Bigg Boss Tamil, Vijay TV’s masterclass in victim-shaming

Kamal Haasan and Vijay TV were actively part of the Bigg Boss Tamil episode, where Pavni was laughed at and probed for talking about co-contestant Abhinay’s behaviour towards her.
Bigg Boss Tamil 5 contestants Abhinay and Pavni, and host-actor Kamal Haasan
Bigg Boss Tamil 5 contestants Abhinay and Pavni, and host-actor Kamal Haasan

It is astounding how a Tamil television channel could consistently outdo itself in portraying misogyny and victim shaming. The breaks during the daily, hour-long Bigg Boss Tamil show on Vijay TV carry advertisements of serials that invariably reinforce patriarchy – like a serial where the heroine decides to live with a man out of respect for ‘thali,’ which he forcibly tied. This time, the promo was about his refusal to tie thali for her (as part of the post-wedding ritual) and flings it in the air, but it miraculously lands on her neck. Yes, it does — the power of thali, you see. But okay, this rant is going to be about Bigg Boss; serials can wait, of course, because they never stop being misogynistic.

However, if serials are like classes on victim-shaming, Bigg Boss is a masterclass. The reality show, currently on its fifth season, can be more misogynistic, insensitive and blatantly indulge in victim shaming than any serial currently on air on Vijay TV. If they could get some good ratings, why not? And they have a housemate handy to try this on — serial actor Pavni, who is in the house this season.

The friendship between Pavni and actor Abhinay has kept the rumour mills grinding inside the house. While Pavni herself had felt that Abhinay was ‘sometimes going overboard,’ was ‘overtly concerned and caring,’ and had sought some clarity from her fellow housemates, Abhinay continued to maintain that he is married, and that his expression of concern should only be viewed as ‘friendship.’ It didn’t matter to him that he was concerned to the point of making Pavni uncomfortable. She protested when the housemates made it a topic of discussion during their tasks assigned by Bigg Boss

The rumour mills did not stop grinding till Kamal Haasan, the host of the show — and who is ‘proud of his party Makkal Neethi Maiyam’s gender representation’ — addressed the issue recently. On day one of his weekend episode, Kamal Haasan was seen taking Pavni’s side, wondering why should the housemates be concerned about her personal life.

But of course, Kamal Haasan is known to be fiercely protective of his personal life and is, in principle, against anyone talking about it. He should definitely know better. On Sunday’s episode though, he had a different take.

Bigg Boss' Tamil's kurumpadam (short film) on Pavni talking to housemates about her apprehensions over Abhinay’s apparent interest in her, was shown perhaps to drive home the point that if she could speak about it to other housemates, why shouldn’t they? Sadly, the kurumpadam was wildly cheered by some housemates while Pavni looked every bit embarrassed.

In the debates that followed, another housemate, Thamarai, asks Pavni why she hadn’t stayed away from Abhinay, and why give room for such gossips by talking to him? Kamal Haasan was quick enough to stop her, but, sadly again, he failed to point out the deep flaws in such an argument. By allowing the housemates to laugh at Pavni, who was evidently confused and helpless, and letting Thamarai come up with a blatantly insensitive question without explaining the problem in it, Kamal Haasan had actively been part of this grand episode of victim-shaming.

Could this be scripted, as many have been consistently saying? Despite the channel’s and host’s constant denial against Bigg Boss being a scripted show, chances are that it is, and that even more, it is a cause for concern, given the kind of message they are sending out to their huge number of viewers.

Piecing together the information from kurumpadam and the developments in Bigg Boss, it appears that Pavni was clearly helpless. She considered Abhinay a good friend but is wary of his advances.

Abhinay has a family outside and Pavni, having lost her husband, is yet to find love again. It is apparent from the conversations between both that Abhinay gives her a letter during the second week in the house, telling her how much ‘he likes her and not knowing how she would respond.’

Pavni’s constant attempts to clarify with him is gaslit, with Abhinay claiming he was only a friend and cared for her as a friend. Even while detesting the idea of their relationship being publicly debated, Pavni was perhaps desperate enough to seek the help of other housemates. It was this that became a topic of debate on Sunday episode, with the entire house, including the host and the channel, gaslighting and victim-shaming her chow could she talk about it with housemates, because wasn’t she fiercely protesting it when they did?

Does the channel or the host even realise that she was actually seeking help? Or that it was her prerogative to decide when and where to speak about an issue concerning her personal life? Isn’t it entirely possible for a woman to stand up for herself even while being vulnerable enough to seek help? Because she chose to speak to one of them in an attempt to seek his counsel, does it grant the right to the rest to speak or rather gossip about it?

What sort of message does that leave for the world watching Bigg Boss Tamil? What sort of message did Kamal Haasan want to convey by expressing his shock and surprise on discovering that ‘Pavni herself has been talking about it?’ Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – that is, if you are a woman.

Within days of telecasting this episode, the channel perhaps saw the TRP potential’ in such issues, and actively telecast wildcard entrant choreographer Amir’s wooing of Pavni despite her resistance to his advances. At one point, Amir tricks Pavni into kissing her on the cheek, and evidently upset, she says she didn’t like what he did. As someone said on Twitter, he probably grew up watching all those cringe stalker movies on repeat. But the rest of the social media is not as kind. It started asking why she hadn’t slapped him there and why she was not forceful in her responses. Isn’t it time we understand and realise that a ‘NO’ — however weak sounding it is — is still a ‘NO’?

Amir, of course, was not pulled up at the weekend show for being a stalker that he has been, but I guess we just need to be grateful that Pavni was not shamed more. We have come to that, (no) thank you, Vijay TV.

And yes, this was not the first time a woman has been harassed in the current season of Bigg Boss Tamil. When actor-anchor Imman Annachi dangled his foot in front of singer Isaivani’s face, calling it a joke and an ‘attempt to irk her’, a co-housemate sought to dismiss Isaivani’s anger as ‘misplaced.’ The weekend show passed by with no reprimand to Imman for his behaviour. Also, Kamal Haasan did not think it fit to discuss the problem of men of the house peeing in the bathroom and leaving it uncleaned, despite some women repeatedly pointing it out.   

I am not sure who will emerge as the winner in the Bigg Boss house, but if there is a competition for the display of misogyny among Vijay TV’s shows, Bigg Boss is a clear winner, however tough it is.

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.

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