Bigg Boss is endorsed by Mohanlal, and is loved and watched by lakhs of people in Kerala. The awareness and visibility that proper queer representation on a show like this offers is unprecedented, a gay rights activist tells TNM.

A collage of actor Mohanlal with the queer contestants in Bigg Boss Malayalam Season 4
Features Queer visibility Monday, June 20, 2022 - 20:35

On April 4 this year, something revolutionary happened rather quietly on Malayalam television. In the ninth episode of the Asianet reality show Bigg Boss Malayalam 4, a young male contestant came out as gay, opening up about his sexuality to two of his fellow players — both of them cisgender women who have publicly identified as lesbian. Aparna Mulberry tells Jasmine Moosa that Ashwin is “just like us”. He is gay, she tells Jasmine, as Ashwin Vijay sits by their side and nods along with a smile.

What followed was a sensitive and respectful conversation on the politics of ‘coming out’, with Jasmine pointing out to Ashwin that it was not his responsibility to explain his sexual orientation to anyone else. “I am no one to judge [someone for being in the closet]. People have their personal spaces when it comes to matters like this. Besides, there is also no requirement that you talk about it. You are not doing anything wrong. So there is no reason for you to go out of your way and tell everyone [about your orientation],” she tells Ashwin. 

The on-air conversation especially assumes significance when considering the fact that it was being broadcast by Asianet, a leading regional channel that has, like many others, thrived on regressive and misogynistic primetime TV serials to cater to an audience belonging to a fundamentally patriarchal society. This is not to say that Bigg Boss is an inherently progressive show. On the contrary, the reality programme, which exists on the basis of round-the-clock surveillance, has through the years invited widespread criticism for its commercialisation of voyeurism. The show, produced by Endemol Shine India and adapted from its international counterpart Big Brother, thrives on scandal and the conflicts that develop between its contestants, who are locked up in a house together for up to 100 days, cut off from the outside world. 

Season of colours

The fourth season of Bigg Boss Malayalam was pitched as inclusive of sexuality minorities right from the outset, with the first promo of the show released with the tagline ‘ini sangathi colour aakum’ (it will be colourful now). One of the scenes in the promo sequence shows a man saying he wants to “marry a beautiful woman”, only for a woman to follow it up with the line, “I too want to marry a beautiful woman." This ad, featuring superstar Mohanlal, an actor who wields enormous influence over the Malayali imagination, was unprecedented in the history of Malayalam TV. What Mohanlal promised in the promo was “colourful entertainment”, with the inclusion of “different preferences” and “different stands”.

So did Bigg Boss deliver on this promise? According to queer rights activist Muhammed Unais, it most definitely did. “Except for the wild card entry of Anjali Ameer (a trans woman) during the first season of Bigg Boss, the community has received little representation in the programme before. Even an acknowledgement of the queer community’s existence by season three contestant Dimpal Bhal, who had sent her wishes to people of all genders on women’s day, had made people like us very happy. Dimpal was an ally, but we really wanted to see at least one person from within the community to be included in the show. And finally, in the fourth season, three homosexual people took part in the programme. I think they did justice to their theme ‘new normal’,” Unais says. Besides the presence of both Aparna and Jasmine, who have been open about their sexuality for a while now, it was Ashwin's coming out on the show that truly surprised Unais.

In fact, it is exactly the presence of two homosexual women alongside him that helped Ashwin come out on the show, the contestant tells TNM. “It is easier to open up about your sexuality when you are with people from the community. Only they can truly understand your feelings. That was why I talked to Aparnechi (Aparna) first, and then Jasmine. Aparnechi had warned me that if I was going to do this, I should be prepared to face all kinds of reactions from the outside world when I leave the show. It was a decision I made after putting a lot of thought into it,” Ashwin tells TNM.

True to Aparna’s word, all was not well back home, he realised after he was eventually evicted from the show on April 24. “I learnt that after my sexuality was revealed, a number of people had left the WhatsApp groups that were created to support me on the show. Many derogatory and homophobic comments appeared under my YouTube videos. There were some who called me up and said that they did not want to stay friends with me because I’m gay. There were others who said I was a ‘curse’ on this land, and that they would not have supported me if they knew of my sexuality before.”

But at the same time, he was also welcomed with open arms by many, especially on social media, adds Ashwin, a magician by profession. “If I take 100 comments under one of my videos, about 10 of them will be bad, while the others are usually supportive. Besides, many people texted me saying they could relate to me. One person said that they were being forced to get married, but they do not want to and can’t find the courage to tell their family. This is the reality of our society. Now I’m glad I used this opportunity to come out to the world.” 

The significance of visibility

Bigg Boss is a show endorsed by a superstar, and is loved and watched by lakhs of people in the state. The awareness and visibility that proper queer representation on a show like this offers is unprecedented. It has made our lives a little better,” Unais says.

A few years ago, when zie came out to become arguably one of the first openly gay Muslim men in Kerala at a time when the community had little to no visibility in the state, what Unais had to face ranged from invasive personal questions to ridicule and isolation. “But recently, when I came out to my colleagues at a school where I am working as a guest faculty, one of the teachers responded by telling me that he had watched Ashwin come out as gay on Bigg Boss. They know what I am talking about now. They are aware that there are people like us coexisting with them. The onus is not on me to explain to them what a gay person is and why it is okay to be so,” zie says.

While queer people were constantly looked at and mocked as some kind of ‘curiosity’ before, media representation has definitely helped change the scenario at least to some extent, Unais feels. “If one person cited Ashwin when I came out, another person had pointed out that the Geetu Mohandas film Moothon had gay characters in it. This is a difference that the media has brought about,” zie adds.

Diya Sana, a gender rights activist and contestant in season one of Bigg Boss Malayalam, thinks the show’s “season of colours” was nothing short of a revolution. “Though there was a trans person in the first season for a brief period, this season has been able to achieve much more for the community than she or I, as an activist who has been working with the community for 13 years, was able to at the time.” Diya is especially appreciative of one housemate, Riyas Salim, for the manner in which he has consistently brought attention to the discourse surrounding gender and sexuality on the show. “Riyas was like a teacher over the past weeks. No other contestant in the history of Bigg Boss Malayalam has made an impact like he did. He has been able to create a section of audience who in the very least do not baulk at the idea of differences in sexual preferences. Some people are also becoming curious about different sexual orientations because of his presence on the show.”

Sheethal Shyam, a prominent transgender rights activist, agrees. “In the first season, someone from our community had participated in the show. All the other seasons had allies. But none of them have really brought up the gender discourse on the show, which Riyas has done. It has also had an impact on at least a section of people,” she says.

Lack of transgender presence

While she agrees that season four has afforded significant visibility to the queer community, Sheethal is disappointed with the lack of transgender persons in the season, despite the fact that the transgender women are some of the most visible queer persons in our society. “Anjali was part of the first season. But she was a wild card entry and had also left the show soon due to health issues,” she points out.

“When considering the representation of the transgender community alone, Bigg Boss Malayalam was hardly setting a precedent there. In 2011, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi was one of the contestants on season five of the Hindi Bigg Boss. She had to quit the show because people were much less accepting of a trans person at the time. Later, just last year, Namita Marimuthu appeared in Kamal Haasan’s Bigg Boss Tamil. Tamanna Simhadri and Priyanka Singh appeared in Bigg Boss Telugu. It is not just in Bigg Boss, many other reality shows in these regions have had no qualms about giving representation to trans persons. For Kerala, however, despite all its claims of progressiveness, such representation is still a new thing,” she points out.

Representation on whose terms?

But even as we acknowledge reality TV’s potential as a platform for representation and recognition of culturally excluded and marginalised groups, it is also necessary to understand that such mediated visibility is often not offered to them on their own terms. “There is a 24/7 live feed of the show, where the audience can see everything happening in the house. But when this is edited into a one-hour episode for TV, a lot of important conversations are erased. There are many who still don’t understand what the three of us were actually discussing when I came out on the show. When they heard I was gay, some people actually assumed it was about me winning some award,” Ashwin says.

Aparna echoes his words, calling it disheartening how many of their conversations surrounding the politics of gender and sexuality were cut out during the edit. “When I joined the show, I was quite excited to see that the community was receiving representation. However, it was only after I got out that I realised that none of the discussions we had based on gender equality, preferences, identity, etc, were aired on Asianet. I was extremely disappointed that even though they had a chance to educate the public on this subject, they chose not to,” she tells TNM.

Case in point is the way in which episode 73’s BB Call Centre task was aired on the channel. Offended by Riyas’s insinuations that she did not know what the acronym LGBTQIA+ stands for, actor Lakshmi Priya, another contestant, had used the task to take it upon herself to explain what each of the letters in the umbrella term meant. What followed was unfortunately a load of misinformation delivered with indubious conviction. “L is for lesbians, G for ‘guys’,” Lakshmi says as she launches her tirade. “Lesbian means when a woman feels attraction towards other women alone. They are people too. But they became like this probably due to ‘hormonal imbalancing’ or simply because they were born ‘special’. G, for ‘guys’, is when men like only other men. B, for ‘both’, is when someone feels attraction to men and women,” she goes on to add.

While this segment was aired, what the channel left out from the same episode was Riyas’s subsequent clarification of what each of these letters actually stood for, after being asked to do so by Blesslee (another housemate) as part of the task. A video clip featuring Riyas’s explanation of the acronym, however, went viral on social media, with Asianet inviting criticism for not airing the segment. “The video was something the state’s common people should have had the opportunity to watch at home. The channel had probably not realised the importance of what Riyas had said that day,” says Unais. Ashwin agrees, adding that even he, a gay person, did not know much about some of the terms Riyas was talking about.

Athira Sujatha, an ardent follower of the show, explains how this tiny spark lit by Riyas led to a lot of important conversations on the show. “After Riyas beautifully explained the meaning of the acronym, some of the other contestants approached him, wanting to know more about the community. Due to this, perhaps for the first time, the channel’s audience was exposed to conversations surrounding topics that are otherwise considered taboo, ranging from gay and single parenting to the politics of pronouns. Unfortunately, most of these were not aired on TV. Only a few of us who followed the round-the-clock live got to witness it,” she says.

In the meantime, despite Riyas refusing to publicly state his sexuality and calling himself a queer ally, he has repeatedly been labelled as a gay man by the audiences due to his 'effeminate mannerisms', Athira points out. 

“Nobody has the right to decide what Riyas’s sexuality is based on how he behaves. It is almost tragic how he is forced to keep repeating on the show that he is a man,” Diya says. The targeted harassment he is subjected to outside the show is also almost entirely based on these prejudices viewers have developed towards him, she adds.

Soon after a fan favourite, Dr Robin Radhakrishnan, was evicted for physically assaulting Riyas on the show, insinuations were rife on various social media fan groups and ‘analysis videos’ that the doctor was ‘forced’ to react that way because Riyas touched him inappropriately. “There were a number of ‘meninist’ YouTubers who put up videos making ridiculous statements like ‘Riyas should not have touched Robin because of his sexuality’, and whatnot. A clip of him dancing was made out to be something vulgar and troll videos were made out of it, all on the basis of his body language alone,” Diya says. Even within the show, the way he talks was once referred to as a ‘manufacturing defect’ by Lakshmi.

A mirror to society

As Diya puts it, the Bigg Boss show is essentially a reflection of the society we live in. “If there are 20 people on the show, each of them is likely to be people from vastly different backgrounds, with varied preferences and opinions. We can also see morality rearing its ugly head on the show now and then, just like the outside. There are contestants on the show who were visibly uncomfortable with the presence of a lesbian who smokes. Jasmine’s exit from the show, during which she lit a cigarette and walked out of the house, was also criticised because she dared to smoke. Imagine if it was a man who had staged an exit like that. He would have been hailed for his heroism. That is not a luxury afforded to Jasmine,” she says.

Sheethal points out that Jasmine’s performance could have well been categorised as masculine. “But our social situation doesn’t allow people to accept this masculinity. We still hold on to the outdated ideas that a girl should not speak in a hard tone, smoke, talk about sex etc. So a vast majority of the audience are unable to accept a woman like Jasmine, who carries herself unapologetically with a masculine energy," she says. 

So if the show is a truncated version of our society, it makes sense that the viewers’ preferences too become a reflection of how we operate in real life. Hence, it comes as no surprise that season after season, the most misogynistic and toxic fanbase generated by the show has repeatedly catered to a particular type of contestant — a heteronormative savarna man who gets aggressive at times (“men will be men”), but is usually levelheaded and makes the most sense while dealing with conflicts (mostly because he talks over other people and mansplains his way through the show). 

During season two, this fan group called themselves the ‘Rajith army’, going out of their way to support the controversial professor known for his caustic and unscientific remarks on women and their bodies. The ‘army’ had also gathered in droves in front of the Cochin International Airport to welcome Rajith after his ouster from the show amid the COVID-19 scare, inviting an FIR for violating pandemic rules.

For Robin, a younger and more conventionally good looking man in the current season of the show, it was not hard to capitalise on such a fanbase, which now continues to unleash brutal cyberattacks on any contestant who dares to disrespect their ‘doctor’. “I am not blaming any contestant. The show is built on mind games, and each housemate will have a strategy of their own while playing. But their fanbase is at times so supremely toxic that they often forget there are real living people at the receiving end of their trolls and abuses,” Diya says. 

Sheethal adds that the status afforded to Robin due to his profession and physicality among other things directly reflects our society’s masculine ideal. “There were other men too in the house, including Ronson, Akhil, Sooraj, etc. But what differentiates Robin from them is his aggression and his frequent assertion of his masculinity. There is a section of society that desires and idealises these characteristics, which is apparent in the way our heroes are portrayed in mainstream cinema as well. It is this same performative masculinity that garnered a strong fanbase for Sabumon in the first season, and Rajith Kumar in the second,” she explains.

By default, our society tends to embrace the ideal of a toxic, hypermasculine man, Unais agrees. “So unsurprisingly, the presence of queer people on a public platform such as Bigg Boss is creating a sort of unrest here. The abusive and homophobic responses to some of the show’s videos alone prove how uncomfortable a section of people is with this. And they should continue to be disturbed in this manner,” zie says.

Disclaimer: This article was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the show. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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