Bigg Boss Malayalam: Mohanlal’s show is progressive in words, regressive in actions

Bigg Boss Malayalam season 6 has landed in trouble after a complaint was submitted before the Broadcast Content Complaints Council seeking action against the show for hate speech. But this is not the first time that the show has aired defamatory content.
Bigg Boss Malayalam: Mohanlal’s show is progressive in words, regressive in actions
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Popular reality television show Bigg Boss Malayalam has landed in trouble after a complaint was submitted before the Broadcast Content Complaints Council (BCCC), seeking action against the show for hate speech. The complaint was filed by Dhisha Kerala –an organisation dedicated to defending the rights of women, children, and queer individuals– raising concerns about the show’s portrayal of the LGBTQIA+ community. Bigg Boss Malayalam, hosted by actor Mohanlal, is currently in its sixth season and is aired daily on Asianet and streamed live round-the-clock on OTT giant Disney + Hotstar.

Bigg Boss is a survival reality show where contestants must live in the ‘Bigg Boss house’, cut off from the outside world. Dhisha’s complaint pertains to an incident where a contestant named Abhishek Sreekumar made a statement against fellow contestant Abhishek K Jaydeep, a gay man. In the 30th episode, while nominating Abhishek Jaydeep for eviction from the house, Abhishek Sreekumar alleged that the former belongs to a community which conducts “immoral activities” and “targets women and children”. Abhishek Sreekumar had arrived at the house as a wild card entry, launching an attack on Abhishek Jayadeep almost immediately. Once, while asking what the initial ‘K’ in Abhishek Jayadeep’s name meant, Abhishek Sreekumar claimed he mistook it for “something else,” referring to a queerphobic Malayalam cuss word. The inmates then nominated him for eviction for his statements.

The episode triggered debates on social media, with many individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community calling it defamatory. Subsequently, Dhisha filed a complaint calling Abhishek‘s remarks derogatory and detrimental to the dignity of queer individuals. 

Earlier, a writ petition was filed before the Kerala High Court by a lawyer citing the telecast of physical assault on Bigg Boss Malayalam season 6, in contravention to the directions of the Union government. The HC then directed the Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to address violations of broadcasting regulations and advisories in connection with the show.

After pressure mounted on Asianet and Hotstar following Abhishek’s statements, in the weekend episode aired on April 14, host Mohanlal gave a yellow card and warning to Abhishek Sreekumar. As a punitive measure, he will be directly nominated for eviction for the coming two weeks and will be evicted on the spot if such behaviour is repeated. 

Many viewers call this a cosmetic measure to pacify social media critique, and that the showrunners and the superstar host have tried to make light of the issue by “issuing a warning” and not evicting the contestant.

The pretence of being progressive

Abhishek Jayadeep hails from Kerala’s Thrissur and was the first runner-up at the Mr Gay World 2023 pageant. He was also the title winner of the first-ever Mr Gay Kerala pageant. In his introduction video aired before he entered the Bigg Boss house, Abhishek said he has not yet come out to his father, and that he wanted to contest in Bigg Boss so that his father and the society at large can see him for who he is and accept his identity.

Abhishek Sreekumar is an aspiring actor, who has consistently taken anti-LGBTQIA+ stands on social media. His Instagram account was taken down for spreading hatred towards women and marginalised communities. He continues to assert hypermasculinity and binary ideas of gender through his new account. Following the nomination incident on Bigg Boss, several Instagram fan pages were created in his support to spread hate speech towards queer communities.

Both these contestants were brought in as wild card entries to the house along with four others, almost three weeks into the show.

After the episode was aired, Asianet and Hotstar also faced severe criticism for facilitating such content. Riyas Salim, a former Bigg Boss contestant known for his progressive, pro-LGBTQIA+ politics, vehemently criticised the selection of such a queerphobic contestant. “This is not a difference of opinion. It is hate speech when human rights like gender and sexuality are questioned,” he said in an Instagram reel. He also said that queer contestants in the house are prone to making mistakes just like other people, but generalising such mistakes and projecting them on the entire community is defamatory. 

Speaking to TNM, transgender activist Nadira Mehrin, who was also a much-loved ex-Bigg Boss contestant said, “A show like Bigg Boss can influence a massive number of people. Contestants should be mindful of that. Mistakes may happen and there should be enough room to discuss and address them. However, we cannot accept the show‘s normalisation of such toxicity in the name of content. Such messaging by contestants creates misconceptions about gender and queerness among children and other viewers. The channel should not have marketed this. Queer contestants are not selected because of our identity alone. It is because we are capable contestants,“ Nadira said.

Bigg Boss Malayalam had gained appreciation in the previous seasons after Riyas Salim and Nadira Mehrin spoke up about queer rights on the show. 

Read: The small wins of good LGBTQIA+ representation in Bigg Boss Malayalam

In the wake of Abhishek’s comments, both Riyas and Nadira, as well as many others have called the show out for profit-mongering under the pretence of being progressive.

Dhisha Kerala member Dinu Veyil told TNM that the Bigg Boss Malayalam selection process is flawed and that they should not have brought a person like Abhishek Sreekumar into the house. “Evidently, he was selected to increase the show's rating. In the name of being inclusive, will the show give space to anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit voices as well in future?” he asked.

This is not the first time that Bigg Boss Malayalam has aired problematic statements. This season itself has been under the scanner from the start for sexism, normalising hypermasculinity, and the usage of abusive language. A contestant was evicted from the house only a few weeks ago for physically assaulting another contestant during an argument.

A problematic show with no checks and balances

Bigg Boss Malayalam has had a history of bringing in contestants who profess problematic ideas and behave aggressively. Asi Rocky, a contestant from the current season was evicted on the spot after he physically assaulted fellow contestant Sijo, who then had to undergo reparative surgery. Another contestant, Jinto, has been called out multiple times by the housemates for his sexist remarks and alleged inappropriate physical touch towards them.

A similar instance occurred in the second season of Bigg Boss Malayalam, which was discontinued due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Rajith Kumar, a contestant who justified his sexist, queerphobic remarks with pseudo-science, smeared crushed green chilli on a fellow contestant Reshma Rajan. He was expelled from the show but was welcomed with open arms by fans who flouted Covid to receive him at the Nedumbassery Airport in Kochi.

Read: What COVID-19? Fans throng Kochi airport to welcome 'Bigg Boss' misogynist Rajith Kumar

In the third season of the show, couple contestants Firoz Khan and Sajina made several misogynist remarks, threatening another female contestant with character assassination. They were subsequently evicted.

Last year, Bigg Boss Malayalam winner Akhil Marar compared a contestant Sagar Surya to Madhu, a man belonging to the tribal community who was lynched to death by a mob. Despite the submission of a complaint by Dhisha Kerala, Akhil Marar was let off by the show with a warning by the host after he tendered an apology. There were also complaints against Akhil for his statements normalising domestic abuse and passing it off as “routine marital discord”, but he continued in the show and eventually emerged winner.

Robin Radhakrishnan, another ex-contestant of the show was also evicted for physically assaulting Riyas Salim. But Robin, known for his aggressive behaviour, received roaring support from fans just like Akhil Marar and Rejith Kumar did. In fact, the support for Robin and Rejith made Bigg Boss bring both of them back into the house for a week in the last season to “spice things up” despite them being evicted from their respective seasons for physical assault.

What can be seen here is a consistent lack of accountability by the showrunners and host Mohanlal, who pass off toxicity and regressiveness as mere “game strategy”.

Read: Bigg Boss Malayalam contestant booked for insulting Attapady lynching victim Madhu

Who should take accountability?

Jeet, who handles the Instagram queer community page ‘Yes, we exist’, told TNM that certain sections of Rule 6 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 can be applied to punish queerphobia. The Act mandates that no programme should be aired on TV which attacks religions or communities or maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups. 

The promotion of queerphobia and hypermasculinity has a lasting impact on impressionable audiences. Despite contestants like Rocky, Robin, and Rejith being evicted, statements from the show are reinforced by “fans” on social media as videos amped up with “mass” background music. This, in turn, creates a demand for more toxicity, leading to a repetition in the contestant selection pattern season after season. 

When transgressions occur from contestants and criticism builds, host Mohanlal is seen to iron them out by equating the show to life itself, calling it a “reflection of the real world.” Many viewers call this an attempt to reinforce the show’s relevance, while in effect, neither the host nor the showrunners take responsibility for enabling problematic content. 

Athira Sujatha, an avid viewer of the show, told TNM that Endemol Shine and Asianet have a clear strategy while inviting certain people to the show. “Malayalis are yet to see Bigg Boss as a game show. Calling a homophobic, transphobic person to the show is a clear choice by the channel and the distribution company. It is to capitalise on the growing population of meninists and incels out there,” she said.

Dhisha’s complaint urges Asianet and Disney Hotstar to take accountability and use the show to promote acceptance and inclusivity. “We understand the importance of creative expression and artistic freedom, but it should not come at the expense of perpetuating harm and discrimination,” the complaint reads. 

Hotstar says that they have a monitoring panel to flag offensive material related to gender, race, sexual orientation, and religion among others, and that a meeting is held between the panel and minority rights advocates to discuss issues. TNM has written to Disney Hotstar and production company Endemol Shine which backs Bigg Boss to remove the episode in which Abhishek Sreekumar made the said homophobic statements. This article will be updated as and when we receive a response. 

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