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This new insurgency of Indian reality TV has become “a terrible shorthand that erases all the different cultures and societies within India,” in the process of showing Modi’s modern India, exclusive to Hindus.

CW: mentions sexual assault/r*pe

By Manaal Farooqi

Over the past year, Netflix has become even more essential to passing the time, and in some cases, finding a means of connection to home or adventure. In particular, it’s been a year that has seen a substantial increase in Indian reality TV content coming to Netflix. Each show has become a sensation, both in India and abroad in the west. With shows such as Indian Matchmaking, What the Love and The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, we’re seeing something strikingly different from India’s staple of Bollywood productions. 

While it is a new phenomena to have these shows produced in India and consumed worldwide with the support of a streaming giant like Netflix, they’ve been able to garner new viewers that are different from Bollywood’s usual audience. With the release of each show, social media has been abuzz with South Asians and non-South Asians alike weighing in. As a part of the diaspora myself, I watched all of them and noticed an alarming and all-too-familiar trend amongst all of these productions: they perpetuate a sterilized version of India, devoid of minorities such as Sikhs or Muslims, and there is no conversation of the violence of casteism or the rise of Hindutva. The shows are overwhelmingly Hindu, North Indian, upper caste; the same kind of India that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been carving out with violence for many years. 

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When it comes to accurately displaying the diversity of India, which is already a documented and contentious issue in Bollywood, Indian reality TV mimics the same disappointing tropes. We see a predominantly North Indian, upper caste and Hindu cast all with lighter skin. In each of these shows we are lucky to see even one Muslim, Sikh or other religious minority represented and if they are, their religious identity is purposefully ignored. Muslims are far from a microcosm in India, where they represent 14.4% of the total population and are projected to total 311 million by 2050, compromising 11% of the global total of Muslims worldwide. Sikhs represent 1.72% of the population and have very little representation as well outside of unimaginative tropes. Dalit and Christian communities experience the same fare even though their “communities represent close to 40 percent of India’s 1 billion–plus population.” Given these demographics, one would need to systemically not include religious minority characters in their productions.

Many of the Muslims of Bollywood, such as Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Farhan Khan and many others, have been noticibly silent on matters relating to Modi’s anti-Muslim laws and their industry’s new found interest in villifying their people. In recent years, they have become notably silent on their religious identities, pledged their undying and uncritical love for the Indian state and shown open support for Modi. Since the Modi government took power, directors have noted that “filmmakers have been bending over backward to please the Indian right wing. Film after film over the past four years has had a common enemy — a kohl-eyed Muslim ruler whose debauched gaze preys on Indian Hindu women, or the evil Muslim sultanate that wants to pull India away from its magnanimous Hindu supremacy.” The reality is that the stories that Indian media keeps choosing to show are the same as the story the Modi government has been trying to perpetuate: India as Hindu and Muslims as the antithesis of all that is good for the motherland. 

Jack Valenti, of the Motion Picture Association of America previously said that “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA;” the same seems to ring true of Bollywood and the current government of India. However, with the surge in Hindu Nationalism recently, there is an unprecedented increase in harmful and toxic stereotypes of Muslims or erasure altogether. Muslims have been portrayed as jihadists, terrorists, savage conquerors and if none of these harmful depictions are used, they will simply not appear on screen. In fact, this is what we see perpetuated in the rise of new Indian reality TV; Muslims are all but erased from the narrative of this modern and cosmopolitan India. If they are shown on screen, their connection to their religion is obscured. It seems while Indian reality TV may have been a unique opportunity to show a different version of India beyond Bollywood tropes and stereotypes, it has instead decided to show the same toxic Hindutva which has run rampant in the country and subsequently the industry. 

The media that the Indian public consumes matters now more than ever; and, additionally, these shows are also media being consumed outside of India. They act as a means of outsourcing Modi’s India, as this shapes a global understanding of modern India whether they are expats or not; these shows have the ability to persuade public opinion for the worse. Indian Matchmaking, for example, has gained significant attention in the U.S. and U.K., where there are significant South Asian populations. With the show’s massive popularity amongst a vast audience of South Asians—at home and abroad—and non-South Asians alike, the show has sparked fierce debate, and rightfully so. It fits neatly into the category of American reality TV shows such as 90 Day Fiancé and The Bachelor, which have remained a trend over several years. 

The show functions as a vehicle to perpetuate the most toxic and problematic parts of Indian society with little commentary or discussion of key issues like colorism or casteism, and it fails to even speak about religion. In fact, most of the families featured on the show all appear to be upper caste, and portrays no couples that identify as Muslim, Christian or Dalit. Additionally, caste based violence in India has increased by 6% from 2009-2018 with the current reality being that “every hour, two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched.” Shows like Indian Matchmaking perpetuate the very toxic culture that allows these atrocities to happen regularly to the 200 million Dalits that call India home. 

The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives has also had wide viewership outside of India. The show boasts about having been ranked #10 in Canada, #1 in India, #3 in Pakistan and #3 in the United Arab Emirates. The same upper caste, light skinned, predominantly Hindu characters appear in The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives. It shows a world of opulence, high society and a deep unawareness of privilege and power. The entirety of the series shows light skinned, upper caste women traversing society without any conversations about feminism in India today let alone prevalent issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act or rising anti-Muslim sentiment. There is a clear defiance to show any version of India that doesn’t fit the narrative of an upper caste and Hindu India; there simply is no room in Modi’s India for anyone else nor in the media.

What The Love perpetuates these same stereotypes, with one deviation by way of their inclusion of a singlular gay cast member. Some saw this as a nod to the LGBTQ community in India, however it seemed to completely gloss over the lived realities for them and especially how this intersects with socio-economic status, caste and religion. When there is an opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the lived experiences of any group, the response is to brush the very real issues under the rug and be content with tokenism. The end result is lip service that looks like progress but fails to deepen the conversation or act as a vehicle of any actual change. 

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These shows with their massive popularity have made a very clear case that there are two currently India’s; on one hand there is a cosmopolitan, upper caste, light skinned, Hindu India that is trying to prove to the world its modernity and relatability. On the other is the India of Muslim, Sikhs, Christians and Dalits that are ignored or stereotyped malicioiusly on screen, and at worst, at the whims of a Hindutva government off screen which results in actual violence more often than not.  

This new insurgency of Indian reality TV has become “a terrible shorthand that erases all the different cultures and societies within India,” in the process of showing Modi’s modern India, exclusive to Hindus. From these recent shows we learn that India is homogeneously Hindu, upper caste, light skinned and that this is what it has always been. With protests over anti-Muslim laws across the country having become common place since Modi took office, and with the largest protest India has ever seen against the new farm bills where farmers and Dalits have joined forces from across the country, Indians are fighting for the secular and equitable India they want to see. 

When the state doesn’t represent the best interests of all of its people and the media fails to tell their story or offer counter narratives, reality gets distorted. Media tells stories about who we are and what we want to be and this comes with a responsibility, not to what is most comfortable, convenient and seemingly profitable, but to share actual realities on the ground. Doing anything else actively fans the flames of intolerance and actual violence towards India’s most vulnerable minorities, both inside and outside of its borders. 

Manaal Farooqi is passionate about equity and innovation in her work. She writes primarily on issues pertaining to violence against women, Islamophobia, racial justice, and contemporary culture.

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