hearts pounding. Little did I realize then that I had discovered the pleasures of reality TV that will come to good use during the pandemic 16 years later.
This memory enveloped me one September noon earlier this year as I worked from my bed. The sun streamed through the balcony and I stared into nothing, thinking about the warmth of that night. I tried to reminisce about something but gave up midway as an office call beckoned. After the call, I returned to my daydream delusion with an idea. I would try watching reality TV once again to dull the edges of this harsh time locked indoors for innumerable days.
As a kid, I remember being in thrall of the format of reality TV. That something seemingly unscripted would be aired and shown right into our televisions. Slightly censored for language, but pure in its communication of human emotion, all of human drama packed into an hour, warts and all. Reality TV would soon become one of the many ways in which the moving image would come to constellate my life’s skies. As with so many other things this year, reality TV became an easy habit that I kept returning to. 2020 has, among so many other things also taught us what life is actually all about—slowing down, having fun and living well.
Two weeks in without much ado, I would come to bookmark one hour everyday while having breakfast or evening tea, to take in the pleasures of other human beings locked in and putting up a show. I gathered a newfound empathy for what once seemed like lopsided aggression from these locked in contestants. This was 2020, a lot was anyway going to hell, so I thought I might as well give it a try. As we all sat cooped up indoors, just like the contestants, I came to enjoy the show through a completely different lens.
On weekend mornings as we ordered in idlis and utthapams, the contestants on the show, their bonhomie, cattiness and the joie de vivre reminded me of my extended family. The daily tearful breakdowns, exaggerated laughter and impromptu dance and song seemed slightly less unreasonable. Their mornings reminded me of my childhood mornings at home when relatives would arrive from near and far. Their luggage scattered everywhere in the house, as they complained about a noisy passenger on the train. My parents prepared tea, as I woke up and watched quietly from my bed. A spectator to the happenings in my own house. Warming up to the gaggle of people gathered in the veranda of my parents’ house, narrowing my senses to recognize who’s who and then quickly saying my hellos and namastes, the mornings in this reality show took me back to those days.
These parallels would occupy an otherwise empty corner of my mind. My mind that had otherwise been a tourist town for a rainbow of negative thoughts. In a moment of tight work-related tension, I would remember a silly one-liner thrown by a contestant and find myself break into a giggle. Soon the challenge of staying locked in at home for 24 hours started seeming a little less daunting. Even on the worst days, I could pick myself up thinking of the next episode. Glimpses into the next episode on YouTube, became my new work breaks. In those two minutes, I would vicariously live through the banter that I otherwise would have shared with a colleague. Tired of resorting to watching movies or shows online, I welcomed reality TV with a newfound vengeance. It had the right amount of intrigue, spice and pique to it. I had never seen most of the participants before, so it also became way to discover inanities related to them so as to keep the mind distracted.
In the beginning, I was a bit shy, I didn’t want my flatmate to find out what I was watching. But soon as I realised and gave in to the reprieve, I started informing friends about it. “You have extreme tastes,” a friend replied. One night before I had been watching an obscure Georgian film and telling him about it. He was right. And I was loving it. While I went to Mubi, Prime Video and Hotstar to engage intellectually, I arrived at reality TV to actively disengage. It became an antidote to the all-pervasive anxiety that has been floating in the air all this while.
Briefly before in the lockdown I had a radio phase when both my flatmate and I would listen to FM channels while cooking, letting ourselves really go with it. The funky Punjabi (always Punjabi) tracks allowed us to lose ourselves in the static and then recover as tired people who just needed to catch some sleep. After the radio routine, came the early 2000s Hindi movie period. We binged on movies like Bluffmaster, Rang De Basanti, Saathiya, Omkara and Armaan. That helped us get far away from the present and cope differently.
I was also paid handsome, long visits by thoughts of a stilted intellect. But I eventually decided to look through them. Understanding what makes us deem reality TV as low, lightweight or inconsequential. I was tired of racking my brain over mopey French films, emotionally draining (read triggering) HBO originals, and bemoaning the lack of new Bojack Horseman seasons. As my peers competitively screengrabbed and compulsively shared fleeting details about movies they saw over the weekend, I laughed my heart over the small, petty but extremely entertaining little weekend activities on the show. While OTT platforms continued their relentless churn through the year, producing equal parts catharsis and escape, I finally was able to skivvy away. Some of the new shows were good, but I was ready to gorge on the ever-so-bankable entertainment quotient of reality shows. And boy did they deliver!
The show divvied, up and down, escalating in pace, depending on the cast. But the thrum was there. The show pulsed with the freshness of unpredictability and the primal human need to communicate and connect. I was happy, 16 years later not much had changed. The season was being filmed during the lockdown, lending an extra fall-of-Rome feel to the sweet, unseemly fights inside the house. When a wild card, surprise entry to the show was made to live inside a glass room for about ten days to self-isolate, I felt relieved. The makers were more serious about the virus that most people I knew in real life.
As I allowed myself to be serenaded by reality TV, dots started connecting themselves. Reality TV, which had really lost its sheen for me, came prancing back as a great way to break the great monotony of the cyclical every day in the lockdown. So much of the Hindi television watching experience requires a suspension of reality, films often exist in a bubble of their own making. Unaffected by era-defining moments like the election of Biden or demonetisation, that don’t even get mentioned here to maintain an air of fantasy. But this year reality TV won hearts because of the strange comfort in seeing our real life circumstances get replicated on TV. The actors, writers, showrunners came a bit closer to us, the viewers, as we saw them deal and grapple with something as massive as a pandemic yet continue to work. As a deranged 2020 comes to a close, I am in the last leg of this splashy show. Three weeks away from the finale, I am in the hapless position of anyone who has ever binged on a show—I will not know what to do with my life afterwards. The show has come to be the perfect send-off to the supremely nutty year that 2020 was. Reality TV taking the year by its horns, and delivering us the best of entertainment.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. Her work has appeared in Popula, the Los Angeles Review of Books, 3AM Magazine, among others.