Gone are the hashtags and the hype, the Armies and the bombardment of Instagram advertisements. From the middle of 2017, when Bigg Boss Tamil first hit television screens—bringing Kamal Haasan home twice a week, and a heady dose of love, betrayal, lamentation, bullying, back-biting, confrontation, tears and attempted suicide home through the rest of it—the show’s popularity has seesawed.
A forgettable second season was followed by a third where the producers seemed to have made an effort to ensure some drama with a far more interesting line-up, only for the fourth season to pass unnoticed, perhaps because of the unrecognisability of the participants. The fifth started this month, and it appears hardly anyone knows and no one cares what is happening in the house.
When Bigg Boss Hindi remains so popular, and its budgets are ever increasing—not least to accommodate host Salman Khan’s astronomical remuneration—why has its Tamil version, and indeed all Southern versions, failed to find its following?
One of the key reasons may be the absence of a Salman Khan, whom we know is there to entertain, who readies a persona for the weekend and pulls it off. The South Indian versions have all chosen to throw their superstars at the audience. But Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal and Nagarjuna are less Salman than Aamir, and there’s a reason Aamir Khan chose to present Satyamev Jayate rather than Bigg Boss. The case is even more pertinent for Kamal Haasan, who—unlike Mohanlal and Nagarjuna—was never a popular superstar, ceding that place to Rajinikanth in the Eighties. He was always seen as niche and erudite, the man whose words and tweets nobody understands. He was particularly disappointing when he arrived, because it became apparent soon enough that he was neither there to entertain nor educate. He was there to campaign, to increase his visibility and popularity in preparation for his entry into politics. That hasn’t stopped him from charging a fee that has cut so deeply into the show’s budget that its makers are unable to convince anyone particularly interesting to participate.
Which thought brings us to the contestants themselves. First up, to sign up for the show is to confess that one has no projects or personal commitments that may require one’s presence for over three months—or, one is so desperate for money and/or visibility that one is willing to risk it. If the contestants truly are deprived of all means of communication and reading material as the show would have us believe, they are also risking their mental health—cut off from the world, on display to strangers, having every word they utter recorded for posterity and sharing living space with people who have suddenly become so familiar as to breed contempt.
Second, the show itself hasn’t produced a single success story, with the possible exception of Harish Kalyan. And this despite the explosion of OTT platforms looking for original content in Tamil. Harish Kalyan’s circumstances are exceptional too—as a wild-card entry in the first season, he spent a very short period on the show and it was easy for him to steer clear of controversy without being entirely boring. He used the opportunity to showcase his ability to carry off humour and speak Tamil with fluency and precision. With his relative good looks, he did show some promise in film. It appears he has some influence in the industry too, since his parents were known to several of the contestants and the host Kamal Haasan. But everyone else, including the first season’s celebrated Oviya, remains famous for little else than being on Bigg Boss.
Unlike in the Hindi film industry, the gap between the struggling and the successful is not so enormous, with most aspiring Tamil actors making money off modelling and dubbing, and the transition from television to film being fairly easy.
The show has also been plagued by rumours that it is fixed. Somewhere through the middle of the second season, when eventual winner Mugen Rao was barely making an impression on the audience, there was some speculation that the show was under pressure from his record label to push him to the forefront. A dramatic romance followed, and he became the focal point of the show and went on to win the title—which, as the last couple of years have shown, did him no huge favours.
The challenges and tasks to which the contestants are subjected are so awfully humiliating, based as they are on a template to foster fights among people living in some peace, that rather than engage the voyeur in us, the show leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
All this is topped off by the fact that every known face on the show is a has-been—or, in appearing for it, becomes a has-been—and if they would have been forgotten otherwise, they will now be permanently remembered in their greatest indignity.
Little surprise, then, that Bigg Boss Tamil finds little rapport with the audience.
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com