A day with the Bigg Boss

Dozens of cameras, 14 participants, nothing to do but talk. With Bigg Boss Tamil getting telecast tomorrow, here’s what a day at that Orwellian world was like…

My first impression of the farm house-like setup I was ushered into, after the blindfold was removed, was that of lucid, cold brightness. And so it will be for the 14 contestants who will be part of the Bigg Boss show from this Sunday. To the right is a small, shallow swimming pool surrounded by painted walls–one of a seashore, complete with parasailers near the horizon. To the right is another wall on which is painted a beautiful visual of sunlight breaking into the thick foliage of a forest. Up ahead, after you walk past the artificial grass around the pool, is the property with the words, Bigg Boss, emblazoned on top.

A blast of cold air comes at you, as you open the glass door. The broad living room you step into is almost blindingly bright. The white ceiling is made of filmy, reflective material to ensure that every inch of you is adequately lit up for the benefit of the dozens of cameras strategically placed around the property. The positioning of these cameras is almost beautifully scientific; there isn’t a single nook in the property where you will be hidden from the full blast of a camera. As the host Kamal Haasan says, “Odavum mudiyadhu. Oliyavum mudiyadhu.” The almost gaudy lighting is of various colours, including pink, blue and violet. The quirky decor, the garish lighting, and the whole tawdriness of the design would be home at say, the Capitol in The Hunger Games. How appropriate it should, considering that’s a dystopian, totalitarian regime too with a Big Brother figure.

At the right corner is a lens-like structure that has two massive golden yellow doors. This is the ‘confession room’ in which every contestant can engage with the Bigg Boss privately. When summoned by the Bigg Boss, whose instructions are sounded to you by the many loud speakers placed across the property, you sit in front of a camera, empowered with the illusion of privacy. You feel compelled to respond to the host’s questions, and keep his instructions a secret.

Every door, including that of the two bedrooms at the far corner of the living area, is at the mercy of the Bigg Boss staff. You are allowed to carry inside nothing that may allow you interaction with the outside world, including mobile phones, watches, and newspapers. There isn’t a single source of entertainment inside the property… no plug points, no switches. Every one of us, much like the actual contestants will, had to slug around a mic and a small pouch attached to our body à la a sling bag. As we moved, so did the cameras in this gamified Orwellian world. During every conversation you are part of, you’re struggling the impulse to stare at the cameras which are always staring at you.

In a sense, you could argue that this is almost the sort of technological purging every single one of us obsessed with our mobile phones and computers need. Inside the Bigg Boss house, you’re forced to interact, to socialise. Time comes to a standstill. You’re in complete isolation, and yet, in a fascinating irony, you’re among hundreds of eyes (the cameras), including one that’s perched right in the centre of the massive dining table placed to the left of the living room. Every time the alarm rings, the store room’s door opens, and you are given some supplies, say, for cooking. And as you begin eating, the camera on the dining table keeps turning around, looking for an interesting reaction, an interesting conversation. I was told that the mic could pick up on even breathing sounds, and that you’re not allowed to remove it at any time, except when you are in the toilet.

The day gets populated by frenzied conversations, awkward silences. At least one person began saying a controversial thing or two only to quickly put a finger to their lips. The setup is a nightmare for the introvert, paradise for the exhibitionist. At one point, some contestants even began interacting with the camera (and by extension, the people operating them). Sometimes, when the camera, almost sentient, moved towards a person, people cheered loudly. Around evening, the less inhibited among the participants took to the pool, disregardful of the hundreds of people judging their every movement.

The group of 14 occasionally disbanded into small groups of two-three, and as if drawn by an invisible force, sometimes, everybody got together around at the dining table, or on the sofa. A couple of alpha figures emerged eventually, like in The Lord of the Flies. They stepped forward every time something needed to be done–like bringing food to the table, or cleaning up the vessels.

The Bigg Boss’ booming voice would occasionally issue instructions like, “Ellorum sofa-vil okaarungal.” And immediately, every participant would scurry. I found it fascinating that not once did anybody rebel. In fact, given the general boredom of the space and the absence of gadgets, the occasional participant would walk up to a camera and ask for things to do. But of course, you don’t make demands to the Bigg Boss.

Oh, and you aren’t allowed to sleep during the day. Thanks to the general fatigue on account of being under perpetual surveillance, my eyes shut sometime after lunch, only for all the speakers to blare out the sound of a dog barking. I jumped up, startled, and began laughing awkwardly. Some others may get frustrated, annoyed even. While on annoyance, the entire space is designed to discomfit. Everything around you is artificial, synthetic and/or meaningless. Empty vases, fake plants, some dragon flies painted on the wall, artificial flowers… There’s almost nothing that’s natural if you discount the insects that venture into the property, thanks to all the lights.

Around evening, a game of musical chairs was organised by the pool. You see, at the heart of Bigg Boss is the idea of elimination, and in that sense, the game was fitting, and representative of the show’s main conceit. An alarm eventually sounded, and that meant it was time to fetch dinner from the store room. It is at night, after ‘lights off’’, when the place truly comes alive. This is when you’re allowed to sleep, but given the general uncomfortable radiance you have negotiated with through the day, this is when you want to stay awake. The lights under the bed, the mellow blue and pink lighting in the bedroom… it is beautiful, and makes you feel like you’re part of a Tron film. The soothing, almost bioluminescent light also motivates you to engage in deep conversation.

There is nothing, however, soothing about being underslept and being forced awake by the speakers blaring ‘Thara Local’ from Maari, which gets replayed until the last person is truly awake. And then a mock elimination event was held, towards the end of the day, and even in this staged event, the tension in the air was tangible. It was easy to see how an eliminated contestant would likely feel like the whole world conspired against them. Tears are easily summoned.

Eventually, it was time to leave. It has been two days since, and I still cannot have a conversation without looking at the walls around me for signs of a camera. Every word I utter is still calculated not to offend the stranger who is likely listening to me. Last evening, someone played ‘Thara Local’, and I jumped up, as I did when woken up rudely. I almost developed a minor version of Stockholm Syndrome as I stepped out, and the outside world suddenly seemed more cruel. Inside, every word and every gesture of yours matters. You’re being heard, being watched. In the outside world, there’s no grand audience clinging to your every word. If such be the psychological effects of a single day, you have to wonder about the effect of spending 100 days in such conditions. And did I tell you that the first thing every one of us did upon our exit was to embrace our mobile phones, like a mother would her long-separated child?

This column was written for The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.

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