18 January 2007

Shilpa Shetty

It's celebrity Big Brother time in the UK, and for those not following closely the massive international political event this particular series has become, check out the extended, front-page coverage in the Times of India. Seems Gordon Brown's visit to India has been refocused from business discussions to defending Britain's attitudes towards 'Others' writ large.

ITV | Independent

I watched the contestants enter the house, and I was excited that Shilpa Shetty, famous Bollywood actress, was in the BB house, as I imagined it would be intriguing to see the interactions between several UK celebrities who are celebrities because of their celebrity and a real-live millions-of-fans movie actress who was largely unknown to the others in the house. Not that there aren't others that have received fame and accolades because of their talent (musicians, actors, film directors) or beauty (beauty contestant winner) or writing (newspaper columnist). But the conflict on BB is between a former BB winner (and her family--famous because of Big Brother) in the house and Shilpa.

No one can pronounce her name. How hard is it? Is it harder than Imogen, the name of a Welsh woman in the earlier, regular Big Brother this past summer? Shill-pa. Two syllables, not difficult, all sounds used in the English language. Try pronouncing Worchester 'correctly' when you've grown up in America. So far some of the other members of the house have 'commented' on the food she eats, asked her if she lives in a shack back in India (um, not unless by 'shack' you mean 'full-floor luxury high-rise apartment in Mumbai', one of the most expensive cities on earth), refused to eat food cooked by her because 'you never know' where her hands have been (and Brits/westerners are so fastidious about washing our hands after we use the toilet).

So now I have to watch BB to see where this is going. Racism, certainly. Xenophobia, yes. Ignorance about the world, sure. Class-tension: absolutely. That's, I think, the crux of this. The group bullying her the most were characterised as 'chavs' by one tabloid I read yesterday on the train. This is about Shilpa, a wealthy Mumbaikar, not acting like the assumed lower-class category she is placed in in Britain by dint of her skin tone. And so those in the house who represent that lower class are threatened by this. Everyone is equal, sure. But everyone should be in their proper places as well. Shilpa isn't.

The racism/xenophobia angles are the ones getting the attention right now, and probably rightly so. But this is a bigger problem even than that large problem. It certainly reveals the harrassment that British-Asians must go through on a daily basis in Britain, and that revelation is, one hopes, a good thing for the country to see. But I do hope (in vain most likely) that this moves beyond labelling one family 'racist' and moving on. It's systemic, it's about more than just race (immigration, legacy of colonialism, asymmetries of economic globalisation, gender (oh yes), celebrity, class, wealth, and on and on).

I'm also interested in the overlapping and intersecting between the so-called diaspora South Asian community and the in-south-asia community. This is not the first incident or moment when the truth of the overlap between these seemingly different groups has been made obvious. But it is interesting. Shilpa isn't British Asian. She's Indian. Or is she? What's the difference? Is she, like many South Asians around the world and in South Asia, a transnational being? I think so--and I think she represents the norm more and more, particularly for those of a certain economic class in India. (less so in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but still evident there too)

So the story will unfold. And it's not trivial. It's big, it's politics, and it's very much reality.


sageblue said...

She won!

fronesis said...

This is a test