The Medium is the Message? Gossip and Hybrid Televisuality of Malayalee House


This is the fourth and final research note from Darshana Sreedhar, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
 

[Gossip] plays with reputations, circulating truths and half-truths and falsehoods about the activities, sometimes about the motives and feelings, of others. Often it serves serious (possibly unconscious) purposes for the gossipers, whose manipulations of reputation can further political or social ambitions by damaging competitors or enemies, gratify envy and rage by diminishing another, generate an immediately satisfying sense of power, although the talkers acknowledge no such intent. [1]

It is disgusting to watch their behaviour, replete with suggestive moves and sexual overtures. The participants indulge in gossip, which is not befitting a civilized society. The Kerala society is shocked watching this. (Spokesperson of Janadhipatya Mahila Association on the need to monitor Malayalee House, May 22, 2013) [2]

 
I begin my post with two epigraphs related to ‘gossip’ as they are symptomatic, in many ways, of the debates triggered off by the contested telecast of Malyalee House, a reality show telecast in Surya Television, one of the leading satellite channels in Kerala. I title my post after Marshal McLuhan’s iconic use of the phrase in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [3] and the cheekily titled The Medium is the Massage [4]. In McLuhan’s view the emergent televisuality of the time was marked by an intricate structural relationship between the new forms of media such as television and their function as social carriers of messages. In this post I look at ‘gossip’ as a formal constituent of Malayalee House and as an integral part of the cultural and social content contained therein. Therefore, before I begin with my discussion of Malayalee House, perhaps a few words on gossip are due.

The etymology of the word gossip takes us to two words, both from Old English: ‘Gos,’ meaning God and ‘sip,’ meaning sib/sibling [5]. Therefore, the word ‘gossip’ loosely translates as ‘God parent,’ signifying the close social bond and sense of ease it forges among the participants. Gossip can have multiple interpretations, some of which may even come across as an activity where morally compromised characters are shown indulging in the pleasure of sharing anecdotes about a third person who might not be physically present at that particular moment. It can also have the listeners believe its origin to be a part of the conspiracy of the rival camp, making it even easier to repudiate it, in case you are confronted by the people concerned. Even though in its original resonance, the word gossip did not carry any gendered markers with it, somewhere down the line it became associated more as a feminine preoccupation, with matronly middle-aged women, chatty maids and effeminate dandies emblematizing the murky terrain of the forbidden [6]. The incessant repetition and replicability of the information as it is relayed across digital social media also in many ways resembles the circuits of gossip.

I argue that the use of gossip as a framing device in Malayalee House is analogous to the ways social media operates in assembling scattered bits of information (which can very well be unverified facts or conjectures). I am in no way belittling the potential of gossip to help us understand the inherent hierarchies and contradictions that structure the given situation. There might even be productive ways by which the dominant narratives are unsettled by the sharp counter strategies which might take the strands of rumours and gossips. These hierarchies and contradictions were deeply entrenched in the kind of public response that Malayalee House opened to, both in the contested telecast and in its avatar in YouTube.

In May 2013 when Surya Television, started the telecast of Malayalee House, its novelty as the first Malayalam programme to use the ‘lock down format’ to provide an unmediated access to the interaction shared by the contestants who were housed in a undisclosed location was marketed as the show’s USP. Publicized widely as the South Indian edition of Bigg Boss, its publicity tactics soon landed Vedartha Entertainment, the producers of Malayalee House into a legal tussle when Endemol group, the makers of Bigg Boss filed an injunction at the Bombay High Court accusing Surya TV of copyright infringement. But more than this legal altercation, what is even more interesting is the discussion that the programme generated in Kerala’s public sphere on the need for television censorship following the ostensibly demoralizing impact it had on family audiences. Designed as an hour-long program from 8-9 PM in the prime time slot, Malayalee House came across as a stiff competitor in maintaining high TRP ratings amidst the mix of comedy programmes, music contests and serials which were on offer in other entertainment channels telecast during the same time. To compete with the crime related programmes which were slotted in the late night timings from 10-11 PM, the production team inventively interpolated an extra episode as a supplementary part of the programme at 10.30 PM titled Kanakazhchakal (Unseen Visuals). This stirred more controversy by creating an uproar among the viewers who alleged that these sequences reeked of voyeuristic undercurrents, some of which uncannily resembled amateur pornography due to the prominent use of a pixelated night-vision mode.

Malayalee House - Poster
The Publicity poster of Malayalee House with the text “From today on, you have the license to peek at. Sixteen participants for nineteen weeks and the visuals are captured using hidden cameras.”
Credit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-nQyrpCc8tC8/UYiHlx7_K_I/AAAAAAAAkTw/F_7PpXjG-Ks/s1000/malayali+house+malayalee+house+surya+tv.jpg.

Even while the production team of Malayalee House tried to maintain the show’s distinctiveness by highlighting the role of television viewers in deciding the future of the contestants in the programme, it also attempted to retain its structural similarities close to pre-existing modes of televisual narration in order to retain a larger viewer base. Some of the registers that Malayalee House mobilized to suggest its continuity with earlier televisual modes included the use of episodic narration, delay of closure by sustaining the element of suspense and use of simulated environs which blurred the boundaries of the ‘real’ and the ‘staged.’ The most striking improvisation deployed by the production team however, was the incorporation of the relatively untapped potential opened up by digital social media in weaving multiple plot-lines, even giving validity to narratives which might otherwise be relegated as gossip. By running a separate blog on Malayalee House, the production team used regular updates on the section titled ‘gossips.’ This space mobilized different elements which were scattered across several episodes of the programme and helped to offer a reading of gestures and statements made by certain contestants in the light of their performances in the subsequent episodes. Also, it encouraged viewers to guess the developments in the relationships shared by the participants, reflect on the assessments of performance of the contestants and even predict the future of the participants after their exit from the programme. The blog even featured special write-ups in the form of first-person narratives from contestants who were eliminated in the initial phase on their overall experience of the show and also their ‘opinion’ about other contestants and their interaction. These personalized accounts often slipped into a confessional mode in the ways the writers looked back at their stint in the programme and reflected on certain controversial happenings which might have eluded the grasp of the viewers otherwise.

Gossip 01
Screen-grab from the section ‘gossips’ from www.malayalihouse.blogspot.in. To see the full-size image, click on it.

Gossip 02
Screen-grab from www.malayalihouse.blogspot.in featuring Akshita, one of the contestants narrating her impressions about her co-contestant G.S Pradeep. To see the full-size image, click on it.

In many ways, these accounts also cashed in on the vibrant interaction shaped by the digital publics, which saw detailed comments and frame-by-frame interpretation of the programme, where viewers entered into a collaborative exercise by making clips culled out from the YouTube uploads, making use of the dispersed circuits gossips traverse. For instance, one of the seventeen second YouTube videos is labeled ‘Malayalee House Thinkal Bal and Rosin: Hot Interaction.’ The ‘author’ of the upload who goes by the screen name Kattapana Kumily states in the description of the video, “Malayalee House Thinkal is lesbian. Video proof. She irresistibly grabs Rosin. Rosin pushes her hands away. Humiliated Thinkal tries to divert the topic” [7]. The ‘unedited sequences’ captured by the thirty cameras mounted at various points in the house took a different trajectory when they started circulating in YouTube under the label ‘unused sequences in Malayalee House’ and ‘Mallu reality show porn,’ offering surreptitious pleasure to the viewers. The multiple lives these sequences mediated in digital social media were reminiscent of the intermeshed relationships that facilitated the participation of interactive audience and digital publics.

Malayalee House
Screen-grab from the video clip circulated as lesbian scenes from Malayalee House.

Analogous to the rise of Santosh Pandit as ‘Internet celebrity,’ the emergence of Malayalee House is a crucial moment as both of these are equally mired in digital-social media’s potential to unsettle intended trajectories and uses of media circulation. The controversy that the various after-lives of the telecast of Malayalee House had to reel under, also had to do with the unabashed way in which it used the form of gossip to connect the spaces within the script of the show, as well the online space where viewers awaited for the reasons for the squabble between two participants or to pass judgment on some contestants and chastise them for their alleged outrageous demeanor. The reach of speculative narratives and conjectures are unpredictable on many counts and it is this uncertainty and incalculability that gives gossip the currency to proliferate unnoticed. Since the veracity of claims can never possibly be verified from one particular source, its complex structure allows facts to be concocted, rehashed and replicated as it gathers momentum and progresses from one person to the other. Commenting on the ways the trope of gossip connected the viewers on digital social media, Rakesh, one of the members of ‘Why we hate Malayalee House’ Facebook group said:

“The medium of gossip connected the scattered viewers who want to give vent to their frustration over the staged aspect of the programme. In a few weeks’ time, many of us realized that these were scripted episodes and not the unmediated reality as the production team claimed about the telecast. The whole programme was taped two weeks before it was aired. This lag of two weeks meant that the SMS and Facebook votes did not count at all as the eviction and elimination process preceded the audience votes, making the audience votes a mockery of the highest order” [8].

Malathy, a middle aged woman also remarked on the ways Malayalee House gossips carved out an interactive space where the viewers responded to the latest episodes with their suggestions and comments:

“The gossips of Malayalee House was something which was widely discussed in my work space and it was out of sheer curiosity that I started to watch the first episode, three weeks from the inaugural episode. Many of us who were initially reluctant to watch it on television citing the sense of discomfort to watch the show with the family, took resort to YouTube uploads to catch abreast of the happenings of Malayalee House” [9].

In my interviews with many viewers of Malayalee House, I found that most of my respondents considered the template of reality television to be an extension of the comedy contests and music shows which were aired in most of the satellite channels. Hence, the claims of Malayalee House as having inaugurated a distinct form must be taken with a pinch of salt as the expectations of the programme had largely been influenced by the exposure that viewers already had to earlier television shows. K.C Joseph, the State Minister in charge of Information and Public Relations for instance, went a step ahead and put a status message on his Facebook timeline asking for the audience’s responses of the programme, referring to the outbursts against its telecast and censorship. The text read, “Government is getting a lot of complaints about Malayalee House Serial telecasted in Surya TV. The language used and the way of behavior of characters is deplorable. Cinema is censored. Is it advisable to censor serials also? Please send in your comments” (sic) [10]. Clearly, for the Minister, like many other viewers of the show, the distinction between a reality show and a television serial was not very clear and the participants of the show appeared to be ‘characters’ rather than real people.

K.C Joseph - Facebook Post
Screen-grab from the Facebook page of K.C Joseph, State Minister of Information and Public Relations.

The presence of hidden cameras however, was seen by many as a veiled surveillance of sorts. For instance, Vasudevan, a Bank employee who I questioned about his viewing patterns remarked:

“Imagine someone secretly recording the conversations you had shared with your co-contestants and exposing the recorded conversation in a completely different context. The participants in this show might very well be aware about the ways they are compromising their privacy and they might also be paid for it. But, the situation is different when you look at it from the perspective of viewers. There are many who feel that by not voicing their protest against the unwarranted sensationalism, they are also implicated in becoming party to such a stripping” [11].

It is in fact true that a few eye-brows have been raised about the uncanny resemblance the show shares with the ways gossip circulates on digital social media. “The problem I had with the structure of Malayalee House stems from its imitation of social media in intruding into the privacy of the participants,” said Susheela, a housewife. She continues, “If you compare this show to a Facebook profile, you can easily notice that the timeline can be managed by not opening it to all and sundry. You are selective in sharing your posts, photographs and can also block certain people whom you find offensive. But Malayalee House has crossed all limits of propriety by wholeheartedly embracing malicious gossip as the framing principle” [12].

Facebook Group - Why We Hate Malayalee House?
Screen-grab from the description of the Facebook group ‘Why We Hate Malayalee House?’ where the administrator lays out the motivation behind the group. “Malayalee House had touched the lowest ebb of all kinds of media ethics and media culture of Malayalis, and this group is a part strong people’s movement against such unwarranted tendencies.”

Malayalee House
Screen-grab from the Facebook page of Surya TV refuting the gossips that the programme is going to be stalled following allegations that they had telecast inappropriate content.

Santosh Pandit and his success in using negative publicity and bitter criticism to counter the arguments of his critics fit neatly into this framework of gossip. Not only did the production team include Santosh Pandit as one of their most coveted participants being allowed a wildcard entry even after being eliminated once, his presence in the show also gave him an image make-over, increasing his popularity among the viewers who found him more ‘tolerable’ than many other contestants whose split between public persona and private interactions smacked of duplicity. There were even Facebook groups such as “I love Santosh Pandit after watching Malayalee House” [13] and wide circulation of memes which came by the label of ‘Report Cards’ evaluating the performance of contestants, allowing descriptive markers to proliferate, speculating on certain contestants and their personal lives.

Malayalee House - Meme
One of the memes which circulated taking stock of the participants performances which comes under the main label “thanks a lot to Malayalee House for this.” Corresponding to a photographs of a few contestants, there were texts which gave an analysis of their personality. While the first, second and third texts say “being a learned person does not make one civilized,” “knowing Politics does not make someone civilized” and “spirituality does not make a man humane,” the fourth text pertaining to Santosh Pandit puts that “but, many idiots are civilized.”
Credit: http://www.kuntham.com/pictures/1650.jpg.

If there were many participants whose image went for a toss because of their participation in the programme, for Santhosh Pandit, the programme became an image booster. Giving a new twist to the show, the Malayalee House team also planned to facilitate Santosh Pandit’s second marriage as a part of the show. The announcement that Pandit was considering proposals from suitable girls and that he would tie the knot with during the course of the programme was introduced through the entry of a dalal, a marriage broker who approached Pandit with the photographs of the girls who were interested in an alliance with him. When questioned about the way the show even arranged a publicity stunt by announcing Pandit’s marriage, Hafis, the creative director of the show said, “Santhosh’s marriage proposal has nothing to do with TRP and we are not trying to bring any gimmicks. After his divorce, he was looking to get married, and when he expressed his wish to us, we agreed. For the members of Mala­yali House, it’s like a family member getting married” [14]. It is worth noting that Pandit is still unmarried.

The reiteration of digital social publics as an immediate addressee in the conceptualization of Malayalee House ran amok with its telecast in a domestic medium like television. The medium specificity of television and its inability to sustain sensational story-lines for more than a week also became a locus of critique. These allegations were prominent in the harsh reviews that Malayalee House met with at the hands of critics operating within social media. What comes immediately to my mind is the clarification statement issued by The Times of India, after Deepika Padukone went public with her sense of discomfort on what she considered as a sensational tactics used by The Times of India when it carried videos with the tag line, “OMG! Deepika Padukone’s cleavage show.” To her objection to the said video and the accompanying comments, the official response from the publishing house says, “But the world of online is very different from that of newspapers. It is chaotic and cluttered — and sensational headlines are far from uncommon” [15].

Similar arguments were raised in the context of Malayalee House as well when the critics alleged that the production team had forgotten the medium specificity of television and went overboard in imagining the digital social media as the target audience of the show. The complaints filed at Kerala Women’s Commission against Malayalee House mentioned the incursion of social media and brazen use of gossip to dilute the disparity between the two mediums as the main trigger that brewed the seething discontent among the audience. If digital social media’s propensity to thin down the differences between the real and copy allowed anonymity, in the digital life of Malayalee House such a slippage allowed insinuations and half-truths to circulate. For instance, the text of the controversial phone call made by one of the contestants which led to her disqualification was published in the blog of Malayalee House, spinning new stories around the alleged romantic relationship shared by two contestants. The text of the telephonic conversation asserted itself as a validating statement to suggest that there was something more to the stories, than conjectures. When one of the characters in George Eliot’s novel Middle March said that world is “apparently a huge whispering gallery” [16], she might not have thought of the spillages and leaks which endows dull whispers with the potential to grow louder and replicate till they become open secrets. Allowing gossip as a mode of reaching out to other participants, Malayalee House has enabled such an imagination of gossip as not being associated to any one gender. Instead, it becomes an intimate mode whereby the participants revel in verbalizing their shared discovery.
 

Notes


[1] Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 1985. Gossip. New York: Knopf.

[2] Janam TV. 2013. “Unbridled licentiousness,” Janadhipatya Mahila Association on ‘Malayalee House.’ May 22. September 15, 2014. Retrieved on September 15, 2014 from http://www.janamtv.com/news/_Unbridled_licentiousness_Janadhipathya_Mahila_Association_on_Malayalee_House__513424.php

[3] McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[4] McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium is the Massage. New York: Bantam Books.

[5] See ‘gossip’ in http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=gossip.

[6] Vermuele, Blakey. 2006. Gossip and Literary Narrative. Philosophy and Literature. Volume 30, Number 1. Pp 102-117.

[7] See https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=kfBJuVuFfk8.

[8] Interview with Rakesh taken on September 23, 2014.

[9] Interview with Malathy taken on September 14, 2014.

[10] See https://www.facebook.com/KCJoseph.in/posts/507708075964121.

[11] Interview with Vasudevan taken on 20 September, 2014.

[12] Interview with Susheela taken on September 15, 2014.

[13] See https://www.facebook.com/pages/I-love-Santosh-Pandit-after-watching-Malayalee-House/527136274010303.

[14] James, Merin Maria. 2013. Malayalee House under Attack. Deccan Chronicle. June 18. Retrived on September 12, 2014 from http://archives.deccanchronicle.com/130618/entertainment-tvmusic/article/malayali-house-under-attack.

[15] Gupta, Priya. 2014. Deepika, Our Point of View. The Times of India. September 22. Retrieved on September 23, 2014 from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/Dear-Deepika-our-point-of-view-/articleshow/43084705.cms.

[16] See [6].

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Published on: October 7, 2014


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